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Was Oprah Bad For Literature?

Eleven years ago Jonathan Franzen caught hell for expressing some ambivalence when Oprah Winfrey selected his novel The Corrections for her TV book club. Franzen said that though Winfrey was “really smart” and “fighting the good fight” for the book business, she also “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself” at being selected. He added that he thought The Corrections would prove “a hard book for that audience.” On hearing about these slights, Winfrey cancelled Franzen’s scheduled appearance on her show. Realizing he’d been rude (or perhaps just realizing that his ingratitude would likely cost him some book sales) Franzen apologized to Winfrey, who subsequently chose Franzen’s Freedom as one of the book club’s final selections last year. (Click here for a complete list of the Oprah Book Club books.) 

Now a new study by Craig Garthwaite, an economist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, suggests that Franzen had it right the first time.

Garthwaite looked at the question of whether the Oprah Book Club, over its 15-year life, expanded the book-reading audience. His dispiriting finding was that it did not. Although Winfrey was remarkably successful in getting people to buy the books she touted (and also, to some extent, other books written by the same authors), she did not make readers out of non-readers. Rather, she provoked what’s known in the marketing world as brand-switching. Instead of reading crap, Oprah’s viewers were goaded into reading tonier stuff—mostly literary fiction. In many instances this amounted to reading more demanding crap, but it still represented a step up in literacy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the profits that help support publication of less lucrative, more high-minded books depend on the sale of a lot of crap. And at least when it came to fiction, Garthwaite found that the net result of Oprah’s endorsements was to reduce aggregate sales. The reason was the one Franzen articulated back in 2001: Winfrey often selected books that posed a challenge for her TV audience. In practical terms, that meant that Oprah Book Club books took longer to read than the crap her viewers would otherwise read. That, in turn, meant that publishers ended up not only selling less crap, but also, in the aggregate, selling fewer books overall. Which probably meant (and I’m extrapolating here from Garthwaite’s findings) that these same publishers were correspondingly less able to publish literary fiction.

It would take a stony heart indeed to conclude that the Oprah Book Club, which was just about the most successful book-marketing experiment in modern times, wasn’t worth it. Getting people to read better stuff—including a lot of indisputably great literature like Anna Karenina and The Sound and the Fury and Great Expectations—was an accomplishment of which Winfrey should be proud. Perversely, though, in raising ever so slightly the literacy of the American public she made it ever so slightly more difficult, during the life of her book club, to publish latter-day Tolstoys and Faulkners and Dickenses (or anyway, contemporary writers who matched as closely as they could the accomplishments of these masters). This outcome would seem as good an example as any of why Thomas Carlisle called economics the “dismal science.”