A Dialectic With the Everyday: Communication and Cultural Politics on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club

Critical Studies in Media Communication
Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2003, pp. 295–316

     A Dialectic With the Everyday:
  Communication and Cultural Politics on
      Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club
                                          Ted Striphas

䊐   – This essay explores the cultural politics of television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey’s
Book Club. Because women constitute both the primary Oprah television audience and the
largest United States book buying public, it focuses specifically on women’s involvement in the
club and their modes of engagement with its selections. The Book Club’s astonishing success
was attributable in part to the carefully considered communication strategies through which
participants, Winfrey, and Oprah producers collectively articulated the value of books and
reading specifically for women. Their de-emphasizing of purely literary considerations, I
contend, enabled women to strategize how to use Book Club selections simultaneously to
distance themselves from and to engage more intensively with the demands of living in a
patriarchal and otherwise socioeconomically stratified society – a relationship I call a “dialectic
with the everyday.” This essay thus traces the communicative processes/practices through which
those involved in Oprah’s Book Club articulated a highly sophisticated economy of cultural
value around books and reading and the implications of that economy to a possible feminist
cultural politics.

T    he Oprah Book Club did something
     extraordinary. I don’t think there’s
been anything ever like it. When a beloved
television personality persuades, con-
                                                        people to read books, it’s not just a revol-
                                                        ution, it’s an upheaval.
                                                        – Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winning
                                                        author, also selected for Oprah’s Book
vinces, cajoles, hundreds of thousands of               Club (Oprah’s book club anniversary
                                                        party, 1997, p. 17)
Ted Striphas is Assistant Professor in the School       Come on, people; Oprah isn’t a literary
of Communication Studies, Ohio University. This         critic, or a family therapist, or a priest.
essay is derived from his doctoral dissertation, “A     She’s a talk-show host. Some perspective
Constellation of Books: Communication, Technol-         here, please.
ogy, and Popular Culture in the Late Age of             – Abby Fowler (2001, p. 21), letter to the
Print” (University of North Carolina, Chapel            editor, Newsweek
Hill, 2002). The author would like to thank             When Oprah Winfrey announced on
Lawrence Grossberg (director), Marcus Breen,
Michael Hardt, Victoria Johnson, Della Pollock,         the September 17, 1996 installment of
and Janice A. Radway for their input on the             The Oprah Winfrey Show that she wanted
dissertation and Celeste Condit, Phaedra C. Pez-        “to get the whole country reading
zullo, Greg Shepherd, and two anonymous                 again” (Oprah’s book club anniversary
CSMC reviewers for their advice on previous             party, 1997, p. 1), few would have pre-
drafts of this piece.                                   dicted the daytime television talk-show
                                                      Copyright 2003, National Communication Association
                                                                    DOI: 10.1080/0739318032000112136
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                            SEPTEMBER 2003

personality’s extraordinary influence        then, lies a concern for the specific
on bibliographic taste and patterns of      communicative processes through
book buying in the United States. Yet       which books are produced, distributed,
her first selection for the newly-formed     exchanged, and consumed (Darnton,
Oprah’s Book Club, Jacquelyn                1995). It both insists on and explores
Mitchard’s (1996) hitherto modestly         the role of communication with re-
successful novel The Deep End of the        spect to the apparent success and
Ocean, proceeded to sell more than          popular appeal of Oprah’s Book Club
700,000 copies and shot to number           in the late 1990s and early 21st cen-
one on the New York Times bestseller        tury. More specifically, it considers
list. The sudden, intense interest in the   how communication about the selec-
book, and by extension the Book Club,       tions for Oprah’s Book Club affected
prompted the Washington Post less than      how individuals and groups engaged
two weeks later to profile the Club in a     with the texts by asking: How have
cover story (Streitfeld, 1996). The         those who orchestrated and partici-
significance of the Post’s coverage was      pated in Oprah’s Book Club together
not lost on Winfrey, who noted that         negotiated the purpose and value of
the Book Club enjoyed “an even big-         books and reading?
ger start than Watergate” in its pages         The success and popularity of
(Newborn quintuplets, 1996, p. 15).         Oprah’s Book Club did not, of course,
Over the next six years, all 48 of          insulate it from controversy; in fact,
Oprah’s Book Club selections followed       the club’s extremely high profile prob-
a similar pattern of success. Each typi-    ably attracted and intensified it. Dur-
cally sold a further half a million to      ing its six year tenure Oprah’s Book
one million copies or more after being      Club elicited an array of responses
chosen by Winfrey (Gray, 1996;              from authors, readers, publishers, pro-
Ticker, 2000; Touched by an Oprah,          fessional and lay literary critics, book-
1999). She even was awarded a gold          sellers, and others. As the quotations
medal at the 1999 National Book             above attest, critical appraisal ran the
Awards, the Oscars of the book indus-       gamut from outright exuberance to
try, in recognition of the Book Club’s      unmitigated contempt. Opponents of
ability to stimulate interest in and de-    the Book Club were at a particular loss
mand for books and reading. Despite         to explain how a stark, ambiguous
Winfrey’s decision in May 2002 to           German novel like Bernhard
discontinue Oprah’s Book Club as a          Schlinck’s The Reader (1997) could sit
mainstay of The Oprah Winfrey Show,         side-by-side in the Oprah’s Book Club
her selections continue to figure            catalog with Breena Clarke’s River,
prominently in most retail bookstores       Cross My Heart (1999), which one
and non-book outlets (such as super-        journalist dismissed as “a poorly writ-
markets, department stores, pharma-         ten, sentimental novel from a diversity
cies, and so on).1                          bureaucrat at Time, Inc.” (McNett,
    Oprah’s Book Club was and contin-       1999, para. 5), let alone four selections
ues to be a complexly mediated cul-         by Nobel Prize winning author Toni
tural phenomenon, combining printed         Morrison – Song of Solomon (1977), Par-
books, television programs, letters,        adise (1997), The Bluest Eye (1970), and
emails, and face-to-face conversations,     Sula (1973).
among other media and forms of com-            Feelings of contempt for the club
munication. At the heart of this study,     came to a head in September 2001
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when author Jonathan Franzen pub-          gled demeaning attitudes towards
licly divulged his misgivings about        women and the cultural forms they
Winfrey’s selecting his highly ac-         tend to engage.
claimed novel, The Corrections (2001),        Thus, this essay critically reads
for the Book Club. Winfrey has             women’s conversations about and
“picked some good books,” Franzen          modes of engaging with the selections
remarked upon hearing the news, “but       for Oprah’s Book Club, bearing in
she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-di-     mind these negative appraisals and the
mensional ones that I cringe myself,       ways in which patriarchal assumptions
even if I think she’s really smart and     inflect them. Both the success of and
she’s really fighting the good fight”        controversies surrounding the Book
(quoted in Kirkpatrick, 2001, p. C4).      Club, I maintain, flowed in part from
Franzen worried, in other words, that      the ways in which Winfrey, Oprah Win-
so-called serious readers might cease      frey Show producers, and participants in
taking his book, well, seriously, given    the club together articulated the value
its association with a host of books of    of books and book reading specifically
putatively lesser caliber. His public      for women. The first part of this essay,
comments earned him the dubious dis-       therefore, both reflects on and situates
tinction of being the only author ever     Oprah’s Book Club within the context
to have an invitation to The Oprah Win-    of feminist responses to mass culture.
frey Show rescinded. Despite – or per-     Here, I argue that the club offered a
haps because of – the controversy, his     set of symbolic and material resources
novel went on to win the coveted Na-       with which feminist cultural producers
tional Book Award in December 2001.        might begin piecing together a femin-
   These and other critics have repeat-    ist aesthetics. In addition to teasing out
edly thrown their hands in the air         the logic by which selections were
trying to explain how high art so easily   made for the Book Club, in the next
could commingle with mass culture, let     section I show how women’s patterns
alone how millions of Oprah viewer/        of engaging with Oprah books as ma-
readers were unfazed by this seeming       terial artifacts paralleled the ways in
contradiction. Thus, not only is it        which groups of women have been
worth considering how specific com-         shown to employ specific categories of
munication practices relate to the         popular literature (such as romance
Book Club’s popularity, but also how       novels) to escape temporarily from
members of the Book Club challenged        conservative gender role expectations.
normative economies of cultural value      In the third section, I reverse course to
through their participation in it. This    consider how conversations about the
struggle becomes all the more salient      narrative content of Oprah books
when one considers that women be-          prompted women to move closer to
tween the ages of 18 and 54 make up        and interrogate the determinate condi-
both the primary audience for The          tions of their everyday lives and expe-
Oprah Winfrey Show and the largest ag-     riences. As such, I argue, Oprah’s
gregate book reading public in the         Book Club advanced a particular pro-
United States (Dortch, 1998; Gabriel,      tocol for engaging with popular litera-
1997; Kinsella, 1997; Radway, 1984).       ture, a dialectic with the everyday,
Reproachful responses to Oprah’s           whereby women were encouraged to
Book Club, in other words, provide a       use books and book reading as vehicles
kind of cover under which are smug-        both to step outside of and to interro-
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                              SEPTEMBER 2003

