Opinion » Ted Rall

Oprah's Book Snub

How Winfrey elevates lowbrow tastes and hurts reading

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NEW YORK—Oprah's Book Club, wrote The New York Times when the talk show queen revived it in 2005, is "a boon to authors and publishers."

OBC has certainly been good for authors who lie and the greedy publishers who put out their books. Oprah's first post-hiatus pick was James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of substance abuse and rehab whose muscular Hemingway-lite style screamed inauthenticity. It also contained numerous fabrications.

Oprah wasn't alone; Frey's lies fooled many stalwarts in America's state-controlled media. "As Frey takes pains to make clear, he was a particularly hard case—an omnivorous drinker, crack smoker and occasional drug dealer who was wanted in three states on outstanding charges," wrote a Times reviewer who recommended the book. Neither Oprah's staff nor the Times bothered to check whether criminal records verified his "harrowing" account.

Thanks to its placement on Oprah's Book Club, Pieces spent 15 weeks as a number one bestseller and generated at least $2.3 million in sales. When Oprah invited Frey back on the show to dress him down for lying, people winced at Frey's humiliation. I hope he thanked her; it generated more sales.

Oprah narrowly dodged a bullet with another of her picks, the maudlin 1997 Holocaust memoir Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca. This purported tale of a young Jewish girl who travels through Europe in search of her parents before being adopted by a pack of wolves, a la Romulus and Remus, turned out to be less than authentic. Quelle surprise. For one thing, "Misha's" real name was Monique de Wael. For another, she was Catholic, not Jewish. And she never left home. As for the wolves ... well, you can guess how truthful that part was. In March 2008 Defonseca (nee de Wael) admitted it "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving."

Fortunately for Oprah, the truth came out before the show she taped urging her audience to buy Misha was released.

"The single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air," Oprah called a Holocaust-era romance (notice a trend?) between Herman Rosenblat and his wife Roma. The couple's 1996 appearance on her show scored them deals for two books—leading to Oprah's latest embarrassment. Herman's story that his future wife had saved his life by tossing apples over a fence at Buchenwald were belied by historical accounts of the camp's layout.

Before the truth caught up with them, the Rosenblats' Oprah imprimatur also secured them a $25 million movie deal. The film is in production at this writing.

Oprah claims she was duped by greedy, lazy publishers. Yet her Web site still recommends the fake books by Frey and the Rosenblats. Even so, the problem isn't Oprah's credulousness. It's that she has atrocious taste. That, and a platform for promoting her bad taste.

Books picked by Oprah's Book Club sell in the millions. Once such title was Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road, a plodding and vacuous depiction of phony connectivity between father and son after something terrible—we never learn what—has happened. ("The Man" and "The Boy," he calls them. This passes for clever.) Like many of Oprah's picks, and like many of the titles promoted by such influential mainstream venues as The New York Times Book Review, it's a book written in the form of a good book—spare prose, brooding tone, and a good post-whatever societal meltdown—that is not actually good.

An excerpt:

"Are we going to die?

Sometime. Not now.

And we're still going south.

Yes.

So we'll be warm.

Yes.

OK.

OK what?

Nothing. Just okay.

Go to sleep.

OK.

I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that OK?"

Sure, it's OK. But only if you blow your brains out first. This tendentious crap won the friggin' Pulitzer friggin' Prize. It's going to be a movie. McCarthy is gonna make millions. And he sucks.

To which one might ask: so what?

Los Angeles Times book editor David L. Ulin weighed in when the Frey scandal broke. "Whatever [Frey's] intent, A Million Little Pieces clearly moved many readers—Oprah included—or it wouldn't have been as successful as it was," he wrote. "Why did it elicit such an emotional response, and is that response rendered invalid if its source is revealed to be a lie?"

Yes. It is. Of course. Because the readers were fools to have fallen for such tripe in the first place. First of all, because it was obviously untrue and second, because the writing was so bad. The problem isn't bad and dishonest writers. They can't help themselves. The problem is that mainstream American culture is gullible, sentimental and dumb.

No one is more blameworthy for Americans' stupidity than publishers and book reviewers who act as taste-makers. As in all creative pursuits, publishing exposure is a zero-sum game. Rising tides don't lift all boats; they're more like thrones than tides. A few titles suck the air out of the room as the rest wither and die due to lack of attention.

Each decision to review a bad book results in a better book going unreviewed, unnoticed, and its author unremunerated—and thus less likely to keep publishing. Each prize committee's decision to grant an award to a bad book takes away praise that might otherwise have drawn acclaim to a good one. When bad books do well, authors study what works in the marketplace and copy the formula, resulting in more bad books.

Readers who rely on popular hype to choose books often come away disappointed. A few may decide to dig deeper, but most won't. Burned readers become non-readers.

A few years ago, I read Robert Fisk's magisterial The Great War for Civilisation—The Conquest of the Middle East, in which the legendary war correspondent used a Pulp Fiction-like wrap-around structure to tie together personal and sweeping historical narratives of the West's 20th century relationship with the Middle East. It's a 1,136-page monster, yet I savored every sentence.

Everyone I know who has read it came away with the same impression. Yet The Great War never made the bestsellers list. It languishes at No. 43,498 on Amazon, the victim of book reviewers and media mavens who chose to ignore it in favor of dull, sentimental crap, some of which isn't even true. In case you were wondering, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World is No. 2 on The New York Times bestsellers list (nonfiction category, natch).

Imagine what the book world would look like if books like Fisk's tome or my current favorite, George C. Herring's monumental From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, were an Oprah's Book Club pick. Of course, that will never happen. Which is why, if Oprah truly cares about books, she'll stop trusting herself and her tastes and shut down her stupid book club.

Ted Rall is the author of To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? He draws cartoons and writes columns for Universal Press Syndicate.