In Oprah We Trust
By Bobby Maddex

From Gadfly December 1998


MARY PAT MARTIN is as effervescent as a playground during recess. When asked for a brief evaluation of the novels thus far selected for Oprah's Book Club, she can't help but pepper her analysis with all manner of exclamatory noise: "Ooh," she intones with regard to Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, "I'm reading that one right now. It's fascinating, very exciting. I can hardly wait to get home each night." And then she laughs. Mary Pat laughs a lot. She chuckles at the prospect of being interviewed by a magazine, giggles during conversational lulls, and hoots loudly whenever she says something even marginally critical. A consultant for a child welfare agency in Chicago, she's jovial and kind, eager to please, completely open and forthright, one who cares deeply about the kids with whom she works, the friend you invite to a dinner party first because it would be too dull to proceed without her—a very likable lady.

This said, Mary Pat's energetic sentences are also pregnant with contemporary fuzzwords and mediaspeak. Terms like "justice," "growth" and "respect" are haphazardly bandied about as if their importance was self-evident or beyond precise application. For her, spirituality is a vast public swimming pool without lifeguards or regulations, "important issues" (a favorite phrase) are limited to instances of oppression, discrimination or the obstacle overcome, and a great book is defined as one which fosters personal maturation or emotional involvement. Please understand that these aren't negative qualities. In fact, they're not qualities at all but examples of verbal vagary: an imprecise, revisionary shorthand that's supposed to encapsulate one's values without conveying anything distinctive or of substance. We all do it. It's our "virtual vocabulary," the ideological Happy Meal we serve up anytime we want to avoid controversy and find common ground ("That's so weird; I think homelessness is an important issue, too."). Thoroughly market-tested to achieve the broadest possible appeal, such sentiments smack of J. Crew catalogues or fast-food. Perhaps this is why so many cultural critics find them disconcerting. They're the types of comments associated not with real life or tangible situations but with pre-packaged sound bytes and after-school specials. So while Mary Pat is a unique individual, a total original in almost every way, God bless her, her feel-good vernacular makes her seem ubiquitous, over-processed, customary and maudlin. Put it this way: if The Oprah Winfrey Show was a person, she would sound an awful lot like this sweet, benign and agreeably prevalent woman.

Maybe that's not fair to either party. Mary Pat was approached because it had been established beforehand that she was an enthusiastic participant in Oprah's Book Club. Most of what she said was in the context of particular novels and the insights derived from them. In this sense, she was just trying to be accurate. These books are, after all, relationship-oriented. They do explore things like diversity, social inequality and personal triumph. What was she supposed to say? The Oprah Winfrey Show faces a similar dilemma. It's a wildly successful daytime talk show; it's commercial television. If the program wasn't somewhat commodified and diluted, if it suddenly went microcosmic and decided to tackle Voltaire and the Age of Reason without a corresponding national news item or inspirational subtext (like, for instance, a film adaptation of Candide with the indomitable Christopher Reeve in the starring role), all but three of its 21 million viewers would promptly change channels. Besides, it's not like Oprah spends her airtime swallowing swords or forcing miniature ponies through flaming hoops; she doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator. We're talking book discussions and Pulitzer Prize-winners without a transsexual lap dancer in sight.

Even still, there's something mildly disquieting about the way she prunes back thorny topics and shoots for the gist, how, in her hands, a complicated novel becomes a bully pulpit and a mediocre one a bestseller; something stomach-turning about her weepy format where a shed tear garners instant credibility (make Oprah cry and you just might have yourself a movie deal) and even the most cantankerous celebrities affect a white-bread idealism that's as easy to ingest as vanilla pudding; something downright apocalyptic about the fans who regurgitate her specious maxims with the zeal of religious converts. But to what are we referring here? Why are some of us reluctant to "get with the program" and "make the connection" with one of the most influential figures in American society today? "Oprah has integrity," Mary Pat says for the third or fourth time in as many minutes. "She takes a stand on important issues and doesn't waver. I'd support that any day of the week." Clearly, the answers to these questions lie elsewhere.