gate critically values and routines. Fi-     women in society, and second, an
nally, this essay concludes by assessing     abiding commitment to taking seri-
the club’s actual and potential rela-        ously these and other mass cultural
tionship to a feminist cultural politics,    forms, with the intention of assessing
recognizing how, as a club, it may           their effects and political possibilities.
have opened possibilities for dialogue          Modleski (1982, 1998) recognizes
and collective political action.             that the narratives and fantasy struc-
                                             tures of romance novels, gothics, and
                                             daytime soap operas produced in the
                                             1970s and early 1980s surely rein-
Feminist Responses to Mass                   forced highly circumscribed under-
    Culture: A Critical                      standings of women’s place in society.
        Framework                            Despite their conservatizing impulses,
                                             however, she maintains that feminist
   Condemnations of Oprah’s Book             scholars should resist flatly condemn-
Club follow a long line of condescend-       ing them. “It is useless to deplore
ing responses to media genres and            [mass cultural] texts for their omis-
mass cultural forms targeted toward          sions, distortions, and conservative
and consumed primarily by women.             affirmations,” she argues. “It is crucial
At least since Tania Modleski’s (1982)       to understand them: to let their omis-
path-breaking book Loving With a Ven-        sions and distortions speak, informing
geance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women,   us of the contradictions they are meant
feminist scholars have challenged both       to conceal and, equally importantly, of
popular and scholarly accounts that at       the fears that lie behind them” (1982,
best are dismissive of, and at worst         p. 113). Thus Modleski, Janice A.
openly hostile to, women and their           Radway (1984), and numerous femin-
relationships to mass culture. This line     ist scholars who have followed them
of research thus has focused on a host       have enjoined researchers to engage
of media genres, including romance           the thorny question of why women are
and gothic novels (Light, 1999; Mod-         drawn to such texts, the nature of the
leski, 1982; Radway, 1984, 1999b),           pleasures they derive from them, and
young women and girls’ magazines             the relationship of these texts to
(McRobbie, 1991), popular music and          women’s everyday lives.
dance (McRobbie, 1994), soap operas             Together, Modleski (1982, 1998)
(Modleski 1982, 1998), prime time            and Radway (1984) maintain that the
television sitcoms featuring women           pleasure and popularity of romance
(Dow, 1996), and literature, television      novels, gothics, daytime soap operas,
programming, and films geared to-             and other texts derive at least partly
ward women of color (Bobo, 1995;             from the ways in which they achieve
Bobo & Seiter, 1997). Without dimin-         both a symbolic and practical fit with
ishing the significant differences across     the everyday lives and experiences of
these studies, they (and this essay)         women living in patriarchal societies.
share at least two attributes in com-        As Modleski (1982, p. 14) puts it, the
mon: first, a recognition that demean-        “enormous and continuing popularity”
ing attitudes toward these mass              of these types of texts “suggests that
cultural forms and women’s engage-           they speak to the very real problems
ments with them reflect larger patriar-       and tensions in women’s lives.” Simi-
chal assumptions about the value of          larly, Radway (1984, p. 45) asserts,
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“the meaning of the romance-reading          masculine power and masculine plea-
experience may be closely tied to the        sure implied in the narratives of soap
way the act of reading fits within the        operas” and other mass cultural forms
middle-class mother’s day and the way        involving a predominantly female
the story itself addresses anxieties,        audience (Modleski, 1979/1997, p. 46),
fears, and psychological needs result-       with the larger goal of amplifying these
ing from her social and familial pos-        criticisms and articulating them back
ition.” While both Modleski and              into the sphere of cultural production.
Radway are cautious not to overesti-            Critical responses to daytime tele-
mate the progressive political possibili-    vision talk shows further confirm the
ties that may follow from women’s            rule that mass cultural texts intended
engagements with mass culture, both          for and consumed primarily by women
underscore how “contemporary mass-           tend to attract condemnation. Popu-
produced narratives for women con-           lar, scholarly, and lay critics alike rou-
tain elements of protest and resistance      tinely impugn these shows for
underneath highly orthodox plots”            spectacularizing the profane and/or
(Modleski, 1982, p. 25; see also Rad-        for offering a surfeit of popular psy-
way, 1984, pp. 17, 220). In other            chological quick-fixes to recalcitrant
words, mass entertainment and femin-         social problems. Among scholarly crit-
ist politics are not, perforce, antitheti-   ics, Janice Peck (1994) and Dana L.
cal.                                         Cloud (1996) have argued respectively
   The challenge facing feminist schol-      that talk on The Oprah Winfrey Show and
ars of mass culture, then, is what to do     popular biographies about Winfrey
with these pleasures, these small ker-       both turn on and reinforce a classically
nels of protest which, at some level,        liberal notion of the autonomous indi-
may challenge patriarchal values, as-        vidual subject. By advancing an ethic
sumptions, and power structures, al-         of individual responsibility and per-
beit within the constraints of capitalist    sonal psychological healing, they
production? Modleski (1982, p. 25) ob-       maintain, the Oprah Winfrey text de-
serves that, in most circumstances,          nies the necessity of contesting struc-
these challenges are neither obviously       tural forms of oppression through
nor explicitly feminist. Yet she also        collective political action.
maintains that they can provide the             On a more optimistic note, Peck
rudiments of a more sustained and            (1994, p. 115) concedes that The Oprah
broad-ranging critique of patriarchy.        Winfrey Show is “haunted by traces of
“Clearly,” she states, “women find            social egalitarian values, democratic
soap operas eminently entertaining,          strivings, and desires” to transform
and an analysis of the pleasure that         “social worlds.” Some feminist schol-
soaps afford can provide clues not only      ars have engaged various Oprah Win-
about how feminists can challenge this       frey texts hoping to recover these
pleasure, but also how they can incor-       traces and let them speak, thereby
porate it” (1979/1997, p. 43). She goes      cobbling together a feminist aesthetics
on to propose the project of recovering      from the raw materials of mass cul-
a “feminist aesthetics” from the             ture. Corinne Squire (1997), for exam-
specific media genres and mass cul-           ple, argues that although the show’s
tural forms targeted to women. This          persistent focus on women’s victimiza-
feminist aesthetics would “rechannel         tion may prove disarming for some
and make explicit the criticisms of          viewers, it still manages to weave to-
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                            SEPTEMBER 2003

