What Oprah Likes: Anathema or Must-Have?

16 May

by Savannah J. Foley


I recently saw someone online who could be classified as a ‘hipster’, ranting about how he would never read anything on Oprah’s book list, and looked down on those who do.

Now, we all know the stereotype: Suburban housewife who loves soap operas and celebrity gossip shows, crying when she watches Lifetime and breathlessly waiting for the next book in Oprah’s book club to be announced so she can meet up with her fellow soccer moms for ‘book club’ and complain about how they haven’t had time to read that week’s chapter.

But that stereotype isn’t true for a lot of readers. So why, when I was writing my review of  A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, did I choose to decline to mention that Oprah had listed it as one of ’10 to Watch For’ in her magazine, O, in February 2010?

Is an endorsement from the queen of daytime television a prize or an albatross?

Let’s take a look at other books Oprah has recommended:

  • The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
  • Night, by Elie Wiesel
  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Euginedes
  • A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

What’s so special about these five books? I’ve read them. I enjoyed them. The Bluest Eye is even one of my most favorite books of all time.

So… do I lose my street cred for this? (Do writers even have street cred?)

What if I told you that she’d also recommended The Hunger Games, in a list of books to steal from your teenager? Along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Number the Stars, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Hatchet?

The woman has an eye for good quality fiction, no doubt about it. So the argument isn’t ‘why would you read any of the crappy books on Oprah’s list’ but rather ‘why would you read something that’s so popular Oprah endorses it?’

In essence, why are you so mainstream?

‘Mainstream’ has a negative connotation. It means ‘everyone’s doing it.’ It’s popular. It’s easily accessible.

It’s… bad?

Recently I was reading in the New Yorker -Oh, side note: I get the New Yorker. Does that make me pretentious? Or is it such a popular magazine that it makes me mainstream? Does it matter that I got a wicked deal on my subscription, $25 for one magazine a week for the whole year, or I never would have signed up? Does it matter if that matters?

Anyway, I was reading an article in the New Yorker explaining the phenomenon of hipsters, and the author gave a definition/origin I hadn’t heard before: Hipsterism came about when individuals made an effort to partake of a culture that wasn’t mass-manufactured, that felt more organically developed and authentic.

And, you know, I get that attitude. Don’t create me a product line to tell me what I’m going to be into next. I’d much rather figure out what I’m into on my own.

But then the hipster movement turned into a quest to find things that no one else knew about; to be ‘into’ something before every other alternative-seeker was into it, because at that point the product would be mass-manufactured and become ‘mainstream’.

But books aren’t mass-manufactured. Not in terms of ideas. A team of executives doesn’t get together and get market data for their target consumer and pay a team of engineers a lot of money to design an appealing product (unless you work for James Frey). No, each book starts out as a love project, a spark of inspiration in the writer’s mind. Are there trend-chasers? Sure. But you can tell which books chased a trend, can’t you? No one’s going to put them on a Top 10 list.

So I’m not sure that books should fit into a hipster’s worldview on mainstreamism. Oprah didn’t design the books to appeal to her audience; she selected beautiful, humanity-filled, enriching works of art.

So nobody should feel ashamed to be reading something on Oprah’s list. Personally, when I see a book with an Oprah’s choice sticker, I get an immediate impression about the book: it’s good.

But why take pride in reading only Oprah’s choices, or reading only Oprah’s non-choices? Just read what you like, and if you have a source that weeds out a lot of flak for you, more power to you.

What do you think? Should who else likes books that you like affect your opinion of a book?


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal. She is currently working on editing Nameless to go out on submissions. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here.


30 Responses to “What Oprah Likes: Anathema or Must-Have?”

  1. Ashley May 16, 2011 at 1:08 AM #

    Hey Savannah!

    I have street cred regardless 😉

    But yes, I feel its stupid to say that reading books from Oprah’s book list is being mainstream, and sheepish. I read the Bluest Eye and most of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison’s books before I found out Oprah was also a fan.

    As far as I’m concern, we are all readers of books. No reader, whatever they choose to read, is better than another. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley May 16, 2011 at 7:40 AM #

      I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan. Even if Charlie Sheen, Taylor Swift, and Ke$ha all started raving about Toni, I would still read her in public. Because her books are awesome, no matter what anyone else says or endorses.

  2. Marina May 16, 2011 at 1:14 AM #

    Wholeheartedly agree with this. I mean sure, sometimes you can tell something about a person by what they’re reading, but it’s not going to define them. Because interests vary and while I may read The Count of Monte Cristo at on time, you might see me reading a trashy novel for the fun of it. What people don’t get, not just hipsters, per say, is that there’s no such thing as a bad book. There are worse books than others, but if we only had literature (first, how would we define it) to read, then I bet a lot more people would be put off by reading. Sometimes, you just need something dumb to read. It’s refreshing. But judging books just because they appeared on someone else’s To Read List? Stephenie Meyer recommended Hunger Games, an amazing series, which is why it gained the attention it deserved, and became so popular, what if she never did? And I’m only picking her because a lot of people nowadays don’t have a very good opinion of her. All these books deserve more attention, and if that’s too mainstream then they can go read Mein Keimf.

