In 2001, you may remember, Oprah took Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections off her book club list after the author told interviewers that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with her endorsement.
The media portrayed Franzen as a snob worried that Oprah’s sticker would debase his masterpiece, but I think he had good reasons for doubting whether Oprah’s endorsement was good for his book. The presence of that gold sticker on the cover could label the novel as just the latest offering from Oprah’s self-improvement empire, and not the insightful work of fiction he intended it to be.
When Franzen finally released his next novel, Freedom, this year, Oprah offered him a second chance to contribute to her club, and he accepted without expressing any qualms. He even appeared on Oprah’s show earlier this week for a discussion on the book, which you can watch here.
I’ve always been skeptical about Oprah and her effect on American society. Her influence scares me, especially when she promotes self-help hacks like Dr. Phil who offer a cheap, sensational way of looking at life. After watching her discussion with Franzen and looking more closely at her book club, however, I’ve come to think that my opinion of her was mistaken. I give Oprah credit for motivating millions of Americans not only to read, but to read challenging, thoughtful books. In addition to Freedom, her book club list includes worthwhile books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Elie Wiesel’s Night, as well as classics like East of Eden by John Steinbeck and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I guess I was mistaken when I thought the list consisted mostly of phony redemption stories like A Million Little Pieces.
I was also impressed by the questions Oprah and her audience asked Franzen about his book. They seemed to have thought hard about its meaning and its application to their lives, which is how books should be read.
Oprah is a rare example of an influential media person who is actually concerned with steering our culture in a better direction, instead of just pleasing the masses to make a quick buck. I don’t know enough about the rest of her empire to offer an opinion of her overall effect on our society – like I said, I don’t like Dr. Phil’s way of looking at things, and I know she’s caused some controversy by giving a platform to people who claim that immunization shots cause autism. But I support what she’s doing with her book club.