gether a complex, shifting narrative of     nized, edited, and arranged, given the
women’s experiences of gender, race,        conventions of commercial television
and class. As such, the show consist-       and the producers’ understandings of
ently illuminates “the contradictions       what might appeal to The Oprah Win-
that traverse our [women’s] subjectivi-     frey Show’s television audience.
ties” (p. 109). Against those who would        All viewers invited to discuss Book
claim that Oprah merely reduces             Club selections on the air dis-
structural social inequities to personal    tinguished themselves by taking the
psychological problems, moreover,           time to write in to The Oprah Winfrey
sustained viewing of the show suggests      Show. In other words, they demon-
a recurrence of specific psychological       strated a level of interest and practical
motifs. As more and more Oprah guests       involvement setting them apart from
attest to their reality, Squire claims,     the majority of readers who pre-
they aggregate or “begin to shed            sumably decided not to write in. Thus,
[their] individual psychological            their comments are not necessarily
character and start to look like …          typical of the club as a whole. These
social, political, or religious fact[s]”    voices are significant, nevertheless,
(p. 110). She concludes, therefore,         because those invited to participate
that The Oprah Winfrey Show possesses       on air were considered by the show’s
“some modest feminist value” owing          producers to be ideal readers whose
to its narrative structure (p. 109;         relationships to the book(s) under
see also Masciarotte, 1991; Shattuc,        discussion, they hoped, would
1999).                                      resonate with the broadest possible
   This essay continues the project of      audience.
recovering a feminist aesthetics vis-à-       The question, which is best left open
vis Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, by           for the time being, is whether the re-
investigating why women were drawn          sponses of these ideal readers reflect a
en masse to a specific category of           reasonably diverse cross-section or an
popular literature. Methodologically, it    essentializing amalgam of women’s ex-
consists of a close reading of tran-        periences engaging with Book Club
scripts of all 45 episodes of The Oprah     selections. Indeed, as Charlotte Bruns-
Winfrey Show featuring Oprah’s Book         don (1999, p. 361, emphasis in orig-
Club.2 These materials, at minimum,         inal) notes, “the personae and
provide a reasonably accurate and ac-       positions” offered by mass cultural
cessible public record of how Winfrey,      texts, and which often serve as the
Oprah Winfrey Show producers, authors,      taken-for-granted analytical categories
and viewers invited to join them on         for feminist critics (such as “the ‘fe-
the air conceived of and regularly          male spectator,’ ‘reading as a woman,’
talked about the value of specific books     ‘women of color,’ ‘we,’ ‘the ordinary
and books in general, in addition to        woman”’), are “historical identities, the
particular norms and protocols for en-      contradictory sites and traces of politi-
gaging with them.3 Indeed, the tran-        cal arguments and exclusions.” The
scripts provide some evidence of how        mode of address of The Oprah Winfrey
approximately 200 club members pub-         Show and the Book Club selections is
licly discussed the selections in rela-     thus worth scrutinizing, insofar as it
tionship to their daily lives4 – with the   may reflect normative assumptions
important caveat that these conversa-       about, and perhaps challenges to,
tions were strategically planned, orga-     proper female subjectivity.
CSMC                                                                         STRIPHAS

