Silence the snobs!

They may look down their noses at Oprah, but what have the literati done for books lately?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I don't need Oprah Winfrey to tell me what to read. I'm a literate, library-card-carrying adult who has spent a lifetime developing a sharp sense of personal preference. But I'm not so arrogant as to believe that something that's of no particular use to me is of no particular use, period. Quite the contrary.

Although I've never shopped for novels that bear the Oprah imprimatur, I don't particularly care if my local book shop is out of "Mother of Pearl," and I couldn't pick Bernhard Schlink out of a lineup, I think Ms. Winfrey's book club kicks ass. I may not get my reading list from it, but I've nevertheless learned something from its success -- what an astonishing difference one person can make, and what elitist twits people who pride themselves on their erudition can be.

It's been such a long time for some of us that it's easy to forget how it felt when reading initially enthralled us, when it clicked in our minds that books were a portal to realms that stretched far beyond the reach of parents and school and the old neighborhood. Whether that moment came by way of Tom Sawyer or Jo March or Nancy Drew, we became alive to the power of words and imagination, and nothing would ever be the same again.

We're the lucky ones, and we're a distinct minority. Despite the proliferation of superstores and the reading groups that have sprung up like Starbucks in the last few years, we are still not an especially book-loving nation. Approximately 40 million American adults can barely read or write. Libraries are languishing. And the guy next to you on the subway or in the carpool lane probably hasn't picked up a novel since he snoozed his way through "The Scarlet Letter" in 12th grade.

Given how far we still have to come in terms of collective literacy, you'd think that Oprah Winfrey's status as a champion of the written word would be assured, that her recognition at the National Book Awards this year would be a cause for cheering. For three years now, she has been using her fame, her reach and her ratings to promote the noble habit of regular, thoughtful reading. Her on-air book club has catapulted respected authors like Toni Morrison and Kaye Gibbons into blockbuster bestsellerdom. It has launched new writers like Edwidge Danticat and given them a mind-bogglingly huge audience. And it's enthusiastically encouraged millions of viewers to experience, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the thrill of releasing the bookworm within. What's so bad about that?

Oprah's critics see things differently. They're troubled by the dominance she has over the publishing industry -- her monthly selections inevitably set off the kind of buying frenzies that leave blank spaces on bookstore shelves and send publishers into reprint panic. They bemoan the fact that authors of merit struggle to find an audience while Oprah-approved ones gain seemingly effortless public acclaim. Worst of all, they grouse, she turns her viewers into sheep, imposing the tastes of an overpaid TV star on helpless consumers.

Oh, please. As if the rest of us magically decided on our own to pick up Kipling or, later, Sartre. As if we live our lives in a pure and holy bubble free of reference and recommendation. Readers aren't born, they're made -- made when someone takes the time to nurture curiosity and offer helpful suggestions along the way. And a novice bibliophile could do a hell of a lot worse than listening to what Oprah likes: Alice Hoffman, Wally Lamb, Janet Fitch, and the list goes on.

I used to feel pretty ambivalent about Oprah's reading group, until the backlash kicked in. Underneath the hand-wringing about manipulating the bestseller list and mass mind control, there seemed something else at play -- a spiteful irritation that someone who wasn't the editor of a literary review or a fixture on C-Span's "Booknotes" could have such awesome reach as a taste-maker, and that an audience could be pliant enough to trust her. What a narrow, snotty attitude.

That Oprah has the kind of influence she does says less about the ignorance of her audience than it does about its profound hunger. Did anyone in the notoriously complacent, self-congratulatory publishing industry ever seriously try, pre-Oprah, to market literary fiction to the same audience that watches daytime TV? Or had they given up on it as a vast wasteland of yokels who couldn't get beyond anything that didn't have Fabio on the cover? What single author, editor or critic has attempted, with a fraction of Oprah's ambition, a campaign to get quality books into the hands of adults? Oprah, the microphone-wielding, diet-obsessed chat show personality triumphed where so many others disappointed because she was the one who never underestimated the public or its capacity for discovery.

More threatening to her critics still, Oprah has made the world of books and ideas less intimidating. Until just a few decades ago, literary success and merit were not mutually exclusive goals, and heavyweights like Steinbeck and Hemingway could enjoy a mass appeal. But somewhere along the way a schism grew, and the world divided into sophisticated quoters of Pynchon and glazed slaves to "The Price is Right."

Oprah changed all that. She shocks those who prefer literature to be the province of genteel, understated tea-drinkers. So what if she brings a show-biz glitz to a traditionally dusty province, or if she's found a cozily social hook to an otherwise solitary pursuit? Good for her. She makes this stuff look fun. Smartly choosing books that are challenging but not cryptic, easy to relate to but diverse, she pushes her audience to become not just readers but thinkers and talkers. She makes it harder for the rest of us to feel quite so smug in our ivory towers, and she offers proof of the victory of encouragement and opportunity. What a satisfyingly populist blow to those with a lot invested in the notion of us and them. If the unwashed masses are able to appreciate Ursula Hegi, too, then maybe a few people need to rethink their own imagined innate cleverness.

It seems a revealing irony that so many of the most contemptuous critics of Oprah and her audience posit themselves as "real" readers, successful products of a liberal education. They're the intellectual equivalent of those fundamentalist Christians who bang the intolerance drum the loudest. They wear their learning like armor, a thing that keeps the riff-raff out rather than inviting the world in. They've lost touch with the infectious joy of reading, the humanity and universality of it. What a waste to hoard literature like misers, when, as Oprah proves, it's so powerful when it's shared.

In the rush to condemn Oprah for her hold over the publishing industry and the reading public, for her perceived and imagined egotism as a leader, her detractors have neglected not just the talented authors whose livelihoods have been enriched by the book club, but the scores of television viewers who never knew that they could also be passionate readers. It's the people who can now walk into a bookstore or library and not feel overwhelmed, who can choose to turn pages when they might otherwise surf channels, that Oprah started her club for, and it is they who know best how to judge her merits. But if some of them can now say that they don't need Oprah to tell them what to read, she deserves whatever accolades the book world can heap on her. Because she's accomplished something pretty great indeed.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Oprah Winfrey