Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 28,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Oates: No. 1 Best Seller
Thanks to the inspired magic of Oprah Winfrey and the
predictable power of television, America’s book business has taken
on a distinctly fairy-tale character. Oprah’s Book Club, launched
in September, 1996, set out to bring one book each month before
viewers. It landed with a splash when the club’s first selection,
"The Deep End of the Ocean" by first-time author Jacqueline
Mitchard, sold almost a million copies.
Now "We Were the Mulvaneys," Joyce Carol Oates’ 1996 elegiac
novel about a loving family brought to ruin by a teenager’s assault,
has been selected as Oprah’s February selection. Oates, who read from
the novel and took questions from a robust audience at Barnes and
Noble in MarketFair last week, appears on the Oprah show in March
to make some of the same observations before an immeasurably larger
audience of TV viewers.
This week "We Were the Mulvaneys" is in the Number One spot
on the New York Times paperback best seller list, a spot it has also
risen to this month at the Washington Post, the San Francisco
Publishers Weekly, and Booksense, the association of independent
Brant Janeway, publicity manager for Plume Books, which sells the
$13.95 paperback edition of "We Were the Mulvaneys," reports
that since Winfrey’s January 24 selection, over 1.1 million copies
of the trade paperback have been printed. At the same time, Dutton
sent the 1996 hardback edition back to press,in a print run of 5,000
($24.95), a substantial reprint for a four-year-old book.
Back in 1998, when Toni Morrison’s "Paradise" was Oprah’s
February selection, visiting British culture critic Lisa Jardine
"There’s a brand new set of feisty book buyers out there, with
strong opinions of their own, and a shared new reading experience.
They are going to alter the literary landscape forever" (U.S.
1, February 25, 1998).
In a telephone interview from her home studio in Hopewell last week,
Oates, preparing to fly to Chicago for the show’s taping,
Oprah’s Book Club is "very distinctive from the
literary establishment in New York where there is no readers’
whatsoever," says Oates. "It’s the newspapers, magazines,
and periodicals that write about the books, make judgments, criticize,
and assess them. These are self-displaying critics, and there is no
interest in readers’ opinions whatsoever.
"It seems to me in the United States there’s a strong literary
establishment. It’s based in New York City and it’s male dominated
— and has always been male dominated. Authors who are celebrated
and read and given all the media attention are male, mostly. There
may be an exception, like Toni Morrison, who, because she won the
Nobel Prize, was added to that group. That’s comparable to the people
who grudgingly admitted that Emily Dickinson was a 19th-century poet
of merit. She’s more than that: she’s the best 19th-century poet.
"Now the Oprah phenomenon is populist and democratic and tends
to be a woman-oriented phenomenon. In the literary establishment,
the focus is on the figures of male writers and no matter what they
do, they are honored and they win prizes. With Oprah, the focus is
on an individual book, not on personality.
"There seems to be a historic shift in the power that these
have made. It’s analogous with the shift in power we experienced in
the mid-19th century when women began writing and publishing and
books by the hundreds and thousands — authors like Mrs.
Mrs. Warner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Their novels were bought
by women and widely read. So I think we’re seeing something similar
Oates’ big fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe, titled
and published last year, brought her a considerable amount of
both positive and negative. It also brought the largest quantity of
reader mail she has received over the course of her career, a
that could be linked to the new interest on reader opinion. But now
Oates is deeply involved in a new book. We ask if she has difficulty
re-focusing attention back to "We Were the Mulvaneys."
"The novel is very fresh in my memory because it has so much in
it from my own background," she replies immediately. "It’s
very vivid for me. The distinction between my new work and `The
is between a landscape that’s blurred and misty and dreamy and the
other one that is very clear, that I can go back to at will."
Reader response is plentiful on the Oprah Winfrey website
where more than 200 readers have posted questions and comments about
"We Were the Mulvaneys." Readers are reacting particularly
strongly to what Oates herself describes as "the dilemma of the
heart of the novel," the separation of family members one from
the other. Not being a particularly avid Web surfer, Oates is fairly
distant from the discussion here and the equally active one at
"I don’t have a computer at home, so I’m kind of off to the side,
off in a little eddy in our culture on this," she says. "But
even if I had one, I probably wouldn’t look at that for while. For
one thing I’m too self-conscious and I don’t read a lot about myself.
Besides, I’m hard at work on my new writing, so I tend to reserve
my emotion and thought for my new work."
Oprah’s contribution of new readers and new discussion of fiction
has made its impression on Oates. "It’s very healthy. It should
be stressed that readers are not being lost to the establishment.
Just like in the 19th century, Oprah is bringing new readers to
It’s not a competition. And there may be more people going into
now who are going to buy something else, too."
— Nicole Plett
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