 “No Dictionary Required”                   is wonderful for the summer, because I
                                            didn’t want you to, like, just breeze
    According to some critics, Oprah        through it and then have to complain
Winfrey’s emergence as a key arbiter        to me because you didn’t have enough
of cultural value and authority bor-        to read.” Winfrey then went on to
dered on absurdity. The Wall Street         admonish her audience to “take your
Journal, for instance, claimed (through     time with it. Read one of
a thinly disguised veil of indignation)     the … chapters, come back, let that
that “no dictionary is required for         settle in with yourself, come back and
most” of Oprah’s Book Club selec-           read another chapter” (Oprah’s book
tions, “nor is an appreciation for ambi-    club, 2000, June 23, p. 17). She con-
guity or abstract ideas. The biggest        cluded the broadcast by reiterating
literary challenge of some Oprah            that it was a “great, great, great book
books is their length” (Crossen, 2001,      for the summer, 546 pages” (p. 18).
p. W15). As the primary spokesperson           Winfrey framed other selections al-
for the club, the Journal took Winfrey      most identically. At the beginning of a
to task for failing to challenge readers    June 1997 broadcast, Winfrey stated:
with the apparent literariness of Book      “Today we’re announcing a big – I
Club selections, or, alternatively, for     mean B-I-G book” (Book club finale,
failing to challenge readers with titles    1997, p. 1). Later, when she revealed
that were sufficiently literary at all.      the selection, she explained (p. 17):
The Journal, however, made no effort
to understand the Book Club’s de-           I knew back last year when we first started
cision-making on its own terms.             this Book Club that this was the book that
    The televised Book Club discussions     you should be reading for the summer,
admittedly tended to shy away from          because it is 740 pages long. Now for a lot
even the most basic vocabulary em-          of you, that’s – that’ll be your first time
ployed in literary criticism (tone, ima-    with a book that big – a big accomplish-
gery, metaphor, symbolism, allusion,        ment, OK? So our big book for the sum-
and so on). Thus, the Journal was right     mer is Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary
to point out that length was a more         McGarry Morris.
important criterion for selecting titles
for the club than were traditional liter-   Winfrey used virtually the same lan-
ary considerations. Almost every on         guage to frame the June 1998 selec-
air announcement of new Oprah’s             tion, Wally Lamb’s (1998) I Know This
Book Club selections, in fact, included     Much Is True – “a great, big book for
at least some mention of each book’s        the summer,” she called it, at 897
total number of pages. Why then did         pages (Oprah’s book club, 1998, June
page length play such a crucial role in     18, p. 17). Jane Hamilton’s (1988) The
the selection process?                      Book of Ruth, in contrast, appears to
    The selection of Barbara King-          have been selected in December 1996
solver’s (1998) The Poisonwood Bible is     in part because of its brevity. “You
telling. When Winfrey announced the         have two months to finish … and it’s
book in June 2000, just prior to The        not even a whole lot of pages … . [I]t’s
Oprah Winfrey Show’s summer recess,         only 328 pages in paperback,” Win-
she described it as “a walapalooza of a     frey explained. She then commented
book … . It’s 500 and some pages … .        on the possible significance of the
[A]ctually, it’s – yeah, 546, 546, which    book’s length: “The next Book Club
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                          SEPTEMBER 2003

airs Wednesday, January 22nd of next      their children and, more broadly, the
year, 1997. We gave you extra time        everyday demands they faced as
over the holidays so you don’t have to    women living in a patriarchal society.
read at the Christmas table, OK?”         Similarly, women used Oprah’s Book
(Behind the scenes, 1996, pp. 20–21).     Club selections to create spaces and
   The language Winfrey used to           thus remove themselves both symboli-
frame every one of these books sug-       cally and practically from their dom-
gests that her selections for the club    estic, female role-assigned duties.
were not made on the basis of her            Indeed, women featured on
tastes alone. That she repeatedly re-     Oprah’s Book Club highlighted how
ferred to specific selections as summer    these kinds of responsibilities posed
books, holiday books, and so forth in-    formidable challenges to their finding
dicates that both time and page length    personal time. The August 2000 Book
were carefully considered criteria by     Club program, for example, included
which specific books were selected.        an audio excerpt of a letter explaining
Longer books often were timed to co-      how one woman was moved by The
incide with the summer months, when       Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver, 1998), a
Oprah viewers presumably had more         novel chronicling a pious American
time to spend reading. Shorter books,     family’s mission in the Belgian Congo
on the other hand, often coincided        and the Congolese struggle for inde-
with months when women were as-           pendence. “As a stay-at-home mom, I
sumed to have more responsibilities       often feel caught up in the world of
and thus less time to read (such as       children, conversations with children,
around the winter holidays). Oprah’s      conversations about children. I loved
Book Club producers were sensitive, in    this book. It brought me out of the
other words, to how books and read-       world I live in” (Oprah’s book club,
ing could be made to fit into the rou-     2000, August 23, p. 23). Karen, an-
tines of women’s lives, rather than       other Book Club participant, likewise
placing the burden on women to ad-        explained: “My children now are
just their schedules to accommodate       trained that when they see Mom with
books and reading.                        a book, they just don’t bother me … .
   In one respect, then, women’s pat-     And on Saturday and Sunday morn-
terns of engaging with the selections     ings, my husband knows I’m going to
for Oprah’s Book Club can be said to      get up early at five to read, fall back to
mirror those of women who consume         sleep, and wake up again and read
other categories of popular literature.   some more … . I get up about 1⬊00 in
Among the women whom Radway               the afternoon to start my day, because
(1984, p. 213) interviewed, for exam-     I love to just lay there and read” (Let-
ple, reading romance novels func-         ters to Oprah’s book club, 2001, para.
tioned in part as “a ‘declaration of      271). Like Radway’s (1984) romance
independence’ and a way to say to         novel readers, these women affirmed
others, ‘This is my time, my space.       how the reading of popular literature
Now leave me alone.”’ Romance             could help them both to justify and to
novel reading, in other words, allowed    enact a desire to step outside and away
these readers to construct imagined –     from the sometimes tedious and un-
albeit effective – spatial and temporal   fulfilling role expectations placed upon
barriers with which to modulate their     them as women, if only temporarily.
heterosexual partnerships, the needs of      Although women may have turned
CSMC                                                                        STRIPHAS

