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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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