Player is loading
One of the most important figures in American publishing, famous television host and billionaire Oprah Winfrey, turned 70 on Monday. In fact, Winfrey has been leading a very popular book club since 1996, that is, she actually organizes joint readings of the same book: first as part of the afternoon program The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired between 1986 and 2011, and subsequently on various media platforms. The books selected by Winfrey and suggested to her club regularly sell hundreds of thousands of copies (even millions in the past) and for this reason, since the 1990s, the phrase “Oprah effect” has been used to describe the commercial success of a volume you have selected.
In Italy there is something similar for the books discussed in “Che tempo che fa”, Fabio Fazio's interview program, although much smaller in scope and less systematic (for example, at this time Fratellino di Amet's Arzallus Antia is in the Ranking of best-selling books). and Ibrahima Balde, a 2021 book that Pope Francis mentioned during the broadcast two weeks ago). However, in the United States, receiving a call from Winfrey is one of the things that can change a writer's life and is unparalleled, although there are numerous other book clubs organized by famous people such as actress Reese Witherspoon. For this reason, considering that the US book market is the largest in the world, it can also be said that Winfrey's is the most influential reading group in the world.
Originally, the Oprah Winfrey Book Club was a monthly episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that the host dedicated to a book that had been announced weeks before, with the idea that viewers would read it in the meantime. These episodes began with a short documentary about the book's author and continued with a conversation between Winfrey, the author, and in some cases a small group of viewers who had written to the program saying they had read the book: within a month of it 10,000 letters even arrived. In general, the books were (and are) novels, and the conversations in the program were about the connection between the readers' lives and the story and the themes told, not literary questions.
After The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011, Winfrey continued the book group through her private television channel Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), her magazine O: The Oprah Magazine, various social networks and, between 2019 and 2021, a series broadcast on the streaming platform AppleTV. Since then there have been six books, rather than twelve, that he works on every year. If you look at all the selected books from 1996 to today, there are 103 in total. They are predominantly books written by women, many by African-American authors, like Winfrey herself, who grew up in a disadvantaged environment and has always tried to give writers visibility to those who are still discriminated against based on racial issues.
Winfrey has never taken advantage of the major book sales for which she deserves credit, nor has she accepted a publisher's suggestion to tackle a particular book, but she has always maintained that she is autonomous in her decisions. However, once he has decided which book he would like to write about, he contacts the publisher and the author to ensure that the bookstores have enough copies available in time for the reading group announcement. These copies are distributed with a special label indicating that they were selected by Winfrey so that the reader cannot be mistaken.
Usually the presenter chooses new books, but it also happens that she chooses classics or books that were published decades ago. In 2000, he chose The Bluest Eye, the debut novel by the writer Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993: when it was published, the book had sold around two thousand copies; after Winfrey's choice, the figure was 800,000. In 2004, he suggested Anna Karenina by the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, a 19th-century novel.
In both of these cases, we are talking about literary books written by authors who have been considered important by critics, and not just the only books of that genre that Winfrey has selected over the years. Among the authors she interviewed for her book club was the notoriously reticent Cormac McCarthy, who gave the host one of his rare, largely monosyllabic interviews after she selected his 2007 novel The Road in the Club.
Things had gone even worse for Jonathan Franzen, at least initially. In 2001, Winfrey decided to suggest reading The Corrections, the novel that made him famous. However, in a series of subsequent interviews, the author said that the books normally discussed on the show were “sentimental” and “one-dimensional”: Winfrey then withdrew her invitation to take part in the show. However, over time the issue was resolved and in 2010 Franzen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss his next novel, Freedom.
Over the years, there has been controversy surrounding the books Winfrey chose. The main one is from 2006 and is about “In a Million Little Pieces,” an autobiographical book by James Frey about his alcoholism, substance addiction and criminal experiences before a stint in prison and then a recovery center. The book sold more than two million copies, but the widespread attention it attracted led to the discovery that it contained many untrue parts: Winfrey was criticized for this and so she asked Frey to respond to the accusation in her to have lied on show. On this occasion he sharply confronted both the author and his publisher Nan Talese about the decision to sell the book as a memoir.
Most recently, in 2020, Winfrey was criticized for choosing “The Salt of the Earth” by Jeanine Cummins, a novel about the story of emigration from Mexico to the United States. Many intellectuals of Mexican descent had disputed the novel, considering it inaccurate and stereotypical in its description of Mexico and Mexicans, and questioned the right (and ability) of a white American writer like Cummins to tell such a story. Winfrey, who was running her book club on Apple TV at the time, tried to resolve the issue by inviting some of the intellectuals who had criticized the book's choice onto the show.