to Oprah’s Book Club for this reason,        books” (Newborn quintuplets, 1996,
its extraordinary success cannot be re-      p. 15).
duced to that alone. Many women                 Candy Siebert’s provocative state-
featured on Oprah’s Book Club at-            ment that something about Oprah’s
tributed their inability to read books to    Book Club compelled her to take up
their responsibilities at home, yet          books and book reading raises an im-
equally as many women indicated              portant question: What about the club
never having developed an interest in        moved women to engage with and
books or book reading at all prior to        read books for the first time in many
their involvement with the club.             years, perhaps even for the first time in
   For example, the September 1997           their lives?
Oprah’s Book Club program featured              Some critics have expressed dismay
an interview with Candy Siebert, who         over the range of titles chosen for
had written in to Oprah explaining her       Oprah’s Book Club. “Taken individu-
newfound interest in the Book Club:          ally,” the Wall Street Journal reported,
                                             “Oprah’s books run the gamut from
                                             absorbing to vacuous” (Crossen, 2001,
Winfrey: Candy Siebert wrote us to           p. W15). The Journal was troubled, in
say … she’s never read a book in her en-     other words, by the seemingly incon-
tire life. Not one?                          sistent demands Oprah’s Book Club
Siebert: Not one. […]                        placed on participants in terms of the
Winfrey: Until?
Siebert: Until – I kept watching the Book    degree of difficulty of club selections,
Club … . And finally I bought my first         which fluctuated between arguably
book, and I bought it so I would have to     straightforward books like A. Manette
read it. And I did it. I – [Wally Lamb’s     Ansay’s (1994) Vinegar Hill and Alice
1992] She’s Come Undone – and I – I cried    Hoffman’s (1997) Here on Earth, to
at the end and it was because I finished it   more intricate, lyrical titles such as
and it was a great book.                     those of Toni Morrison and Bernhard
Winfrey: It was the first book you read at    Schlink. Perhaps those who had not
40 years old?                                read books in many years were drawn
Siebert: Yes.                                to Oprah’s Book Club precisely be-
Winfrey: I could weep for you.
(Oprah’s book club anniversary party,        cause of this apparent inconsistency.
1997, p. 4)                                     Indeed, Oprah Winfrey Show produc-
                                             ers demonstrated remarkable sensi-
                                             tivity to the range of reading abilities
The same program also featured               of both actual and potential club
videotaped excerpts from previous            members, and this sensitivity was
episodes of Oprah, in which one              reflected in the timing and relative
unidentified woman testified to not            degree of difficulty of titles chosen for
having read a novel in two decades;          the Book Club. Anticipating that read-
another shared that she had not read         ers might encounter difficulty with Par-
any books at all in about a dozen            adise (Morrison, 1997), club members
years. Similarly, the October 1996           were granted seven, rather than the
Book Club discussion included an             customary four weeks between the an-
audio excerpt of a letter from an            nouncement of the book and its dis-
unidentified woman who stated: “I             cussion (Book club: Toni Morrison,
am 46 years old. And until this past         1998).5 Beyond merely acknowledging
year, I have not read more than five          and making allowances for the fact
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                                    SEPTEMBER 2003

that certain titles might prove more            time” (Oprah’s book club, 1999, Sep-
challenging for readers than others,            tember 9, p. 8).
the choice of books often was                      Still, Winfrey’s warnings did not
influenced directly by the relative              manage to defuse readers’ strong reac-
difficulty of the preceding one.          The    tions to the book. Rather than trying
Reader   (Schlink, 1997) was followed by        to conceal the fact that many club
Anita Shreve’s (1998)                     ,
                            The Pilot’s Wife    members disliked                   pro-
                                                                      Mother of Pearl,

which Winfrey described repeatedly as           ducers of  The Oprah Winfrey Show opted
a “quick read” in contrast to the pre-          instead to air readers’ frustrations in
vious selection (Oprah’s book club,             an audio montage:
1999, March 31, p. 21).
                                                Winfrey: Some people didn’t make it be-
                             The Poisonwood

Bible  (Kingsolver, 1998) similarly was         yond the first word before getting frus-
followed by Elizabeth Berg’s           Open
House   (2000) “[A]s I’ve been saying,”
                                                Unidentified woman #1: Why is Even’s
Winfrey revealed,                “is really
                        Open House
                                                name Even? I am so confused.
going to be a breeze. I thought after           Winfrey: Others got stuck a little later in
reading over 500 pages, we needed               the book. […]
something lighter” (Oprah’s book                Unidentified woman #7: Half the time
club, 2000, August 23, p. 20).                  I’m not sure what the characters are talk-
    The intense frustration many mem-           ing about. Will it get better or should I just
bers of Oprah’s Book Club felt to-              wait for the next book? […]
wards the September 1999 selection,             Winfrey: One reader even used it as a
Melinda Haynes’ (1999)                          sleep aid.
                             Mother of Pearl,

provides by far the richest example             Unidentified woman #12: It was a great
illustrating how the relative difficulty         book to read before going to bed because
of club selections affected the choice of       I always fell asleep quickly.
                                                (Oprah’s book club, 1999, September 9,
subsequent books. When announcing               p. 9)
Mother of Pearl   in June 1999, Winfrey
anticipated some of the difficulties                Airing readers’ negative reactions
readers might encounter with the book           was an extremely clever strategy by
but encouraged them to persevere.               which to reframe the confusion and
Mother     of      “is layered,” she ob-
                Pearl                           frustration many women felt toward
served, “which means that in the be-            Mother of Pearl  from a personal failure
ginning you’re thinking, ‘Where is this         to an error on the part of the Book
going?”’ (Oprah’s book club:           White    Club. What this incident reveals is that
Oleander  , 1999, pp. 14–15). At the con-       on Oprah’s Book Club reading did not
clusion of the program she re-empha-            connote the act of humbling oneself
sized: “It’s not a fast read, again. The        before the genius of an intractable
first few chapters may challenge you,            book, as it may in a more traditional
so stay with it until the flood. Hang in         economy of literary instruction.
there until the flood, OK? You’ve got            Rather, it connoted, on the one hand,
all summer to read it” (p. 17). When            doing one’s best to engage with chal-
the Book Club reconvened in Septem-             lenging books, and on the other,
ber, Winfrey reiterated her caveats. “I         recognizing that one’s dissatisfaction
warned you-all,” she stated, “it wasn’t         with specific selections stemmed not
an easy book, but my feeling was that           from a personal intellectual defect but
you have the whole summer. There                rather from Winfrey and her produc-
are no deadlines. You can take your             ers’ failure to choose a book that met
CSMC                                                                               STRIPHAS