CHICAGO IS A CITY OF EXTREMES. Maybe it's the weather and the way it divides the year into a pair of hulking seasonal slabs—one as moist and putrid as death itself, the other blank and tundra-like—which so drastically polarizes its citizens. Who knows? But the fact of the matter is that Chicago, despite its station as the capital of the Midwest, doesn't tolerate the middle ground. If you love the Cubs (white-collar, north-side), you're obliged to loathe the White Sox (blue-collar, south-side); local politics are devoured down to their minutiae ("Did you see who's running for comptroller?") or completely ignored; and debates over which restaurants serve the city's best pizza or ribs occur daily and with almost life-threatening vehemence. Here, one doesn't distinguish between downtown and its penumbra of outlying neighborhoods, as is done in New York (Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn) or Los Angeles (Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel-Aire). Rather, there are Chicagoans and then there are those who reside in the ambiguous wasteland that is Waukegan, Moline or, heaven help them, Peoria: Illinoisans. It's a self-esteem problem, really. Condescending epithets like "The Second City" and "The Third Coast" have all but thrown the city's distinctive identity out the window and forced its inhabitants to individually define themselves on their own terms and through the over-stated force of their convictions.

It's ironic, then, that Chicago was the birthplace of The Oprah Winfrey Show and remains its home. Unlike its other institutions (with the exception of Michael Jordan), this one has done more for uniformity than khaki pants. There's the book club, yes, a truly impressive cultural development that has made reading (of all things) as trendy as the Macarena, but maybe it would be better to explore the human dimension of this phenomenon first. During the 1992 race riots, for example, a fairly confused looter from South Central was asked to explain his involvement. "We had to do something to get Oprah to Los Angeles," he offhandedly replied. Similarly, when Oprah travelled to Amarillo last January after her show on mad-cow disease made lunch meat out of America's cattle industry (it was predicted that Texans would do the same to her), she was embraced like a prodigal daughter for whom no sin is inexcusable, even the rejection of their fatted calf. The point? People want Oprah. They want her in their homes, at the movies, on the bookshelf, in their towns, on the witness stand and in their collective diet plan. She's not so much a star as America's First Friend, Hollywood's ambassador to the everyman, a neutral country in which the famous and anonymous—the highbrow and lowbrow, the commercial and virtuous, the serious and ridiculous—commingle and exchange low-fat recipes. She's the inverse of Chicago—Geneva, maybe, or Dayton, Ohio. She's the proverbial happy medium.

And as discerned by Mark Steyn for a recent issue of the National Review, she's also a human cross section. "Oprah herself seems to be her own one-woman group booking," he wrote last March, "a vast conglomeration of all the nation's favorite victim groups." So comprehensive, in fact, is her calamitous biographical profile that it might arouse suspicion if it wasn't such a tragedy: born out of wedlock, abandoned by her father, raped by a cousin, sexually abused by an uncle, pregnant as a teenager. Add to this troubling resume the fact that she's black, a woman, a rumored lesbian (an allegation she denies) and a person who routinely struggles with her weight, and you'll have no trouble understanding why Oprah has the highest-rated talk show in television history, is the winner of over 25 Emmy awards and earned a combined total of $201 million for 1996 and 1997 alone.

"Viewers want to be around someone like themselves," Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at Cal State Los Angeles, told the journal Mediaweek. "They want a nonthreatening person they can identify with. [Oprah has] lots of problems that many women have and can relate to." While true, this explanation reads like a Harpo Productions press release; it's the angle their promotions department already plays. Of course people watch Oprah because they see themselves in her. A good portion of our lives is spent shucking the protective husks of others to get at what's real in them, what resonates. It's how we maintain our sanity in a commercial civilization where perfection is peddled even on the broadsides of buses. Oprah flaunts her flaws; she thrusts them into the limelight where she then works to transcend them. Her audience appreciates this candor, not to mention seeing how fame and fortune don't guarantee hourglass figures or hordes of potential suitors. Still, this only goes so far in accounting for their allegiance.

