In a chapter from The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism, Ted Striphas considers the powerful impact that Oprah Winfrey’s book club has had not only in shaping what readers’ choices but also their relationship to books and reading.
As many of us remember the role of Oprah and her book club as a cultural arbiter was highlighted during the highly publicized incidents surround Jonathan Franzen’s reluctance to have The Corrections selected for the club and James Frey’s admission that his book A Million Little Pieces was filled with inaccuracies. Now of course, the Frey incident is back in the headlines after Oprah apologized for chastising him on the show.
On his blog, also called The Late Age of Print, Striphas reconsiders the meaning of the Winfrey-Frey brouhaha:
There’s something profoundly anthropological about the Frey controversy. It is as if Frey’s lies fundamentally breached the book club’s cosmic order. To repair the damage, high priestess Winfrey needed to sacrifice or cast out the offending party, which of course she did. Homeostasis only would be restored in the community years later, after Frey was redeemed through a kind of purification ritual. Okay, so it was in Vanity Fair, but you get the point. (Would that he appeared for a third time on The Oprah Winfrey Show!)
What all this suggests to me is that Oprah Winfrey hasn’t just produced a talk show, a book club, a magazine, or even a brand name. Around her there has arisen a unique system of valuation, a distinctive array of artifacts, and a discernible set of practices and social identifications. In other words, what she’s produced is a bona fide culture.
The term “cultural producer” often is used to describe pretty much anyone who makes stuff — which is to say, it’s an awfully overapplied term in the age of blogs, YouTube, and more. What the whole Frey fiasco shows us is that Wifrey is one of the few entities who genuinely deserves the name.