the needs, tastes, and desires of the               to share some of the group’s favorite
club.                                               selections. “Truthfully,” she said,
   Like other longer and more com-                  “Mother   of   Pearl,  we all agreed
plex books,                 was followed
                Mother of Pearl                     was … four-star. We loved it. We
by what Winfrey characterized as a far              would read passages just to anyone
easier and quicker selection. “Now if               walking by that’s how much we loved
Mother of Pearl was too challenging for             it” (p. 20).
you,” she stated, “I’ve got the ideal                  There was no single level, then, at
one to bring you back, really”                      which members of Oprah’s Book Club
(Oprah’s book club, 1999, September                 read, and indeed their range of read-
9, p. 6). Her remark acknowledged                   ing interests and abilities was reflected
that   Mother    of     alienated many
                      Pearl                         in the seemingly inconsistent profile of
members of the Book Club, and that                  the titles chosen for the club. Winfrey
the subsequent selection was chosen                 and her producers, deliberately made
precisely to help them to re-engage.                and timed selections to appeal strat-
When Winfrey finally revealed the                    egically to a broad range of women/
selection at the end of the program,                readers and to welcome newcomers
Maeve Binchy’s (1998)                  she
                              Tara Road,            to the club, some of whom may have
reiterated: “OK. Now some of you                    felt intimidated by books and book
might have felt a little challenged with            reading.
our summer book but I’ve got a new
book to bring you back. It is a fast
read – far, far away from the Deep                     “It’s More About Life”
South” (the setting of                   ).
                              Mother of Pearl

She continued: “It’s a thick book. It’s a              In the previous section, I explored
thick book but a really fast read. I                how women involved in Oprah’s Book
promise you” (p. 19).                               Club used specific selections to create
   This is not to suggest, however, that            spatio-temporal barriers, which al-
members of the Book Club were unan-                 lowed them to regulate the incursions
imously turned off by         Mother   of   Pearl   of children and heterosexual partners.
and that faster reads like         Tara     Road    This pattern of use is consistent with
were the only fare that appealed to                 the findings presented in Radway’s
them. Indeed, several women ex-                     (1984) study of romance novel readers.
pressed how much they enjoyed               Pearl   Yet the foregoing analysis explored
during the September 1999 Book Club                 only how the very fact of the Oprah
broadcast. “A friend asked me if I was              books as material artifacts occasioned
leaving this planet, what three books               the construction of these barriers.
would I take with me,” one woman                    How, then, did Oprah’s Book Club
shared. “My second choice was           Mother      articulate the content of specific selec-
of      ” (Oprah’s book club, 1999,
     Pearl                                          tions? It is worth pointing out that
September 9, p. 9). Similarly, a second             Radway’s romance readers employed
woman revealed: “                   is the
                        Mother of Pearl             both the actual, physical books and the
only book that when I finished reading               narrative content to distance them-
it, I immediately began rereading it                selves and/or to escape from the ev-
because I was captivated” (p. 20). At               eryday/patriarchal demands they
the end of the broadcast, Winfrey                   faced as women. The narratives of
asked a guest in the studio audience                “failed” romances, in fact, “tread[ed]
who belonged to a women’s book club                 too close to the terrible real in ordi-
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                               SEPTEMBER 2003

nary existence” (Radway, 1984, p. 72).      hometown” of Rutland, Vermont,
In contrast, women routinely turned to      Winfrey explained. The program then
the narrative content of the selections     cut to a videotaped segment of Morris
for Oprah’s Book Club to reflect on          touring Rutland:
the conditions of their lives and experi-   There is so much of Atkinson, Vermont in
ence – to engage more intensively with      Rutland, Vermont … . On the corner is
and to interrogate everyday life.           the funeral home I imagined when I was
    The March 2001 Book Club dis-           writing the funeral of Sonny Stoner’s wife,
cussion included an intriguing message      Carol. And I naturally thought of this little
from Winfrey directed to those who          restaurant when I was writing the book.
had and had not read that month’s           This is the Rutland Restaurant. It’s been
selection, Joyce Carol Oates’s (1997)       here since 1917 … . The character of Sam
We Were the Mulvaneys. “Don’t worry if      is very much like my father. He – he was
you haven’t read … We Were the Mul-         a very intelligent man, an educated man,
vaneys,” she stated, “because as with all   who was cursed with the disease of alco-
our Book Club shows, it’s more about        holism … . I’ve created my own Rutland,
life than about a novel” (Oprah’s book      I guess. (Oprah’s book club anniversary
club: We Were the Mulvaneys, 2001,          party, 1997, p. 17)
p. 1). What this statement suggests,        Similarly, the January 2001 Book Club
and what emerged time and again on          episode focused on the inspiration be-
episodes of Oprah’s Book Club, is that      hind Andre Dubus III’s (1999) House of
the content of specific books was per-       Sand and Fog. The author shared how
ceived to be valuable by Winfrey and        he drew the book’s premise from an
viewer/readers to the extent that it        article he had read in the Boston Globe,
shared a clear connection with life, or     in which a young woman, like the lead
that it resonated with their everyday       character Kathy Nicolo, was wrongly
interests, personal experiences, and        evicted from her house for failing to
concerns.                                   pay an erroneous tax bill (Oprah’s
    One way in which the Book Club          book club, 2001, January 24). Dubus
both established and maintained this        also disclosed that the other main
connection to life was through its con-     character, Massoud Amir Behrani,
stant emphasis on the actuality – not       was based on the life of a friend’s
merely the realism – of the settings,       father who had been a colonel in the
events, and people featured in each         Iranian Air Force before the Shah was
book. Nearly every episode of Oprah’s       deposed and who, like Behrani, lost
Book Club thus included interviews in       nearly everything upon emigrating to
which the author related her or his         the United States. Dubus went on to
creative process, which almost always       note that the man who had purchased
highlighted how she or he drew              the house in the Globe article was of
significant inspiration from existing        Middle Eastern descent, prompting
people and places. This pattern began       him to wonder, “What if my colonel
at least as far back as the beginning of    bought this house?” – a question that
the club’s second season, when the          summarizes the book’s basic storyline
Book Club featured Morris’s (1996)          (Oprah’s book club, 2001, January 24,
Songs in Ordinary Time. “Even though        p. 13).
the people were made up, some of the           Because the characters, settings, and
places in Atkinson, Vermont [the set-       so forth to which specific Oprah books
ting of Songs] are not far from Mary’s      refer sometimes no longer were there,
CSMC                                                                            STRIPHAS