More tantalizing, perhaps, is what she offers them in terms of status. The Oprah Winfrey Show is guilt-free TV or, rather, divertissement with a touch of class. We may vigorously disparage them in public, but who hasn't chanced upon Jerry Springer without going glassy-eyed and slack-jawed at his exploitative shenanigans. You've got to hand it to the guy: not since the Cheeto have empty calories been so utterly addictive. There's also a certain frankness to his sisyphean parade of full-figured strippers and mothers who smoke dope with their children. If it would inflate his ratings to hack off a limb and dress it in drag, Springer might be persuaded to do it, but at least he has the chutzpa to admit this. Oprah, who swore off such impudence years ago and rarely watches television herself (it "promotes false values"), operates several rungs above her contemptuous counterpart, and yet her program isn't exactly PBS material either. No, it's more along the lines of a Sting album or a Rob Reiner film; the depth it dons is but a translucent membrane. It's enough, though, to convince regular viewers that they're benefitting from their faithfulness, as opposed to just watching television, which allows them a clean conscience. They empathize with Oprah and are entertained by her, sure, but they also feel as if they're being challenged and edified, that they're projecting a particular image by tuning in to the show. So where Jerry Springer swaps immediate gratification for his Nielsen numbers, Oprah promises a return on our investment for hers. "When I first got the job, I was just happy to be on TV," she told Today anchor Katie Couric. "But as the years evolved, I grew and wanted to say something with the show, not just be a television announcer or a television performer, but I wanted to be able to say things that were meaningful to the American public and culture." There are any number of examples of this, from her motivational video Oprah: Make the Connection to Oprah's Angel Network where "small change" is collected to put poor students through college, but none better illustrates the point—nor has done more to consolidate "the American public and culture"—than her book club.

STOP ME IF you've heard this one. There's this talk show host, see, and she's sitting on the porch of her Indiana farmhouse reading a book called The Education of Little Tree. Written by a Cherokee Indian, it's a humdinger of a memoir, as uplifting as helium. Now this TV star, who has been buying the movie rights to every novel she can get her hands on which even remotely features a plagued minority group, decides she'd like to own this one, too. So she tries her best to land it and is understandably frustrated when she's eventually outbid. But here's the kicker. It turns out that the author of this pious little volume isn't a Cherokee at all but, and I kid you not, the former Klansman who wrote George Wallace's "segregation forever" speech.

And the significance of the anecdote? Had Oprah successfully acquired Little Tree, it would have sold at least a half million copies, making her the first person to line the pockets of a certifiable bigot in the name of racial reconciliation. For in case you hadn't heard yet, Oprah is to books what NASA is to rockets. Since she started Oprah's Book Club on September 17, 1996, nary an author has walked away from it without the goofy grin normally associated with recently reprieved death row inmates. According to Toni Morrison, a writer twice-struck by Oprah's lightning (Song of Solomon, Paradise), "it's not just a revolution, it's an upheaval." The more accurate comparison would be something Calvinistic in flavor, that of unsolicited grace, a calling from on high. However you describe it, the club has made a handful of novelists very, very rich and brought the publishing industry to the foot of Oprah's throne.

Approximately once a month, Oprah announces a book title that she hopes her audience will enjoy. She then invites its author and selected viewers to dinner where they talk about what they've read. Highlights of that dinner are disclosed on an ensuing show whereupon the writer in question makes a second, live appearance, this time to discuss the novel with the studio audience. While the concept is quaint, the result is not. It has been estimated that over the course of a year, Oprah is responsible for the sale of 12 million books totaling nearly $160 million. She neglected to warn the publisher of her first choice, Jacqueline Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean, which proved disastrous, but has since refined the process (the lucky author is sworn to secrecy; binderies are given advance notice) which now runs like a well-oiled ATM machine. Literally. In the case of Wally Lamb, another author who has been blessed on two different occasions (She's Come Undone, I Know This Much Is True), it has meant becoming a millionaire. For Sheri Reynolds (The Rapture of Canaan), the club has spawned subsequent book deals to the tune of $600,000 for a single manuscript. Whether the chosen novelist is male or female—black or white, known or obscure, veteran or rookie—is of negligible consequence; the book will sell regardless. What matters is that Oprah picked it. And as you might imagine, no mystery is more coveted than that which compels Ms. Winfrey to count a tome among her elect.

"[Oprah] is interested in books that fall under the rubric of diversity," says Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley. "There's an earnestness and a do-good quality to these novels that bring satisfaction to people." Yardley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic from whom you'd expect fastidiousness as a kind of occupational hazard, is surprisingly polite when addressing the types of books that Oprah chooses. Ever careful to distinguish his tastes from hers, he's nevertheless generous with his compliments and seems sincere when he says the club is a positive phenomenon. "Its motives are decent and I think Oprah really believes that these voices are the ones that need to be heard, that they speak to the people who watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. The books themselves could be a lot worse."

