Oprah and the Recluse

March 29, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 6 2 min read

coverYou’ve got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized – resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show – one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.

I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen’s The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It’s not the first time Oprah has selected a formally “difficult” book. Recall the “Summer of Faulkner.” Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah “anoint” a book before our more formal institutions have.

Secondly, I couldn’t help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah’s show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an “Oprah author.” This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt “that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection.” With McCarthy appearing on the show for his “first television interview ever,” it’s hard to make that argument any more. We’re talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant – a famously reclusive one at that – eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award – it went to The Echo Maker, as you’ll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I’d guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I don't think The Road is that different from chick lit- McCarthy's characters are just as superficial as any Devil Wears Prada Refugee, and while chick lit prose is vapid, his is certainly full of a lot of hot air.

  2. It's amazing how powerful Oprah is. I'm a book club moderator and librarian at Toronto Public Library. A day after Oprah's choice was announced, the number of reserves on The Road went from 67 to 355!
    I wonder how many will finish it.

  3. I like the idea of Oprah anointing books just like anybody can anoint a book, it's similar to the idea of Franzen not accepting popularity while McCarthy has. However, to be said to not equal McCarthy isn't really criticism, it's just fact (I'm a fan obviously!).

    I think the same amount of people will finish it who finish any book, really.

    The Hood Company

  4. I think Oprah has chosen a lot of terrific books, both before and after the Franzen debacle. Women who watch Oprah are just as able to read and enjoy Cormac McCarthy as are other avid readers. To my knowledge, Oprah has not chosen any "chick lit" (such as The Devil Wears Prada), simply books written by women about women (and not always–many of her selections are by men). Sometimes the conversation about Oprah's book club and its members carries a tinge of sexism.

  5. This ought to be very interesting indeed, not least because he has given so few reviews PERIOD, in print or on TV. And yes, this exposes Franzen for the poseur that he is, because McCarthy is really a serious name in literature. This book is by far his most disturbing, if you ask me, I read it a month ago and cannot get it out of my head..if you have young children and manage to make it to the end, prepare for sleepless nights. The one question I would love her to ask would be this: are No Country for Old Men and The Road old manuscripts that you have brought back to life? I note that Road does not have the characters come up on any burned out PCs. And NCFOM unabashedly takes place in the 80s–maybe because that's when it was written?

  6. One person's hot air, another person's haunting poetry.

    OK, I sound like a cliche. On matters of taste there can be no discussion, but generally speaking I find that new readers LOVE McCarthy.

    I once taught him to 25 undergraduates who had never read him before, and all but two or three felt like the book (The Crossing) was a great novel. I'm repeating the experiment again this semester and curious to see how my students react to him.

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