however, producers of   The Oprah Win-            Like the videotaped interview with
frey       turned to authors, invited
        Show                                  Morris, the Tademy interview in-
guests, and particular textual elements       cluded a segment in which she toured
to bear witness to their actuality. For       locations that had inspired scenes in
example, the November 1999 pro-               the book. “Cane River is a real place,”
gram on Clarke’s (1999)   River, Cross My     Tademy began. But in contrast to the
Heart  dwelled extensively on the actu-       Morris interview, very few of the
ality of the novel’s setting and main         places Tademy described in the book
character. The story takes place in           still existed. “I began to go and visit
1920s Georgetown, DC, when the                Cane River, and I would just walk
neighborhood consisted largely of             along unmarked sites just trying to get
working class African Americans (in           the feel of the place. […] A lot of the
contrast to its far whiter, petite-bour-      areas that were plantations that I talk
geois population of today). In order to       about in the book no longer exist. For
demonstrate the actuality of “black           one thing, so much of it was burned
Georgetown,” the episode included a           during the Civil War” (Oprah’s book
videotaped interview with 100 year-           club:Cane River  , 2001, p. 3). Tademy’s
old Eva Calloway, whom Winfrey de-            videotaped tour of Cane River thus
scribed as “one of the last living            provided evidence of the absence of
witnesses” of the old community (Anne         the places featured in              Near
                                                                        Cane River.

Murray, 1999, p. 11). Calloway’s wit-         the end of the Book Club discussion,
nessing was clearly meant to actualize        Winfrey also noted the photographs
a Georgetown that once existed. The           included in the book. “[T]hat’s one of
episode also featured an on-camera            the fascinating things, didn’t you all
interview with Edna Clarke, the au-           think, about the book?” she asked the
thor’s mother, whom Winfrey revealed          studio audience. “When you turn the
“was the inspiration behind 12 year-          page, there are the pictures of the
old Johnnie Mae,” the novel’s main            people you’ve been reading about”
character (Anne Murray, 1999, p. 10).         (p. 15). Winfrey drew attention
   The videotaped interview with Lal-         specifically to the indexicality of these
ita Tademy, author of the September           photographs: they could not have been
2001 Book Club selection      Cane    River   produced without the women and
(2001) likewise bore witness to the
         ,                                    places of  Cane   River  actually having
disappearance of people and places            been present. Together, the
while underscoring their actuality.           videotaped author tour and the photo-
Spanning the years 1834–1936,         Cane    graphs invited participants in the Book
River chronicles the lives of four gener-     Club to think about the characters and
ations of Louisiana Creole slave              setting ofCane River   as actual, despite
women, all of whom were Tademy’s              their novelization.
ancestors whom she came to know                   The Oprah’s Book Club catalog
after conducting exhaustive genealogi-        consists almost entirely of novels, save
cal research (Oprah’s book club:      Cane    for two works of nonfiction and three
River, 2001). Although   Cane River  is a     short children’s books. Bracketing the
novel, the videotaped author interview        children’s books, the preceding dis-
stressed again and again how the book         cussion suggests that the reified
blurred the boundaries between fiction         classificatory scheme of fiction versus
and nonfiction (without using those ex-        nonfiction does not adequately ac-
act words).                                   count for the logic underlying the se-
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                            SEPTEMBER 2003

lections for Oprah’s Book Club; it re-      which patriarchy and capitalism inflect
lies on a predetermined literary dis-       one another, yet he adds that this very
tinction that may have been                 burden opens possibilities for the
inappropriate from the standpoint of        “active critique” (p. 223) and trans-
the club, even if those closely associ-     formation of these structures given the
ated with it occasionally employed that     gendered contradictions, inconsisten-
distinction themselves (Salute to moth-     cies, and double standards they in-
ers, 1997). Put another way, the two        evitably produce.
nonfiction books selected for Oprah’s           Indeed, the televised Oprah’s Book
Book Club, Maya Angelou’s (1981)            Club broadcasts regularly went be-
The Heart of a Woman and Malika             yond framing the selections as stories
Oufkir’s (2001) Stolen Lives, may seem      that actually happened, by highlight-
anomalous alongside the 40-plus nov-        ing how the characters, events, and
els chosen for the Book Club. Yet, the      themes corresponded with and pro-
repeated stress producers of The Oprah      voked women to question their every-
Winfrey Show placed on the actuality of     day lives. During the first anniversary
the novels suggests a rupturing of the      episode of the Book Club, Winfrey
distinction between fiction and              remarked: “I love books because you
nonfiction on Oprah’s Book Club.             read about somebody else’s life but it
Heart of a Woman and Stolen Lives indeed    makes you think about your own”
made perfect sense alongside the nov-       (Oprah’s book club anniversary party,
els chosen for the club; virtually all of   1997, p. 2). She reaffirmed this point
them were portrayed as stories that         18 months later: “We love books be-
actually happened, even if book pub-        cause they make you question your-
lishers, booksellers, and critics per-      self” (Oprah’s book club, 1999, March
sisted in classifying, marketing, and       31, p. 13). Reading books was valued
talking about these selections simply as    on Oprah’s Book Club, then, because
works of fiction or nonfiction.               it provoked critical introspection or,
   Thus Oprah’s Book Club producers         more strongly, provided women with
and participants were further able to       symbolic and practical resources with
connect books with life by troubling        which to challenge reified conceptions
this most basic bibliographic distinc-      of their subjectivities.
tion. Collectively, they articulated           Herein lies the Book Club’s dialectic
Book Club selections – novels es-           with the everyday. Following Mikhail
pecially – from the realm of the imag-      Bakhtin (1981), dialectic denotes any
ined to the actual, or perhaps it would     two opposing yet dynamically interde-
be more accurate now to say from the        pendent elements whose tense rela-
fantastic to the everyday. For the ev-      tionship can provoke change. On
eryday, as Michèle Mattelart (1997,        Oprah’s Book Club, the very fact of
p. 25) observes, “represent[s] a specific    the books themselves provided at least
idea of time within which [both]            some women with time and space
women’s social and economic role is         away from their daily obligations as
carried out” and “the fundamental dis-      partners, mothers, and professionals,
crimination of sex roles is expressed.”     while the content of the books encour-
Similarly, Henri Lefebvre (2002, p. 11)     aged just the opposite. In other words,
notes that women tend to bear a dis-        club members valued the reading of
proportionate burden of “the weight of      Book Club selections not only because
everyday life” owing to the ways in         it helped them to create distance from
CSMC                                                                          STRIPHAS

