Oprah launched her famous book club in September 1996 with The Deep End of the Ocean by debut novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard. Since then, a sticker bearing this tastemaker’s name can ensure major book sales and placement on bestseller lists. All it took was Oprah Winfrey gushing about it.
When you look at the complete list, you can see how wide the range of her choices can be. But somehow, The Oprah Book Club has gotten a reputation for being “chick lit.” We think this rep does the list a major disservice, because her picks were actually a lot more bad-ass than that. Allow us to explain:
1. When she got adults reading the classics.
Oprah’s list of books includes authors like John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, part of the old white dude canon that a lot of us had to read in school. But these are authors who also do not write easy books. They require some thought and reflection and cover themes relating to race and class and trauma. Probably many were bored to tears by Of Mice and Men at some point in school, but Oprah recommending the book inspired a lot of people to give it a second chance.
2. When she recommended Toni Morrison.
There are 4 Morrison books that were recommended in the book club’s original run: Song of Solomon, Paradise, The Bluest Eye, and Sula. These are novels with complex characters and women acting against societal expectations, and they each touch on themes of race, family, and community. Again, not easy books. Morrison may be one of our greatest living American writers, and the fact that Oprah got so many people reading those books—and Paradise is not an easy read in terms of themes or language—is remarkable.
3. When she vaulted women’s fiction into literary canon.
Oprah brought to her fans a number of tremendous books by women writers that focus primarily on female characters. It’s still the case that a lot of fiction about women by women writers gets slapped with a pink cover and shelved somewhere beyond the “literature” section, but Oprah put women writers on the same shelf as the likes of Jonathan Franzen. She introduced her fans to writers like Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth Berg, and Anita Shreve, who wrote beautiful novels about women and family and relationships.
4. When she got us to read outside our borders.
Oprah’s books were not limited to American writers. They weren’t limited to stories about white people or straight people, either. Some of the authors Oprah chose were brilliant but also far enough outside the mainstream they probably wouldn’t have been found otherwise. She introduced readers to books by authors like Edwidge Danticat and Pearl Cleage and Jeffrey Eugenides, who were telling stories different from the mainstream.
5. When a bunch of books she promoted were made into movies.
Where the Heart Is, The Reader, and House of Sand and Fog to name a few.
6. When she basically chose the next literary superstars.
Oprah’s book club picks included books by the aforementioned Franzen and Eugenides, and also Cormac McCarthy and others. Authors of books Oprah chose went on to be literary darlings in certain circles.
The literary establishment may have mocked the Oprah label, or it may seem like a boon to authors who suddenly sold thousands of books they would not have otherwise, but the real impact of Oprah’s Book Club is that it got many, many people to read books that are challenging, romantic, dramatic, emotional, and interesting. So, you're welcome, world!