Monday, October 5, 2009

Oprah's Book Club: A Pillar of the Earth?

Way back in 1996, Oprah began offering literary suggestions to give her legions of fans guidance on what to read. The Oprah Book Club quickly grew into the most recognizable book club in the world. An Oprah Book Club endorsement was an absolute golden ticket for an obscure novelist, pushing sales into the hundreds of thousands.

Because Oprah's audience is mainly women, I never really paid much attention to her Book Club selections, mentally writing them off as...well, not quite chick lit, but one step above. The novels by writers such as Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver and Toni Morrison seemed to me to be touchy-feely sobfests. Taking a senior-year-of-college creative writing seminar taught by Oprah-selected novelist A. Manette Ansay, did nothing to change my perception. I read Vinegar Hill before the class started so I could get in good with the instructor. It wasn't a bad novel, but it was exactly as foo-foo as I suspected an Oprah book might be. 

In 2001, I found out I wasn't the only one who held this perception. Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, a novel about a very dysfunctional family (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Soon after the selection, Franzen mentioned in an interview that he was "uncomfortable" with the selection and somewhat miffed that the novel include the Oprah Book Club Selection on the cover. He seemed also to be worried that his novel would be pigeonholed as an "Oprah book." Oprah got wind of the comments and rescinded Franzen's invitation to be on the show. Franzen wasn't exactly heartbroken.  (That certainly wasn't the only Oprah-book-related ruckus. Remember the James Frey debacle?)

Over the last few years, Oprah's selections have been much more infrequent and much, much more eclectic. She's picked everything from classic literature like Anna Karenina to The Road, a bleak post-apocalyptic tale by Cormac McCarthy.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I'm currently reading The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. By all accounts, this novel about a 12th century monk who builds a cathedral was one of the more bizarre Oprah selections. It's nearly 1,000 pages, violent and sexually explicit, and is written by a novelist who had produced nothing by genre-y thrillers before Pillars. I'm about two-thirds of the way through and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. As you might expect, it's not exactly intellectually challenging, but just a good, fun read. 

Finally, here's a video of an (very uncomfortable, and therefore hilarious) interview of Ken Follett by Oprah. They couldn't have edited out the waiter?


  1. Congrats on your new blog! Fun!
    I used to also feel that way about Oprah's books. . .which is how I knew that I could love them (I love sobbing when I read :-P). With her more recent selections, though, I find it's hit or miss (I hated The Road, but I loved the book you are reading now).
    I'll look forward to your review.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'd definitely agree about the hit-or-miss nature of recent selections! But I have to disagree about The Road - I loved it! It's actually the only McCarthy novel I've ever liked. Have you tried any of his other stuff - the Border Trilogy, Blood Meridian?