This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

May 6, 2002 — I thought she'd never leave.

You know who I'm talking about — Oprah.

The thing is, it seems there were a lot of people who couldn't wait for her to close down her book club and get out of Lit City.

No sooner does Winfrey announce she's closing up Oprah's Book Club than does the book industry launch a righteous, rip–snorting mockery of her for her parting comments about there not being enough "compelling" books. Not enough compelling books? they howled. IN ALL OF RECORDED HISTORY? Clearly, the remark revealed that Winfrey didn't have the brainpower for the job.

Her declining sales influence confirmed it, said others. She was making such poor selections that it had gotten to the point where her imprimatur only guaranteed a book a rise in sales of a measly three or four hundred thousand copies.

But not to fear — it wasn't long at all before a series of intellectuals stood up on behalf of the American book industry to announce that they were going to host book clubs that would feature something a tad smarter than those dim–witted Toni Morrison books, or the books written by obscure Canadians, that Winfrey favored.

For example, just two days after Winfrey's sayonara, a press release announced that Katie "Cute as a Button" Couric and Matt "Cute as a Couric" Lauer would host a new book club on the NBC "Today" show, just as soon as they could build a new set that looked like a library.

Then USA Today announced it planned to host a book club, too, as soon as editors could figure out how to represent multi–syllabic words with colorful charts.

Then Kelly Ripa, who replaced Kathie Lee Gifford as resident egghead and sidekick to the immortal Regis Philbin on what is now known as the "Live with Regis and Kelly" program, announced she was going to spotlight books, too, just as soon as she figured out how to open one of the dern things.

And just like that, it was Oprah Who? Because not only did those book clubs promise, they delivered.

Yes, the first results are coming in and they are impressive.

According to the New York Post, the day after Ripa announced that her first choice was the thought–provoking "If Looks Could Kill," a murder mystery by Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, the book shot up from number 7,000 on's bestseller list to number 7. The book's publisher, Warner Books, immediately ordered 25,000 more copies printed. The next day, the A.P. reported the book had climbed to number 4. Warner ordered another 50,000 copies.

Meanwhile, the intelligentsia ruling USA Today made a difficult but discerning choice, too, and one that, happily, gave another formerly obscure writer a leg up. After considerable thought, one Friday they announced they'd chosen the book that had won that most obscure of all literary prizes, the Pulitzer Prize, the previous Monday: Richard Russo's "Empire Falls." According to the Associated Press, the book's paperback publisher, Vintage, is giving all the credit to USA Today for driving the book into its sixth printing and bringing it up to 285,000 copies in print.

Over at the Today show, they're still building the library set, but you can sense the industry–wide tingling about which hidden treasure Matt and Katie will rescue from the dustbin. My bet: "The Greatest Generation," by their own former host, Tom Brokaw. In case you've never heard of it, it's a book about World War II.

Which is all great news for the book industry — God knows, these are all worthy books that would have gone absolutely no where without some help from literary champions such as Ripa, Lauder, and Al Neuharth. No use promoting the kind of wide variety of books Winfrey got behind when you can consolidate things and promote the same books the conglomerate publishers and chain booksellers have already decided to promote most heavily. This way, things are a lot less confusing.

In fact, I am so impressed by the lockstep now overtaking the industry that I have rethought my own decision to launch "Dennis' Book Club."

I must admit I was fantasizing about seeing little "DBC" stickers on book jackets.

However, now I realize that my tastes are as out of step with the mainstream as, well, Oprah Winfrey's. I'm so embarrassed I won't even tell you what my first choice was going to be.

But say, have you ever noticed what a great coaster the Encyclopedia Britannica makes?

Last Week’s Column: MEN OF (MONOGRAMMED) LETTERS A fashion spread in the New York Times magazine features some well knkown "literary" authors wearing $2,000 sport coats. Is this advancing their art?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.