The Story of O

No, this is not the French pornographic novel. It is a very American story. In one corner of the ring there she is, the TV-hostess-with-the-mostest, the queen of the ratings, the one and only ... Oprah Winfrey!

No, this is not the French pornographic novel. It is a very American story. In one corner of the ring there she is, the TV-hostess-with-the-mostest, the queen of the ratings, the one and only ... Oprah Winfrey! She is an entertainment industry unto herself, with her talk show and magazine "O," an offshoot of her TV activity.

Week in, week out, there she is, on the screen, interviewing, empathizing with her guests and audiences, celebrating popularity. More than three years ago, she decided to do something good for the book: She created a book club. Every month, she picks up a book she has read and liked. The publisher is notified, and immediately prints another couple hundred of copies emblazoned with the letter "O" on the cover, and the sales soar.

But this is only the beginning. The audience is prompted and cajoled to read the book, and a few lucky readers are invited for a televised dinner with Oprah and the author. Book club on live TV. The sales soar again.

Publishers love it: Here she is, the queen of the ratings, using her TV clout in the service of a good thing. And they have learned that there is no way to submit a book for her consideration and vie for her attention. She reads and chooses in her own mysterious ways. Nor are her choices strictly popular best-sellers to begin with (some are). Of her 42 choices up to now, there were three novels by Toni Morrison (who is also a personal friend), "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlinck (she turned it into a best-seller in the U.S.), and literary novels by the likes of Ursula Hegi or Wally Lamb. Even her harshest critics had to admit that this is good for the book and for literature. To say nothing of the fact that the TV program buys and donates 10,000 copies of each volume chosen to American libraries.

Thanks, but no thanks

And now, in the other corner of the ring, we see Jonathan Franzen, an esteemed author who just published his long-awaited novel "The Corrections" (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux). It is a family saga, with a father who has Parkinson's disease, a mother, two sons, one depressive and one repressive, and a daughter who seeks happiness. A total of 588 pages long (one of the reasons I have not read it yet), the novel got rave reviews across the board, and started a climb of its own on the best-sellers list.

But then, Oprah hit: She selected the book as her 43rd choice. The publisher went to print again and again, and there are now about 800,000 copies in print - a number virtually unheard of for a literary hardcover novel - most of them branded with "O."

Franzen himself was not amused or impressed. On the contrary. In several interviews, he tried to distance himself from the whole process. "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of a corporate ownership," he said. He even heard of people waiting in line for an autograph in bookstores putting down the book, being put off by the fact that it was an Oprah pick.

Franzen admitted that this choice confused him, and added that he and his publisher feel that the selection "does as much for her as it does for us." He also insinuated that Oprah does not really help the sales that much, as the book is on the list anyway, and the reviews are already in. But he was honest enough to admit that the selection "means a lot more money for me and my publisher."

Hell hath no fury like a TV hostess scorned. Franzen was "disinvited" for the televised dinner, says she, "because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen. It was never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we are moving to the next book."

The selection of the book was not canceled. Franzen tried to undo the damage, saying "I'm a writer, not a spokesman - because of my inexperience I expressed myself poorly or unwisely," but it was too late.

There is no necessary or inevitable contradiction between quality and popularity. A popular book may still be of excellent quality (cf, the Bible), and an ambitious literary achievement can make it on the best-seller lists (here the examples are quite rare), but in our literary world of marketing images and ratings, there is indeed a sort of conflict: Winfrey needs the literary prestige. Franzen, his prestige seemingly assured, can shun the TV marketing brouhaha. He may believe that his book is being bought only because of his glittering literary reputation, and not because he was branded with the golden "O." Who can tell which helped him and his publisher more?

As far as manners are concerned - well, he would not have wanted to belong to a club that would have accepted people like him. He got his wish.

Various versions of the same conflict abound everywhere, even in Israel. Here we do not have an Oprah equivalent (Dudu Topaz has not hit on the idea yet, thank God), but we do have a strictly commercial and successful publisher like Ram Oren, who offers writers publishing with his Keshet publishing house higher advances and royalties than any other publisher, commercial or literary. Consequently, books published by him sell well.

But in my humble opinion, it is no coincidence that an ambitious literary novel like Eleonoara Lev's "First Morning in Paradise" is never mentioned in the literary essays which deal with women's novels. It is tainted, as it were, with commercial success. Therefore, I was not surprised when Shifra Horn, whose latest novel was published by Oren (and sold extremely well), submitted her next manuscript anonymously, to another, literary, publishing house.

There is, with the literary cognoscenti, a distinct notion of the "ratings stigma." Nothing sucks like success, so they tell you - and cry all the way back from the bank.