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The Trouble with Oprah

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A friend of mine relayed a story to me about her shopping trip at the mall for a dress to wear at a friend’s wedding. She was shopping for shoes to go with the dress and overheard the conversation of the store clerk with a pair of women. The clerk had brought out a pair of shoes to the women, and said, ”Oprah had these shoes on her show. You should really try them on.”

This goes to the heart of what is wrong with Oprah. How did this one woman become so huge as to influence an entire segment of the population on their consumerism? When Oprah goes on a diet, people rush out to buy the books which got her there. Given that I have seen Oprah go from fat to thin to fat to thin about three times, you have to wonder about the people who are blindly following her.

When Oprah talked about her relationship with Dr. Phil, all of a sudden Dr. Phil was the hottest shrink on the planet. Without Oprah, Dr. Phil is no one. He doesn’t have his own show. He maybe is lucky to get a book published. He certainly wouldn’t be a household name.

This brings me to what has made me so mad as to finally open up and write about it. Oprah has chosen one of my favorite books for her book club.

I am very protective of my favorite books and I try not to be swayed by the popular press. I founded and currently run the book club at my office. When I started it with a friend of mine, we made a pact to never choose a book that Oprah picked for her book club. Thankfully, she had never chosen any book that I had cared to read, until now. I have always felt that Oprah chose those books for the wrong reason&#8212not to celebrate great literature, but to further Oprah and her cult of style. I had applauded when Jonathan Franzen chose to withdraw his book as an Oprah book club choice. Franzen chose to forgo the millions of sales in order to hold true to his principles, something truly lacking these days.

Two years ago, soon after its release, my friend and I chose a little known book entitled A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. When it was chosen, I was skeptical. All we had to go on was a few reviews on Amazon. Of the five reviews at the time, all were positively glowing. It also helped that the editors of Amazon had chosen the book as the best book of the year.

After reading, I was sold. Frey relates the story of his journey from a drug and alcohol abuser, through rehab and into real life. The story is a very moving one. It involves a love interest, true friendship, and the fight of one man to regain his life for himself. I will never in my life forget the scene where Frey receives a root canal without any Novocain. And in case you weren’t sure, the entirety of the book is true.

The book is written with little punctuation. There are no quotes. You have to follow the conversations closely in order to stay with it. This is part of what intrigues me about the book&#8212the sheer intensity of the reading experience. His sentences at the beginning of the book are short, choppy, reflective of the mind-set of Frey before he reaches rehab. As the book progresses, you get to see the growth of character and the maturity of Frey expressed through the language of his writing.

I read an interview with Frey not too long ago. In it, Frey expresses how difficult it was to write his opus. The intensity of the feelings that it brought out in him was just too much for him to continue with it. I am so glad that he decided to go on with it.

When someone comes to me now for a book recommendation, one of the top three books which I give them is A Million Little Pieces. I truly believe that anyone who reads this will be forever changed, and that it will be very difficult for anyone to not be moved by the experience. I won’t lie. I cried at the end of the book. Yes, I am a man admitting that a book made me cry. Once you read the book, you will understand.

I have held off reading his new book, detailing his life after rehab. I am saving that experience for another time, though I am sure that I will enjoy it also.

So, to finish, I offer a plea to my fellow reader. If you are to go out and look for A Million Little Pieces, please do not do so because Oprah told you to do it. Please don’t purchase the Oprah edition of the book. Look long and hard. Buy the hardcover version if you must. Finally, enjoy A Million Little Pieces for the wonderful book that it is, not because Oprah told you it was amazing.
Edited: PC

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About Ben Miraski

  • I know exactly what you mean about that demmed gold circle mark on a book’s cover — I skipped several books that later turned out to be worth reading, just because of the nod from Oprah.

    My Friend Leonard has had glowing reviews on Blogcritics, as well. Plus, there’s a 2003 review of this book.

  • The Theory

    I don’t know. You just sound bitter that she is popular. Overall it seems like she has chosen decent books for her “club” thing.

    The real thing behind your post is America’s blind consumerism and idolization of a cultural icon like Oprah. You don’t like that people pay attention to certain things because Oprah paid attention to them. Yet that is the people’s fault and not her fault. So it’s the consumerism of our society that upsets you. And that is definitely fine. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Yah, see, I’m conflicted about the Oprah stamp of approval for myself, because I’m a snob 😉 but I think popularizing reading is a great thing, and giving a boost of publicity to these authors is their dream come true. Unless you’re Jonathan Franzen. Like Stephen King said on another popular versus literary debate: “What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” Avoiding a book that has the Oprah stamp is no better than picking up a book because it has the Oprah stamp.

  • kittygogo

    Hate the messenger, love the message?

    Maybe you shouldn’t care so much about Oprah and what she thinks and just go with what you like. It seems that you are falling into the other side of the same trap. You are letting yourself be influenced by her in the opposite direction.

    How about just let it go and let the Oprah followers follow and you lead your life without worrying about her or them, if you so choose.

    Personally, I don’t like the Oprah fanatics, but I think that she is a moderate voice if not a bit heavy-handed and self-congratulatory.

