4.21.2005

Come back, Oprah

There's a new effort afoot to get Oprah to bring back her (contemporary) book club. Thanks to the Happy Booker for the head's-up.

Several of our teachers and fellow former students have signed up. What do you think, Goats--good idea, bad idea, other?

5 comments:

SER said...

I think that anything that popularizes reading is a good thing; perhaps that's naive? I mean, I think it would even be great if Paris Hilton were spotted reading, say, Daniel's collection. Okay, or anything besides Us magazine (which, n.b., I do love).

Perhaps our country of celebrity worshippers needs guidance from those whom they idolize, and perhaps that guidance would have some positive unintended consequences, like the stoking of our national imagination. Oh, yes - it all comes back to the reader-writer curve.

Jane said...

I concur. And I think that, generally speaking, Oprah has pretty good taste. Hell, anything it takes to get people reading more literary fiction is fine by me: plugs from talk show hosts, Pam Anderson's tits, straight to paperback -- whatever. We need all the help we can get.

Brando said...

I agree with Roper. I never understood the high brow harrumphing about the Book Club. Sure it's a writer's lottery, but generally speaking, she picks decent books. Like it or not, the Duchess of Chicago holds a huge amount of influence. Using that influence to encourage people to read, as SER said, is a good thing.

This is the one thing I really disagreed with Jonathan Franzen about. He has a valid point about writers not showing up with hat and hand and begging to be relevant. But if you want to make a living by writing, then you have to become part of the business of writing. You cannot separate the two IMHO. That doesn't mean you have to sell out or compromise your vision for commercial appeal. You just need to acknowledge that the business is a necessary and logical part of the enterprise. This means not only promoting your own writing, but promoting the writing/publishing industry as a whole. That's why I thought the Book Club was valuable.

synthetic said...

The problem isn't Oprah, who's a good reader, as far as I can make out. The problem is she sometimes overestimates her audience. They're happy to buy the books, but speaking as a former bookseller, I can tell you that they return books in mass quantity and complain when Oprah aims too high. Advertising books that most people can't read and understand without the help of an English teacher is not "popularizing literary fiction".

The big O shouts "lady book". Perfect O audience books: The Lovely Bones; She's Come Undone; half of those books with pink headless cartoon women on them; How Stella Got Her Groove Back; The Liars' Club; you get the idea. The Color of Water is about as good as it gets, I think. Helps if there's some real tragedy, but not too much, and for God's sake don't get arty, because the readers won't follow you.

So I'm sure the big O does help if you're after money, but if you're after critical success, I imagine it's not very helpful at all. Why? I don't know. How many major critics are snobs?

Just out of curiosity -- why are you so interested in popularizing something that people seem intent on avoiding in droves? Why do you think it's possible or even desirable? Why do you care?

When I think "popularizing", I think Bernstein, Sagan, Fixx. They're probably the most successful popularizers we've seen in the last half-century. I'm guessing all of them pulled political attention and money to their fields, and they probably encouraged thousands to become musicians, astronomers, runners. Very nice for other professionals in their fields. But when you look at the net public effect I'm not sure it's very significant. Of all of them, I'd guess Bernstein had the greatest effect because he worked in a time of limited and tightly controlled mass media. Maybe I'm wrong there. But the vast bulk of the American public is still not interested in classical music, astronomy, or regular exercise. These are still mainly elite hobbies. (I have a copy of the Young Person's Introduction to the Orchestra, introduced by Bernstein and narrated by young Master Henry Chapin. I loved it as a girl, and my daughter seems to enjoy it too. But it sounds impossibly plummy to me now. Master Henry Chapin, now really.)

SER, I think you might be confusing the ability to read & enjoy with the ability to imagine. I'm not being flip; there are plenty of earnest, educated professionals out there who really do enjoy a good read, but are not creative or imaginative people. Go to UIHC sometime and talk to docs. They're a little fascinated by and envious of you, because they can't do what you do. Can't even begin to do it. I think it's like me listening to symphonies: I enjoy many of them, they're beautiful, and I've been a music librarian, but I'm damned if I can make up anything musical at all. I don't have a good musical memory for anything much more complex than show tunes, either. I was really pleased when I made up a ditty for my baby daughter, and then my husband told me I'd sung her the NPR theme.

I think it might be nice if people got more literate, if only because it might mean there would be more people saying acute, interesting things about what they'd read. It'd be less lonely that way. But it's not necessary to my work. If they read, fine, if they don't, OK. If some thick neo-Marxist professor in 2078 blasts me for despising the neo-proletariat because I wrote stuff most people had no interest in reading, I'll be posthumously surprised they're reading my stuff at all and faintly regretful that I'm not around to enjoy the captive-audience royalties.

Expecting literary writing to support you is, I think, delusional. Happens for a few. Will never happen for most. Most who survive as "writers" will actually be teachers or critics coasting on the names they've made as writers, thanks to the extraordinary academic racket. Which is also fine. It's just not the same thing as making your living as a writer.

SER said...

Synthetic, I think the difference you're referring to is between creating and imagining, not between reading/enjoying and imagining. I don't think reading and enjoyment can occur without imagining - insert Frank's reader/writer curve here: the writer implies, the reader infers. And although I love certain television shows, I think TV and movies and video games are largely passive entertainment, in contrast to the active entertainment required by reading (the writer mentions a yellow car, but the reader fills in the exact look of the yellow car). And I think this is bad, in the end, not because we suffer from the delusion that writing alone will support us, but because the loss of the ability of the nation overall to be active imaginers (is that a word?) has consequences not just in the arts, but also in business, politics, and even things like preventing terrorism.

Reading spurs ideas, even if you can't write well yourself. I also can't write music, play music, or sing - at ALL - but listening to music obviously affects us in visceral (and even idea-generating) ways. We don't only like it because it's something we can't do.