    • savannahjfoley May 16, 2011 at 7:41 AM #

      It’s true that I do often ‘judge’ people by what they read (in an interview for a position that’s close to me I asked all the candidates what their favorite book was), but I’ll also go out and read all the Twilight books and Snooki’s book and even some of the James Frey books. Just to know.

  3. Meagan Spooner May 16, 2011 at 1:16 AM #

    I admit that hype often has the opposite effect on me–I often steer clear of the books everyone’s reading, out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes this proves to be a wise decision, because the hype is just that–all hype, no substance–but sometimes it means that when I finally cave and read it, I go “What was I waiting for?”

    There are actually quite a few books, especially lately, that start out as an idea with the publisher that gets farmed out to a writer who’s either been published by them before, or has caught their eye in some other way. A lot of publishers are changing to incorporate this method of producing books, not to necessarily replace publishing writers’ “babies,” but to supplement it.

    • savannahjfoley May 16, 2011 at 7:39 AM #

      I agree. It’s kind of funny, I was debating which post to post last night, the one about Oprah or the one called ‘Contrarianism. I have it.’ about how I try to make my characters/writing less like ‘everything else’ that’s out there.

    • Rowenna May 16, 2011 at 9:22 AM #

      Meagan–I do this too! I wouldn’t read Harry Potter until this year, and I held out on Hunger Games. For some reason I think if I read it while it’s on high hype, I’ll be disappointed. And who knows? Maybe I would have been. Needless to say, with these, I wasn’t 😛

      • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:40 PM #

        I understand how you feel, but it’s so weird to think that someone would have been reluctant to read HP because of the hype!

  4. Ashley May 16, 2011 at 1:25 AM #

    I’m the same as you Meagan. I subconsciously refuse to read books and even watch films that have a lot of hype around them until they’re virtually forgotten about. Maybe it’s the hipster in me. 😛

    But still everyone has the right to read whatever they want.

    • savannahjfoley May 16, 2011 at 7:43 AM #

      I know what you mean; you don’t want to be another fan swooning over the latest product. But I get caught between wanting to enjoy something I know I would, and wanting to not be ‘one of those people’. Because I can enjoy just about anything.

  5. Carol May 16, 2011 at 8:07 AM #

    No one influences what books I read…not in the past, not in the present or will in the future. I’ve read some Oprah recommendations and loved them, I’ve read others and couldn’t even finish them. Often I will put off reading a wildly popular title that publishers and reviewers say is a ‘must read’ as I’ve read many of these alleged ‘must reads’ and been disillusioned…it didn’t live up to the hype for me. Too much hype about a book makes me suspicious…okay maybe I’m a tad cynical:) I put off reading the Harry Potter series because of all the hoopla about it but finally gave in. That was definitely NOT a disappointment!! JK Rowling had me at platform 9 3/4…I loved these books:) Got some raised eyebrows from certain people for reading a children’s book (as an adult)…some people cannot ever stop being ‘adults’ even for a nano second and simply enjoy a book for the great read it is!

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:41 PM #

      There have been some books I couldn’t even finish, but usually hype at least makes me seek out what the book’s about.

      All people should read HP, not just kids! Read it proudly!

  6. Susan May 16, 2011 at 8:18 AM #

    Nice post, Sav! I don’t pay much attention to books on Oprah’s list, but I’ve loved quite a few that made it there. It makes me happy that she’s spreading the books around to other readers! And…as much as I hate to admit it, I’ll buy a book because of hype–just to see if I think it meets up. Heck, I read DA VINCI CODE for that reason. ::blushes fiercely::

    One thing: there actually ARE a lot of books made by marketing teams. That’s what book packagers are for–not to mention ghost writers. 🙂 One of my FAVORITE series growing up was (I was devastated to learn) produced by many different authors all wearing the moniker Carolyn Keene. It’s a totally different kind of creativity when you think about it: producing something with strict requirements and on strict deadlines–there’s no WAY I could do it!

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:42 PM #

      Lol I had a blast with the Da Vinci Code at the time. No shame!

      You are right about the marketing teams; when I was writing this it was really late and I was drawing a blank, lol.

  7. Maya May 16, 2011 at 9:26 AM #

    Great post! I totally agree (and the New Yorker is excellent). I think most people don’t want to have someone else’s opinion about a book change theirs, but it’s an unconscious change in thought that when you hear a bad review about a book, you’re less likely to pick it up yourself. I do have a few people (mostly bloggers) that are my go-to people for finding a good book, but mostly I rely on myself. If I’m at the store or the library, I try to read the first page or two of a book before I take it with me. If not, I read a million reviews on blogs to see if it’s worth it.

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:42 PM #

      I’m a little disappointed by the New Yorker lately because they’re posting a lot of depressing middle-aged fiction where people are stuck in ennui, and I hate that kind of thing. But otherwise I like their articles.