    I hope she runs for president. I’d vote for her. A black woman (who is actually black, please not Condelezza!), come on America!

  • Well, gee, apparently the way to grab a little attention around here is to express some displeasure with a cultural icon.

    One thing I can say is that I am guessing that none of the commenters live in Chicago. While you may not get it in other parts of the country, here were are constantly blasted with Oprah. It might be something small that the National news does not pick up on, but we definitely get a ton of local Oprah here in Chicago.

    To The Theory – Yes, most of my problem is that people will blindly go after this book just because Oprah said so. Just as people who could not afford them went out and bought cars like the ones she gave away so they could be like those people. Just like the people will go out and buy anything Oprah says is good because Oprah says it is good. A big part of the problem that I see is that many of the people who follow Oprah can not afford the excessive spending that Oprah is able to. And to this, I think she is mighty oblivious.

    But am I bitter because she is popular? No. I am just not a fan of hers. I can count my non-understanding of the cult of Dr. Phil, her attacks against beef, and her earlier book club suggestions as items where I disagree with her, and the basis of my displeasure.

    To deekay – I think that my deliberate non-choice of her books is a little better to me than buying her books. I am not sure if she gets any money for the books with the O on them. If there was a book worth reading which she picked, then I would pick it up, but only if I could find an edition without her blantant iconic advertising on the cover. Other than her recent choice, the only selection she has made that I feel I might be interested in reading were the Faulkner novels which she chose over the summer. Will I be reading them anytime soon? Probably not as my shelves currently overflow with books which I have not yet had time to finish.

    Do I think that getting people to read is good? Yes. That is the one thing that I think is good about Harry Potter. I don’t understand the obsession that some adults have with a book meant for 10 year olds, but at least it is getting people reading. The DaVinci Code is the same way. I enjoyed the book as a good story, while it was not the greatest pieve of literature ever put forward. And it got millions of people to read, and inexplicably, buy it all in hard cover. So, yes, promote reading, just don’t feel the need to promote yourself at the same time.

    And finally to kittygogo – I agree that I should just let the people who follow her do so and ignore them. But, if I can influence them in some way to do something which doesn’t help to promote her, then I am all for it. And I will allow her to influence my decision in the opposite direction. If I am only a small voice, I will help to lead the nation in the opposite direction. If she chooses Pepsi, I will choose Coke. If she chooses Ford, I will drive a Chevy. Anything that can stop her from making a little more money, that is fine with me.

    I think this is a great thing for Mr. Frey. I am happy that he is going to get a lot of publicity and make a lot of money. I just think that at the same time, it should need to be with his book displaying the iconic television hero of a large segment of the population.

    Here is Chicago, and I think in large segments of country, I think she is more than a moderate voice. And I think that many people ignore her “me, me, me” messages. They just don’t see it.

    And lastly, I would never vote for Oprah.

  • nugget

    hey dude, just relax. seriously. Ignore the media and Oprah.

  • Re the Frey book. Is there really one more addiction story worth telling? I always think, here’s these guys thinking that they need to get all the attention when they are using drugs and keeping everybody on edge. After they quit they either become messianic and didactic or subject us to their self-inflicted ordeal through art and literature. I mean, the story’s been told a million times. I haven’t read the book. I’m just saying.

    Oprah seems very fond of ordeal-based writing.

  • She would probably describe it as self-help memoir but you do have a point.

    As far as influences I think there are much worse people that people can be influenced by than Oprah Winfrey. I mean, at least she models good behavior as far as reading, thinking about life’s tough questions, etc. as opposed to whatever messages someone like Paris Hilton is sounding out to others.

  • Linda

    Are you bored? With all the things wrong with the world you want to complain about Oprah! Maybe you need to come from behind a book and watch the news or read a newspaper I’m sure you’ll find a thousand people who deserve more criticism them Oprah. Just sounds like your whining.

  • Sister Ray

    She certainly is good at marketing herself to female consumers.

    You have a book club at your office? Cool! What kind of business is it?

  • To Cerulean – I haven’t read many addiction books, but I think this one has a different spin which, if you aren’t an addict, it will sure scare you sober. I am thankful that I have never been affected by this or close to this, but this book is enough to show the pain that this inflicts on all those associated with those who are addicted in a very vivid manner.

    I think there have been a number of books since A Million Little Pieces which were all about recovering from addiction. I am sure that there were many before. For some reason, people keep buying them, and book publishers keep putting them out.

    I don’t mind if they do.

    To Linda – I read this book two years ago after it first came out. I do read the newspaper everyday. I watch the news every night. However, I choose not to get involved in political discussions. I choose not to make everything a partisan arguement, which is why you will rarely find me in the politics section on this site. Yes, there are probably people more deserving of criticism than Oprah, but I like to pick fights in my own neighborhood. I know where Oprah lives.

  • Gail

    I had the same experience when she picked Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I felt the need to tell everyone that I’d liked it before Oprah liked it. Then I went back and looked as some of her other book club choices – in my opinion some were good, some were dreck, in about the same ratio as anyone else’s book recommendations.

