Dear Oprah Winfrey,
We writers want to say thank you.
When you established The Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 1996, you did something very bold, something that no one else has done. You declared that every person--anyone who could turn on a TV set--could be part of the literary world and enjoy it. You declared that anyone could like good books.
Your Book Club brought contemporary novels to eager readers, and your show gave the audience a way to look at the issues that literature addresses. You led many people to read fiction who might not have done so otherwise. You expanded people's sense of what they dared to read, and you added depth and diversity to America's reading list. You encouraged people to tackle difficult contemporary novels, like The Reader, and Song of Solomon and Breath, Eyes, Memory. Throughout the country, people from all walks of life came together to talk about books, thus finding their way into the long and distinguished tradition of literary discussion.
But there's something more we want to say.
In the publishing world, there's a widely-held belief that the landscape of literary fiction is now a gloomy place. The terrorist attacks of September, 2001 are often cited as the beginning of a great downward shift. After that, we've been told, fiction sales flattened. After that, we've been told, the American public lost its taste for literary fiction.
However, the writer M. J. Rose, a novelist and long-time reporter on publishing news, has noticed something different. Her research suggests that the drastic downward shift actually happened six months after the attacks: fiction sales really began to plummet when the The Oprah Winfrey Book Club went off the air. When you stopped featuring contemporary authors on your program, Book Club members stopped buying new fiction, and this changed the face of American publishing. This phenomenon was a testament to the quality of your programs, the scope of your influence, and the amazing credibility you possess among loyal Book Club readers.
Sales figures, in the context of the literary market, do not merely reflect profits; they are an indicator of literacy as well. A country in which ordinary people flock to bookstores to buy the latest talked-about work of fiction is a vibrantly literate country. Every month your show sent hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women, who are the largest group of literary fiction readers) into bookstores. The contemporary books you chose sold between 650,000 and 1,200,000 copies apiece. Each Oprah selection gave readers a title to investigate and a subject to explore. Importantly, your Book Club also gave readers a chance to see these authors on the air and to hear their words. Not only books but the writers themselves became accessible to everyone, inviting all readers into the community of literature.
Few people have taken advantage of the extravagant scope and power of television to do good. But you have. From the start, you used your role in the media to encourage literacy, thought and intellectual curiosity. You made yourself a champion of contemporary fiction. You tempted publishers to take chances on new writers, for whom you became a beacon of hope. First novelists and literary authors felt emboldened to write because of the outside chance that an editor would see their work as potential Book Club material. You dared to take contemporary literary fiction seriously, and your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear.
For all of this, Oprah Winfrey, we are immensely grateful. We'd like to thank you for welcoming readers into the world of the literary imagination. We'd like to thank you for being an advocate of Great Books such as East of Eden, Anna Karenina and One Hundred Years of Solitude. We'd like to thank you for bringing an array of contemporary writers--first novelists and prizewinners, famous or little known--face-to-face with their readers.
We'd also like to make a request: We'd like to ask that you consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers in your Book Club.
The American literary landscape is in distress. Sales of contemporary fiction are still falling, and so are the numbers of people who are reading. Readers complain that, although daunting numbers of new books are published, too few of them are brought to the public's attention in a meaningful way. Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you. America needs a strong voice that addresses everyone who can read, a voice that will say, "Let's explore the books that are coming out today. Let's see what moves us, what delights us, what speaks to us in a way that only fiction does."
Oprah Winfrey, we wish you'd come back.
With best wishes,
Word of Mouth, An Association of Women Authors