It's tempting to disagree with Yardley and get sidetracked by things like artistic merit and the perils of slapdash creativity. Such ventures, however, rarely meet a conclusive end. Insisting that Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True has more in common with a restaurant menu than meticulous literature is as persuasive as telling you that creme brulee ranks above the pop-tart. Fair enough, you answer, but what if I'm hungry for a pop-tart? The important issue isn't what Oprah selects (she has as much right as the next person to recommend the books she likes); it's how she selects it. From the outset, Oprah has claimed that she gains nothing financially from a novel's success. And despite rumors that she's being courted by publishers with the frequency of a freshman coed at college registration, we have no choice except to believe her. But what of the works already espoused? Are there any unifying characteristics?

Jonathan Yardley touched upon one crucial component when he used the word "diversity." It's the ingredient which drew Oprah to The Education of Little Tree and neatly connects the club's books. Whether through a dwarf recounting the Holocaust (Ursula Hegi's Stones From the River), a lonely divorcee falling prey to a con man (Mary McGarry Morris' Songs in Ordinary Time), a black youth being sentenced to an unjust death (Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying) or an 11-year-old girl wanting to kill her abusive father (Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster), Oprah seeks to encompass a wide range of human experiences. If you don't identify with the day-to-day existence of a German midget than maybe you understand what it was like to be an African-American in the late 1940s. In other words, there's something here for everyone.

The other trait shared by these stories is cheerfully delineated by our friend Mary Pat Martin in answer to the question: what is it about these writers? "They tell very intense stories which are alive and personal. And their characters, whether disabled, female or of color, are all strong enough to overcome the obstacles which weigh them down." Once again, we find Oprah selecting novels according to how well they traverse demographic boundaries. Who doesn't appreciate having their hardships validated, gleaning hope from triumphant underdogs? As she does with her TV program, her philanthropic enterprises and the metaphor that is her life, Oprah uses this book club to nurture her fans and make their fidelity worthwhile. But this is TV and one can only plunge so deep into the well-being of viewers before interest wanes. So Oprah must navigate the line which separates education from entertainment, altruism from self-promotion, person from person; she must occupy the middle. And this is the problem. We are a nation which measures reality against the preponderance of evidence and, unfortunately, most of what we're taught with regard to ourselves and others comes courtesy of our commercial culture. In an age when television dictates even the content of our bookshelves, when consumption is the chief form of self-expression, when what has been tested for its universal appeal is marketed to us as individuality, can we still honestly say that each of us is autonomous and original?

IN AUGUST 1939 the publishing firm Harper and Brothers sent Richard Wright's Native Son to a then fledgling Book-of-the-Month Club (the literary clearinghouse, now 72 years old, which sells select books through the mail). The club's executives liked the novel but felt its sexual explicitness would offend their membership. Consequently, they asked Wright if he would alter his manuscript in several places so that it could attract a larger audience. Wright, finding their proposed changes insignificant, did as they requested. And that, as they say, was that.

Those concerned about the influence of Oprah's Book Club will immediately comprehend the relevance of this historical footnote. It's safe to assume that there are some authors out there, languishing in varying degrees of poverty, who would gladly shave a page or two from their completed novels if it meant catching Oprah's eye. And then there are those, considerably more desperate, who are composing with her book club specifically in mind. It's hard to blame them; win the Oprah lottery and wave goodbye to hardship (besides, one can always pen the great American novel later while lounging poolside at a newly procured North Hampton estate). And yet writing in such a way as to secure the widest possible readership means that the finished product will be no different from a pair of blue jeans or a McDonald's hamburger. It will have been reduced to its least offensive and most facilely consumed elements. While acceptable, maybe even enjoyable, the book will also be generic and standardized, as unique as the hundreds of others just like it.

Oprah Winfrey fans need to be careful or they might make a similar mistake. It's easy to love Oprah. In one magical package, she's both Tina Turner and your Aunt Marge, a night out on the town and a Sunday spent knitting, a trip to Cancun and a shift at a soup kitchen. She's everything we are and everything we want to be, the next door neighbor who made good. But her bric-a-brac personality has an explanation. For all her humanitarian campaigns and touching admonishments, her unflagging class and profuse intimacy, her intellectual curiosity and spiritual guidance, she is still, first and foremost, an extremely popular television celebrity and thus has no choice but to function like one of her book club novels: across the board and for the masses. We may love Oprah, but we shouldn't model her emblematic demeanor. Doing so would be like trying to find yourself in a hall of mirrors. Why even bother when everyone looks exactly the same?