  • Ten years ago, when I was planning my wedding, Oprah had a show about “affordable” weddings. Her consultants? Martha Stewart on decorations, cakes, invitations. And Vera Wang on gowns. Now, neither of these women offered anything in the “affordable” range. The cakes Martha touted were all over $600, the invitations were all more than $400/100 count, and the Vera Wang gowns were all over $1000.

    I had a beautiful wedding for less than $3000. I used NONE of their suggestions.

    Oprah’s version of affordable and mine are completely different animals.

    Books? Depends on which publisher gets their books to her first. The books are great, but they don’t represent all that is wonderful and available to readers.

  • It should also be noted that Oprah’s reality is largely disconnected with much of America’s. However, as the self-appointed arbiter of all that is wonderful, people tend to follow her lead since she is a daytime talk show deity.

  • I wrote somewhere that she will encourage ordeal-based writing. Now she is backing a broadway musical based on “The Color Purple”. We just don’t need that.

  • The Theory

    hahaha. that’s amazing.

    count me as one of millions who wouldn’t see the color purple on broadway…

  • You know that at some point one of her shows will probably be a surprise field trip to the show, interviews with the person who adapted the play for the stage, comparisons of her character in the movie to the stage version. Definitely won’t be at the top of my list.

    While searching some more info today, I can across an article with two very interesting points in it, at least for me. Now, before I point out the facts which support my view, let me say that all the authors interviewed were grateful for being selected. They said that the Oprah experience allowed them to do some things that they normally would not have been able to do.

    That said, first:

    “[Billie Letts’s] second book, The Honk and Holler Opening Soon,sold 400,000 copies — not shabby but demonstrative of a truth that runs through the experience of many Oprah authors, which is that they don’t necessarily retain readers generated by that initial Oprah push.”

    So, all that publicity is great, and then it goes away for the most part. Now, when I finally finish the two or three books in my head, I would love for just one of them to sell 400,000 copies, but that is a far cry from the 3.5 million copies that her book sold with the big O on it.

    Second, before the book club went to “classics” and now back to current authors:

    “To be sure, some of the excitement had seeped out of the club by the end. Where initially, an Oprah logo could add a million copies to a book’s sales, by the end the figure was more like 600,000. Some people who considered themselves “real” readers had begun to ask for books without the “Oprah” logo.”

    My favorite sentence is the last. Real readers will seek out books that Oprah hasn’t picked. Of course, while it looks like interest was waning in the final days of the original book club, the article said earlier that the picking of the classics seemed to revive interest. It will only be a matter of time before we see what happens with Mr. Frey’s book.

    The article has an interesting review of some of the books that she has chosen and the sales of the immediately following book by the same author. It truly makes you wonder if Oprah follows the authors she picks or whether it was a one book shot because she happened to chance about the book at a book store somewhere. Other than Toni Morrison, I would be skeptical if she has ever read a second book by an author on her list.

    Anyway, more food for thought. Take it as you will.

  • I don’t think that the books Oprah picks are a perfect match to her audience, so they read one but don’t keep up with that author. I think that Maeve Binchy, murder mysteries, The Da Vinci Code, the Tom LaHaye (sp.?), mainstream inspirational and affirmation books are probably bigger favorites with the Oprah audience than the books she chooses. The few selections I remember weren’t, for me, transcendent works by immensely talented writers who might have kept the audience just by sheer talent. Still, her endorsement is a gift of perhaps a million dollars or more. That’s amazing for the recipients. Mediocre, superficially edgy writers with ordeal-based stories should make out.

    Maybe she can hook up a suffer-o-meter to potential selections to help her decide.

    I do agree with her that Zora Neal Thurston (sp.?) is amazing. So far, that’s the only selection I remember that I agree with.

  • Kaloma

    Ben, you seem to be just as influenced as anyone by Oprah. It’s just that where others move towards her, you seem to move away. Either direction, she’s a force that influences.

    And I can’t help but notice, you have your own bookclub at work, people ask you for your reading recommendations, and you seem to have pretty strong opinions about things that you buy and recommend to others.

    You may have more in common that you think.

    I don’t see a “problem with Oprah” any more than I see a “problem with Ben”.

    Neither of you is advocating anything dangerous (that I know of). You’re both going about your lives doing the best that you can do. She’s done quite a lot of good in her lifetime, more than most people can dream of doing or have the courage to do.

    I think sometimes people see the good stuff she’s doing and maybe they wish they could be a little like her.

    Some of us only get as close as a book or a pair of shoes. Or a rant on a blog.

  • Ms. Kittygogo, what the hell does “a black woman who is actually black” mean? (From where I sit, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice appear to have brown-colored skin, not black, but I doubt that was your point.)

  • Mandy

    If the only complaint you have is about Oprah, I wish I had your problems.

  • jack form cincinnati

    I think heard Oprah say she has lots of nice white folks working for her now… I think this is a racist remark. If I was white and worked for her I would quit. I am tired of “blacks” getting a pass on remarks like this,,,,