their everyday responsibilities and rou-     to [her] 18 years ago,” when she was
tines as women. On the contrary, it          forced to move in with her mother-in-
also enabled them to move closer to          law while her husband completed a
and interrogate their everyday lives as      degree (Oprah’s book club, 1999, De-
women via the characters and events          cember 3, p. 14). Another guest,
in the books.                                Cherie Burton, also identified with El-
   The way in which the December             len Grier. “I wouldn’t say it feels like a
1999 selection, Ansay’s (1994) Vinegar       prison here,” she stated, describing the
Hill, was discussed and framed on The        experience of living with her in-laws
Oprah Winfrey Show is illustrative of this   for the past eight months, “but there
dialectic with the everyday. The novel       are some moments where I do feel
turns on the tensions between a mar-         trapped” (p. 6).
ried couple and their in-laws, and              Indeed, The Oprah Winfrey Show rou-
more specifically on the main charac-         tinely featured letters and stories from
ter Ellen Grier’s struggle to assert her-    women who connected the narratives/
self after she, her husband James, and       characters of specific Book Club selec-
their two young children are forced to       tions directly to their own everyday
move in with James’s overbearing par-        lives. One viewer/reader named Con-
ents. Vinegar Hill, Ansay explained, was     nie, for instance, wrote in to the show
born of actual events; she and her           after reading Morris’ (1996) Songs in
parents moved in with her paternal           Ordinary Time to express how she felt
grandparents briefly when she was             while reading the book:
five, and she drew some of the scenes         Winfrey: Now, didn’t you write me that
in the book directly from that experi-       you thought at one point reading it that
ence (Oprah’s book club, 1999, De-           Mary [McGarry Morris] had changed the
cember 3). Although Ansay claimed            names of the characters to protect your
that Ellen was not her mother per se,        privacy?
she did reveal that her “mother’s own        Connie: Yes. Yes. Exactly. I – I – that was
story inspired Ellen’s transformation”       my first impression. Marie was 35. I was
(p. 15). The program thus stressed how       34 when my experience happened. My
Vinegar Hill was grounded in the events      children were the exact same age as Alice,
and experiences of a woman who had           Norm, and Benjy. And as I read, I just
overcome unreasonable expectations           thought, “This is my story.” … I should be
resulting from her heterosexual part-        writing this book.
nership.                                     (Oprah’s book club anniversary party,
                                             1997, p. 16)
   For the remainder of the broadcast,
Oprah producers broke with the tra-          She’s Come Undone (Lamb, 1992) gener-
dition of inviting four or five guests to     ated a similar response from C. C.,
discuss the book over dinner with            who was invited to join the videotaped
Winfrey and the author, opting instead       conversation about the book. “[T]his
to invite married women and their            was my life,” she stated. “My father –
mothers-in-law to the studio to share        after my mother died, even though I
how their relationships with one an-         lived in the same house with him, he
other and their families had been af-        was never there … . [H]e would be
fected by living together. One guest,        gone for days at a time to his girl-
Valerie, explained that she was              friend’s house, he would be away on
“amazed at how similar Ellen’s experi-       business or whatever, and he loved me
ence was to something that happened          with food the same way Dolores’ [the
OPRAH WINFREY’S BOOK CLUB                                           SEPTEMBER 2003

main character] father did” (Third Rock    view with the Hanson family who, like
From the Sun, 1997, p. 12). Likewise,      the Mulvaneys, were ostracized from
Here on Earth (Hoffman, 1997) res-         their community after they filed suit
onated strongly with Cynthia, a par-       against a young man who had raped
ticipant in the April 1998 Book Club       their daughter Susan.6 As Jayne Han-
discussion. Cynthia was drawn to           son, Susan’s mother explained, “[I]t
March Murray, the main character,          dawned on me reading this book, we
who early on in the book struggles         have all been – we’ve all been raped”
over whether to leave her husband          (p. 7).
Richard, whom she considers to be a           Collectively, all of these women rec-
bland but otherwise agreeable partner.     ognized themselves and their everyday
Richard “reminded me of my … ex-           lives in the characters and situations
husband, just a really great guy,” Cyn-    presented in specific Book Club selec-
thia observed. “He met my checklist:       tions. Their engagements with the
good looking, athletic, good family,       books, therefore, facilitated not only
smart, educated, and all of that. But he   their breaking temporarily from their
was the wrong good guy. And, as a          everyday lives or the normative expec-
woman, I grew up thinking that the         tations placed on them as women liv-
only way you would leave a man or          ing in a patriarchal society, but also
should leave a man is if he beats you      their interrogating and perhaps even
or if he’s abusive or if he’s an al-       challenging the social pressures impli-
coholic … . But how do you leave a         cated in, for example, heterosexual
good man?” (Oprah’s book club, 1998,       partnerships, families, intimacy,
April 9, p. 17). Identifying with char-    beauty, body image, and gendered vi-
acters and events in specific Oprah’s       olence.
Book Club selections thus allowed             Interestingly, the one novel in which
these participants to interrogate some     Winfrey promised “a total escape from
of their everyday assumptions and rou-     your own life – escape, escape, escape”
tines.                                     (Oprah’s book club, 2000, November
   The March 2001 program on We            16, p. 21), House of Sand and Fog
Were the Mulvaneys (Oates, 1997) pro-      (Dubus, 1999), met with significant re-
vided some of the most moving exam-        sistance on the part of readers invited
ples of this process of identification      to participate in the videotaped dis-
and self-reflection. Winfrey indicated      cussion.7 All but one of the guests was
that numerous readers had written in       particularly disgusted by the character
to the show explaining how they had        Kathy Nicolo, whose lying, promiscu-
seen themselves and their families in      ity, theft, substance abuse, racism, and
the book. “[W]hat’s so exciting about      inattention to her daily responsibilities
We Were the Mulvaneys,” Winfrey ob-        disturbed them deeply. While the ex-
served, was that “we’ve gotten so          act source of their distress remains un-
many letters from … people who were        clear, it may have been at least partly
members of families who say, ‘We           a function of the book’s escapist tenor.
were the Grants,’ or ‘We were the          Its deeply tragic conclusion – the five
Pullmans.’ ‘We were’ – a lot of people     principal characters wind up either
started their letters that way” (Oprah’s   dead or imprisoned – may have fur-
book club: We Were the Mulvaneys,          ther reinforced this sense of discon-
2001, p. 6). The broadcast also in-        nect. House of Sand and Fog may have
cluded a poignant videotaped inter-        upset these readers precisely because it
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