      • Maya May 16, 2011 at 9:57 PM #

        That seems to be a popular sort of story to be published now, no idea why. I’d rather read something where the people actually grow somehow, but hey, we’re young and apparently that changes things. :/

        • Savannah J. Foley May 17, 2011 at 3:49 PM #

          That’s also kinda what I’m worried about… if that’s how everyone feels when they’re older, then that completely sucks. I hope it’s not true!

          • Maya May 17, 2011 at 7:01 PM #

            Maybe it’s just Baby Boomer mentality, so those of us in the younger generation are saved? Or smarter? Or something, I’m not sure but I won’t be dragged down with ’em.

            • Savannah J. Foley May 18, 2011 at 11:36 AM #

              I think that our generations have different values in terms of what is important. I get the feeling that the previous generations wanted to ‘do it all’ and then found that wasn’t what they really wanted. I feel like our generation is more out to find their place in the world and what really makes them happy.

  8. Rowenna May 16, 2011 at 9:31 AM #

    Great post! You know, I think it also boils down to how people feel about Oprah–which is funny, because I’m not really a fan, but I can respect her intelligence and her taste. She didn’t get to be a cultural phenom without having intelligence and taste 🙂 Anywho–I think she approached recommending these books less like a marketting exec and more like a trusted friend–her fans felt a kinship with her, and picked up what she recommended in the same way they would if your best friend said “OMG, you HAVE to read this.” It was based on her likes and dislikes–not what might sell.

    I have a lot more respect for Oprah’s book choices since she’s cast so wide a net–if they were all recent releases, all women’s fiction, all any one catchall, I’d roll my eyes a little. But how many people have delved into the classics she’s suggested who might not have moved into them otherwise? Not to mention–she’s encouraging reading. I don’t care who or how or what means, if people are encouraged to read, that’s cool. I like to think that people who may not have chosen reading as a pasttime got into it because of Oprah…and then launched on their own from there.

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:44 PM #

      You’re absolutely right. And I think that Oprah’s book choosing process has been very ‘honest’. By that I mean that I don’t think she’s ever selected a book that she didn’t love, or with an agenda.

  9. Alex May 16, 2011 at 11:40 AM #

    I’ll admit, I conform on certain things. And sometimes, books are one of them. The way it’s been in school as long as I’ve been attending , it’s been the mainstream NOT to read books for fun. But I have no problem asking a friend for a recommendation, for something that i wouldn’t normally read or be exposed to, and I’ll even turn to a book list if I’m at at a loss for what to read next. I don’t consider that conforming; I see it as looking for a good book to read. And even if I do conform, so what? Yeah, I read The Help while it was on the NY Times Best Seller List. My grandmother recommended it to me. And she probably got it off of a book list. Does that make the book any less good? I read because I love to read. I don’t think about conforming while I do it. And if I do, so what? Does that make me a horrible person? Or any less original of a person? If it does, so be it. I’ll keep on reading anyways.

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:49 PM #

      I ask for book recommendations all the time on my blog. It really shows you how different people’s tastes are. As time goes on I seek out more reviews for a book so I know if it’s worth my time, because there are so many good ones out there, and in the industry I see good, new books all the time now.

  10. Aya Tsintziras May 16, 2011 at 1:38 PM #

    Great post! I think that what Oprah is doing mostly is spreading the word about books she loves, which is always a positive thing for the author. I’d say that if someone picks up a book endorsed by Oprah simply BECAUSE Oprah endorsed it, then that’s okay too, because then maybe they’ll have a new favourite book they wouldn’t have read otherwise.

    Also, I love that you said most books start out as a “love project.”

    • Savannah J. Foley May 16, 2011 at 1:50 PM #

      🙂 I don’t understand why anyone would have problems with books on Oprah’s list. Either way it’s getting the good word out.

  11. laradunning May 16, 2011 at 6:21 PM #

    The Good Earth is one of my favorite books! I didn’t even know it was on Oprah’s list. I read it, cause I was interested in Asian culture. The list is really just a guide, no matter who writes it, its up to the reader to pick and choose what they want to read. Not reading a book because it was on Oprah’s list just doesn’t make sense to me. You might miss out on some really good books.

    • savannahjfoley May 16, 2011 at 6:49 PM #

      It’s on my top 20 list as well.

  12. Caitlin Vanasse May 16, 2011 at 6:56 PM #

    Great post Savannah! I totally judge people based on their book selections, but not so much in a “Are you cool” way and more in a “will we be able to talk about books we like together” way. I’m much meaner about judging people based on the movies they watch/like.

    When it comes to what I read I cast a pretty wide net when looking for books, but if a book is personally recommended to me by a friend or someone I trust (and if I can pretty easily get my hands on a copy) it shoots to the top of my to-read list.

    • Savannah J. Foley May 17, 2011 at 3:50 PM #

      That’s a great point about the judging about books. I’ll let books slide, and even movies, but television shows are truly indicative of a person, I think.

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