It's not true that Oprah Winfrey's book club was the most important development in the history of literacy. For instance, there was the invention of the written word. Then there was movable type. So Oprah comes in third. But no lower, at least not in the opinion of publishers and booksellers, who binge every month on the demand for whatever title she features on her show. In a nation where reading serious fiction is always in danger of becoming a specialized pursuit, something like playing the dulcimer, Oprah's Book Club, with her 26 million U.S. viewers a week, has made reading nearly as popular as professional wrestling.
So when she announced last week that she was pretty much closing up the clubhouse, publishing houses shuddered. So did anybody who thought it was a good thing that she had made Joyce Carol Oates seem as big as "The Rock." Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins, got a stricken e-mail. "One of my colleagues had written to me one word: WEEP."
Another reaction would be to scratch your head. Why walk away from it now? Oprah's Book Club gave her status as a major arbiter of taste in the literary world. Culture snobs who thought of her as that mawkish woman who was always on a diet now think of her as that mawkish woman on a diet who has got millions of people to read Toni Morrison. Why leave?
Her official explanation was a kind of spiritual dissatisfaction: "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share." She promised that she would still feature books on her show "when I feel they merit my heartfelt recommendation." There will be a last episode of sorts, devoted to Sula, a 1973 novel by Morrison, whose Nobel Prize probably means less in sales terms than the fact that she is the only author to have had Oprah anoint her books four times.
Is there more to it? An Oprah producer recently admitted that the book-club shows garner lower ratings than regular shows. A former Oprah associate says Oprah is a serial sharer. Having shared her emotional life, her diet and her reading list, she is done with the book thing. "I think she just got bored," says an insider. "Tired of the cycle." Some think her feelings were genuinely injured when Jonathan Franzen, the best-selling author of The Corrections, put his hands in his pockets and shifted around in his loafers after being chosen as an Oprah author. Franzen wondered out loud about having to play the writer for Oprah's "documentary" camera teams and, worse, said he did not agree with some of her earlier selections. Her famous response was to disinvite him, but the resulting spat was the most serious public challenge to her cultural authority since the box-office failure of Beloved, the 1998 film she starred in and guided to the screen. If the Franzen episode meant the book club was going to bring her grief, why bother?