'Oprah’s Book Club' Dabbles in Bestsellers, Offers Drab Commentary
Oprah’s Book Club sticks to status quo, with award-winning authors as its first guests.
Oprah’s Book Club Review: Dabbles in Bestsellers, Offers Drab Critical Commentary
Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye (1970) had barely sold 2,000 copies. This was before it featured on Oprah’s Book Club, which gave it a massive push, raising the paperback sales to around 8,00,000, according to Quartz. Morrison’s books continued to feature on Oprah’s lists, making many of them bestsellers.
Some literary ‘purists’ might disregard this in favour of Morrison’s genius — which is undeniable — but the ‘Oprah Effect’ on the publishing industry and readers around the globe has been widely recognised.
What began as a small segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 is now a full-fledged show, Oprah’s Book Club on Apple TV+, with two episodes already out.
With an aim to “build a book club for today’s world”, does Oprah’s new show manage to pull readers in? More importantly, does it allow books and authors, beyond the bestseller list, to shine?
Two Episodes, Two Safe Bets for Oprah’s Book Club
The first episode of Oprah’s Book Club is set in the historic Apple Carnegie Hall that once housed Washington, DC’s Central Public Library. The library was open to all races since its inception.
In sync with this historical context and Oprah’s original aim to bring black writers’ works to the forefront, the first guest on the show was American author Ta-Nehisi Coates, with his novel, The Water Dancer, already a New York Times Bestseller.
A safe bet for the first episode? For sure! A second safe bet was to have Elizabeth Strout, whose Olive Kitteridge won her the prestigious 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for the second episode. Her new novel, Olive, Again was the awaited sequel to the Pulitzer winner.
Two popular authors with a vast amount of fans and readers already behind them, interviewed by Oprah herself, would have translated into views for the show.
Drab Critical Commentary Brings Down the Show
Even as the show dabbles in bestsellers and tries to play safe, there is something else that brings down the energy with which the first episode begins.
The almost-an-hour-long episodes have great critical insights to offer on the books and on writing but despite Oprah’s characteristic wit and humour, the show does sometimes feel like a drab English literature lecture.
We’re talking dissecting specific quotes, understanding characters and their actions, and relaying historical contexts — all of which are important to a book but overdo it and it takes away the pleasure of reading.
With Great Influence Comes Great Responsibility
There is something to be said about all celebrity book clubs — with great influence comes great responsibility. Big publishers and their marketing campaigns often make (or break) a book. When a tonne of money is already behind publicising an author or a book, should celebrity book clubs also pick these ‘big releases’?
What about lesser-known books, authors, and publishers who may gain so much more from this kind of visibility? It’s an age-old question that haunts the best-of-best book prizes too, including the Booker Prize.
With Ta-Nehisi Coates and Elizabeth Strout as its first guests, Oprah’s Book Club does seem to stick to the status quo, amplifying voices that are already loud enough in literary spheres.
What’s in It for Indian Readers?
Oprah’s ‘seal of approval’ on a cover may push some Indian readers to pick up a book in a bookstore, but Oprah’s Book Club may not be their first choice when it comes to watching something for leisure.
A big factor is, of course, the fact that it is only available on Apple TV+, which is a paid service on Apple devices and a number of other devices. However, it is yet to make a place among the top ten OTT or video streaming platforms in India.
Moreover, as far as the segment’s history goes, Oprah barely picks works by Indian or Indian-origin writers — Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance made it to the club in 2001 — which might put off some readers.
The third episode of Oprah’s Book Club is scheduled to be out in March but the selection of the book — Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt — has faced backlash by Latino writers and activists, who have alleged that the book presents a skewed portrayal of the Southern border crisis.
Though Oprah has agreed to have a “deeper, more substantive discussion” on the book, there is a fair amount of self-criticism that the show will benefit from.
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