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A Dialectic With the Everyday: Communication & Cultural Politics on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club
Unformatted Document Text:  Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 5 “No Dictionary Required” To some critics, Oprah Winfrey’s emergence as a key arbiter of cultural value and authority in the U.S. borders on absurdity. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, recently claimed (through a thinly disguised veil of indignation) that “no dictionary is required for most” Oprah’s Book Club selections, “nor is an appreciation for ambiguity or abstract ideas. The biggest literacy challenge of some Oprah books is their length” (Crossen, 2001, p. W15.). As the primary spokesperson for the Club, the Journal took Winfrey to task for failing to challenge readers with the apparent literariness of Book Club selections, or, alternatively, for failing to challenge readers with titles that were sufficiently literary at all. What the Journal failed to acknowledge, however, is that the success of Oprah’s Book Club was built on both Winfrey and Book Club participants’ purposefully sidestepping discussions of “abstract ideas” and purely aesthetic concerns in favor of articulating a fundamentally different economy of cultural value with respect to books and book reading. Admittedly, the televised Book Club discussions tended to shy away from even the most basic vocabulary employed in literary criticism, including tone, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, allusion, and so forth. The Wall Street Journal was right to point out that page length was a more important criterion whereby titles regularly were chosen for the Club. Indeed, almost every on air announcement of new Oprah’s Book Club selections included at least some mention of the book’s total number of pages. Yet, in dismissing Winfrey for privileging the length of Book Club selections over their putatively more important “literary” qualities, the Journal completely failed to consider why page length played a role in the selection process and how it was made to work strategically for The Oprah Winfrey Show’s predominantly female viewing audience. The selection of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible provides a telling case in point. When Winfrey announced the book in June 2000, just prior to The Oprah Winfrey Show’s summer recess, she began by describing it as “a walapalooza of a book.” “It’s 500 and some pages,” Winfrey continued. “[A]ctually, it’s – yeah, 546, 546, which is wonderful for the summer, because I didn’t want you to, like, just breeze through it and then have to complain to me because you didn’t have

Authors: Striphas, Theodore.
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Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 5
“No Dictionary Required”
To some critics, Oprah Winfrey’s emergence as a key arbiter of cultural value and authority
in the U.S. borders on absurdity. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, recently claimed (through a
thinly disguised veil of indignation) that “no dictionary is required for most” Oprah’s Book Club
selections, “nor is an appreciation for ambiguity or abstract ideas. The biggest literacy challenge of
some Oprah books is their length” (Crossen, 2001, p. W15.). As the primary spokesperson for the
Club, the Journal took Winfrey to task for failing to challenge readers with the apparent literariness of
Book Club selections, or, alternatively, for failing to challenge readers with titles that were sufficiently
literary at all. What the Journal failed to acknowledge, however, is that the success of Oprah’s Book
Club was built on both Winfrey and Book Club participants’ purposefully sidestepping discussions of
“abstract ideas” and purely aesthetic concerns in favor of articulating a fundamentally different
economy of cultural value with respect to books and book reading.
Admittedly, the televised Book Club discussions tended to shy away from even the most basic
vocabulary employed in literary criticism, including tone, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, allusion,
and so forth. The Wall Street Journal was right to point out that page length was a more important
criterion whereby titles regularly were chosen for the Club. Indeed, almost every on air announcement
of new Oprah’s Book Club selections included at least some mention of the book’s total number of
pages. Yet, in dismissing Winfrey for privileging the length of Book Club selections over their
putatively more important “literary” qualities, the Journal completely failed to consider why page
length played a role in the selection process and how it was made to work strategically for The Oprah
Winfrey Show’s predominantly female viewing audience.
The selection of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible provides a telling case in point.
When Winfrey announced the book in June 2000, just prior to The Oprah Winfrey Show’s summer
recess, she began by describing it as “a walapalooza of a book.” “It’s 500 and some pages,” Winfrey
continued. “[A]ctually, it’s – yeah, 546, 546, which is wonderful for the summer, because I didn’t
want you to, like, just breeze through it and then have to complain to me because you didn’t have


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