Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The story of O.

It's been a while since I've written about Oprah's book club, mostly because it doesn't figure anywhere near as prominently in my thinking now that I'm no longer working in a bookstore.

The update, in short, is that finally having fulfilled my prediction that Oprah, a huge Toni Morrison fan, would have to pick a William Faulkner novel now that her book club was reading "the classics" (in fact, she picked three simultaneously, which seems a little ambitious even to me. I love Faulkner and I've only read three of his books.), Oprah has now reopened the club to living authors, including biographies, memoirs, and historical works. (This is not actually news. Oprah's book club has already included at least one memoir.)

Oprah's first new pick is James Frey's memoir of addiction and recovery, "A Million Little Pieces." Salon has a pretty good take on the whole deal, aptly summed up by two of the concluding paragraphs:

A literary novel that sells 20,000 copies is considered a success; many books bearing Oprah's stamp have moved a million copies or more. As Sonny Mehta, the chairman of the literary publisher Knopf, told the New York Times recently, "The fact that [Oprah] had 300,000 people reading William Faulkner over the summer—she should be given a cabinet post."

Like practically everyone else in America, I love Oprah. However, I can't help but hope that she'll return to fiction again soon or, at the very least, choose a different kind of nonfiction book for her next club—something that seems more distinct from the other content on her show. The problem isn't that Frey's book is a memoir per se; it's that it's a memoir of addiction, of recovery—and a bad one at that. The books in her club—especially during the "classics" years—were markedly different from much of the rest of Oprah's show, which already covers this terrain. With James Frey, the book club is losing its identity as a literary feature, morphing into yet another vehicle for self-help. His story might be shocking, but it isn't art.

As seems increasingly rare these days, I actually have a bit of insight of my own to offer. Back in my Schuler days, we tried to get a public book group going, and one of the first picks was Mr. Frey's book. (Primarily because it looked interesting, there was a fair deal of hype surrounding it, and the author was available for a phone-in store appearance.) I tried reading the book, and gave up two thirds of the way through. Salon's writer, Hillary Frey (no relation to Mr. Frey), seems to take "A Million Little Pieces" at face value, as a relatively factual account of Mr. Frey's time in rehab. I do not. I became more convinced as I read that Mr. Frey was taking great liberties with, if not creating entire characters and situations.

Having never been through rehab myself, I recognize my lack of authority on the subject. But the book read too much like a junkie film, and all the characters that Frey likes have happy endings, save one or two, and all the characters he dislikes die unpleasant deaths. Sure, unpleasant death and addiction are constant companions, but it's all a bit too neat and tidy for me.

I think Oprah was stretching her book club by focusing on the classics. It may have been an admirable stretch, but I can't be surprised that she wasn't able to keep it up, and I couldn't criticize her if she simply looked at the sales numbers and decided that her audience would simply prefer something else. Oprah is a juggernaut, and there's no reason for her to run a second-tier book group, even if I'm not interested in anything she's reading.

1 comment:

PoN said...

Salon's writer, Hillary Frey (no relation to Mr. Frey), seems to take "A Million Little Pieces" at face value, as a relatively factual account of Mr. Frey's time in rehab. I do not. I became more convinced as I read that Mr. Frey was taking great liberties with, if not creating entire characters and situations.

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