Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Day I Sat on Oprah’s Couch, and Other Lies I Tell Myself

My wife turned from the TV and looked at me, shaking her head. "You blew it," she said.  "You missed your chance to be on Oprah."

On the screen, Ms. Winfrey was sniffly and dabbing at her eyes.  This was her last week of a 25-year run and it was, indeed, the end of an era for diet gurus, rehabbed celebrities, apologetic adulterers, Maya Angelou, cancer survivors, prison inmates and Novelists-Disguised-as-Memoirists.  The queen of talk shows and—for better or worse—dictator of popular reading tastes had every right to be weepy as she approached the edge of what will be a gaping void in afternoon television programming: she was leaving us in what seemed like a protracted year-long divorce ever since she announced her farewell plans in November 2009.  We knew it was coming, but it was only when she stood at the door with her packed suitcases in hand that the reality hit.  We must now live out the rest of our numbered and allotted days without The Oprah Winfrey Show.  I can hear America sniffling.

In addition to leaving a hole on our television sets, Oprah's departure also spells the end of an era for mid-list (and low-list) authors whose careers got rocket boosts with the large "O" sticker on their books.  Even the world's greatest novelist, Charles Dickens, got a small bump in sales when A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were chosen for the Book Club.

Now, without Oprah, what's a dreaming, delusional novelist to do?

All is not completely lost, if we believe the hints Oprah has been dropping lately.  The Oprah Winfrey Show leaves the air today, but the Book Club may have some televised life in its future.  "I'm going to try to develop a show for books and authors," she’s vowed.

The hearts of three thousand struggling writers just skipped a beat (including mine).  Maybe there's still a chance we could end up like Wally Lamb, an author who got much more than a small bump in sales after Oprah anointed not one but two of his novels (I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone).  Here's Lamb describing what it was like to get the first phone call with that all-too-familiar voice on the other end of the line:
      She was calling to say that she had selected She’s Come Undone as the fourth novel in her wildly successful book club. I was to keep it a secret until she announced it on her show, she instructed.
      Then she put her producer, Alice McGee, on the line. It was after hours on a Friday, but Alice told me I would have to contact my publisher that night. To meet the anticipated demand, hundreds of thousands more copies would have to begin printing immediately. It couldn't wait until Monday morning.
      It didn't.
      On Saturday morning, members of the publishing house held an emergency meeting. Pulp was ordered, numbers were crunched, and printers worked overtime to meet the expected demand.
      A few weeks later, Oprah held up a copy of my novel and recommended that her vast audience read it. A Boston Globe article about the selection captures the frenzy that followed. Above a photograph of me seated before a class of high school students, looking stunned, one shoelace untied, a headline asks, "WALLY WHO?" My roller-coaster ride had begun in earnest, and I haven't gotten off it yet. To date, She's Come Undone has sold millions and millions of copies.

These are the pinch-me-to-wake-me fairy tale moments most writers dream about--unless you're Cormac McCarthy and you don't give two fiddle-farts about being on Miz Who’s-It’s show.  And even then, we saw the miraculous softening effect Oprah has on even the most granitic, publicity-resistant writers: Cormac McCarthy actually sat on Oprah's couch (or, more correctly, she sat on his couch since he couldn't be lured to the Harpo Television studios).  If she had worked just a little harder, I have no doubt we would eventually have seen her going out for ice cream with J. D. Salinger.

In 2005, Meg Wolitzer (The Uncoupling) told The New York Times* that "Winfrey's effect on authors, particularly novelists, 'was to make us feel relevant,' whether they were chosen for the club or not. 'To have somebody with a really loud mouth and a lot of power saying to people, "You need to read this," is important,' she added."

Just look at the list of ten bestselling Oprah Book Club picks in the last ten years (compiled by the Nielsen Company ):

January 2005:  A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (sales to date: 3,370,000)
September 2005:  A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2,695,500)
January 2006:  Night by Elie Wiesel (2,021,000)
March 2007:  The Road by Cormac McCarthy (1,385,000)
January 2001:  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1,348,000)
June 2003:  East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1,314,000)
November 2007:  The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1,109,000)
October 2007:  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (817,000)
March 2001:  Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio (794,000)
October 2008:  The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (770,000)

Those numbers are enough to unclench the jaw of even the most imperial, impervious publisher and send weak-hearted authors to the emergency room, gripping the arms of EMTs and saying, "She picked me!  Can you believe it?!  She picked me!"  The Oprah Effect is akin to a large butterfly wing in Argentina stirring up a storm in Kansas.  One ecstatic clutch of a book to her bosom in front of a television camera and a writer like David Wroblewski, who toiled ten years on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has cement flagstones on the career path beneath his feet.  Those were the lucky ones (and, admittedly, the talented ones) who enjoyed the blessing of Oprah Winfrey for nearly fifteen years, the authors with rocket-fuel burns on the soles of their shoes.  A list of contemporary authors given a boost by La Oprah includes people like Janet Fitch, Bret Lott, Robert Morgan, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Edwidge Danticat who recently recalled what it was like to be an Oprah Author:

As for the outcome of being on the show, people always want to know about the book sales. The most important gift anyone can give a writer is time and the books sales certainly gave me that. They also rewarded a small publisher, Soho Press, that had taken a huge risk on me. They paid for weddings and funerals and paid off, among other things, school loans and my parents’ mortgage. They helped finance my minister uncle’s small school and clinic in Haiti.
For the rest of us—whether we own up to it or not—Oprah has represented a touchstone in publishing.  We fantasize about the phone call, we dream about standing backstage and hearing Oprah sing our voice in that trademark opera vibrato: "David Aaaabraaaaaaaaams!" (The last notes of her voice drowned by an ocean roar of applause).

So yes, when my wife turned to me the other day and said, "You blew it," I could hear a bell tolling in my head--a funeral bell that dredged up all the regret and self-loathing which lay in a black pool at the bottom of my ambition.  If only I'd been more consistent in my writing habits, if only I hadn't procrastinated myself into stasis, if only I'd written that novel, and then another, and then another, if only the writing gods had rolled the dice and they had come up sixes, then maybe I would have had a big ole O on my book.  The book I have yet to write.  The one Oprah should read.

I suspect my novel, Fobbit, isn't really Oprah material (my wife certainly thinks it is, but I can see through the tissue-paper of her enthusiasm to the truth: she just wants to sit in Oprah’s audience).  A comic novel about death and dismemberment in the Iraq War?  Hardly the stuff she'd endorse to scrapbooking moms in Des Moines.

Then again, the Book Club has rarely been about popular tastes or trends.  It has been stamped with Oprah Winfrey's personal judgement of a book, as firm and indelible as that big O stamped on the cover.  None of us know the exact algorithm used in picking a book for the Club—and there's every reason to believe it's done by members of her staff—quite possibly in a candlelit ceremony involving pentagrams, voodoo dolls, and three drops of James Frey's blood (kept in a vial locked in a safe in Oprah's office).  There are almost certainly some secret handshakes with publishers behind closed doors.  But even if Oprah is only the figurehead for the selections, there's no denying she's been an effective persuader all these years.  I won't go so far as to say she "got America reading" again, but she certainly stirred up some enthusiasm for literature as a hobby for those previously reluctant to pick up a book.  As Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch recently noted, Oprah Winfrey "didn't originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community."

She's picked novels about incest, child abduction, Alzheimer's, the Apocalypse and The Sound and the Fury for God's sake.  So I like to think that maybe my book—still unfinished, unpolished and unpublished—might stand a chance.  Why not a novel about the public relations circus of the Iraq War?

I'll never know because I blew it.


--Wait!  Is that a phone I hear ringing?

*That article is about the joyous announcement of Oprah's latest pick at the time: A Million Little Pieces. When he learned he’d been selected for the Book Club, Frey said, “I was shocked and thrilled and had this sort of amazing and surreal moment." I’ll bet you did.


  1. Oprah or no Oprah, get Fobbit out there!

    There are thousands of pages of nonfiction about the Iraq War in the bookstores. All of it purports to tell the "truth" about the war. Much of it is eminently forgettable.

    Some part of the "historical truth" of the war will never be known. Some will never be believed. Some will never be understood by anyone who didn't spend time in the sandbox.

    Fiction offers an opportunity to hold a mirror up to the war experience. To tell the greater truths that no "true" account can ever really convey. To misappropriate the 20th-century Quaker adage, fiction is one way to "show truth to power."

    I'd been thinking recently that some sharp editor ought to start working on an anthology of the better fiction about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Get Tim O'Brien to write an introduction, right? I'm thinking that the anthology should include one or two of Siobhan Fallon's stories, "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's No Place to Go" by Danielle Evans, maybe even "The Things They Saw" by - what was the name of the guy who wrote that?

    If anybody has a list of other good short fiction that has come out of the recent wars in the Middle East, I'd love some recommendations.

  2. ...
    Wait a minute...

    Seems I recall A Million Little Pieces as being heavily fabricated. Was it chosen as fiction or non-fiction..??

    Without revisiting the whole sordid controversy ...from what I remember Oprah and millions of readers were seriously duped/conned.

    you said...
    "Hardly the stuff she'd endorse to scrapbooking moms in Des Moines."


    Like you would know the interests of 'moms in Des Moines'..?!?

    I would have been alright with you picking on 'moms in Peoria' ...but the DSM reference strikes too close to home.

    And yes, do get that book out there..!!


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