Question: I know it's not like you can pick up the phone and ask her or anything, but your answer about Barbara Stock leaving Spenser and then coming back reminded me of a question that's sort of the same. How come Oprah stopped doing her book club on Oprah Winfrey, then started it up again? Did she run out of books she liked or something?
Answer: She didn't run out of books, Katie; she ran out of time or thought she had, anyway. And I may not be able to pick up the phone and call, but luckily Oprah already talked about it in a TV Guide interview a few years back.
"I wish I'd given that more thought," she said in a 2003 interview when asked about dropping the club in 2002, citing lack of time as the reason. "I was overwhelmed trying to pick a new book every month, and it wasn't fun anymore. I could have put the club on hold, or just have done it less often, but I didn't realize I had the power to do that."
As for the second part of your question, Oprah said she was starved for someone to talk about exciting books with. "For the first time in the six years since I'd started the club, I read a book by a dead author," she said. It was East of Eden, and it so overwhelmed me I had to talk to somebody about it. I tried to get Gayle [King, friend to Oprah and editor-at-large for O, The Oprah Magazine and O at Home], which was impossible. You get no pleasure out of sharing a book with her. 'I have kids. I gotta drive to soccer practice. I'm going to a play.' Forget it! A year later, she still hasn't finished the book. So I had to go big."
Of course, as anyone knows who hasn't just returned from years of being lost in the woods, that wasn't the last time Oprah changed her mind about a books-related issue. Just ask James Frey, who, after initially being defended by her on Larry King, got a lengthy on-air trip to the woodshed for allegedly stretching the truth (to be generous) in his best-selling book A Million Little Pieces. Cynics (and I, certainly, can be one of those) write off her changes of heart as calculated moves to protect her business, and I can't argue that that isn't the case. But few people change their hearts and minds as dramatically, and fewer still enjoy a huge audience willing to believe it all.
Take, for instance, when Oprah, facing declining ratings and criticism for sloshing around in the same talk-show gutter as Jerry Springer and the like, decided to go upmarket. "I am embarrassed by how far over the line the topics have gone, but I also recognize my own contribution to this phenomenon," she wrote in TV Guide in 1995. "Ten years ago, when my show was first syndicated, we started doing what we called 'confrontational TV' adult incest survivors confronting their abusers, children of alcoholics confronting their parents, and victims of crime confronting the person who attacked them.... [T]he problem, as I see it now, is that it didn't evolve from there. We needed to be solving these problems. Instead, TV got stuck thriving on them, and for the worst possible reasons exploitation, voyeurism, and entertainment.... It's time to offer new choices, new possibilities. It's time to elevate our potential."
And how has Oprah elevated that potential? Well, she's got the book club, her tons of charity work and a classier show. Well, classier until you consider recent topics like "Women Who Use Sex to Find Love," "He Conned Nine Women into Marriage," "The Two-headed Baby Miracle," "Gay for 30 Days!" and "Secret Sex in the Suburbs." But what the hey most people probably still let her off the hook because on balance, her good work outweighs the standard exploitation stuff she falls back on here and there. (And you try coming up with topics for a daily show.)
Besides, don't you kind of want to believe she's not too good to be true? Even I do, and I'm an embittered guy who wonders why, of all the superpowers one could be blessed with, the best I could do is possessing ultimate TV knowledge.