I was not an Oprah fan until she founded her book club in 1996. As a passionate reader and reviewer, I loved the idea of a celebrity promoting books. And I admired her choices, among them Wally Lamb’s I Know This Thing Is True, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World.
Oprah chose a certain kind of issue-oriented literary fiction. Novels had to deal with schizophrenia, adultery, incest, or some other daytime talk-show issue. Not everyone applauded the book club. A friend with a Ph.D. asked me why Oprah should choose our reading. She believed a PR person selected the books (possibly true) and that people bought but did not read them. She thought I was too gullible; I thought she was too serious.
When Oprah tired of contemporary novels, she started a classics book club. Do you remember the summer of Faulkner? I heard the boxed set of three Faulkner novels did not sell well. No PR person would have been happy with that summer choice!
Now we have a glut of celebrity book clubs and celebrity book imprints. Sarah Jessica Parker has her own imprint at Hogarth, SJP, and this summer published her first book, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (which has garnered rave reviews). The highly intelligent actress/writer Lena Dunham and producer/director Jenni Konner have their own imprint at Random House, Lenny Books. And then there are the celebrity book clubs: Reese Witherspoon has a book club, Hello Sunshine; Emma Watson has a feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf; Emma Roberts has a book club, Belletrist; and Sarah Jessica Parker has SJP Picks at ALA Book Central.
This PR trick sells thousands of books, but it also speaks to our times. Are we so shallow that we want beautiful actresses to run our book clubs? There are thousands of book clubs, some run by experts, others by enthusiasts. I have belonged to both kinds, but the best leaders are experts in their subject.
Would Marilyn Monroe, who read widely, run a book club now? Would Jean Seberg, a reader and a radical, have published her own book imprint?
These are very strange times.