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Before ‘American Dirt,’ a history of Oprah’s Book Club controversies

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey unveils her January book club pick, “American Dirt,” igniting another controversy.
(CBS / YouTube)

Oprah Winfrey first launched Oprah’s Book Club on Sept. 16, 1996, 10 years into “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” one of the highest-rated daytime talk shows in television history. The effect on book sales was immediate and impressive. Before Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean” became Winfrey’s first pick, the publisher, Viking, had 100,000 copies in print; two weeks later, in its Sept. 30 issue, Publishers Weekly reported that number at 640,000. Fifteen years later, Nielsen reported that since it began tracking book sales through BookScan in 2001, Oprah’s Book Club had sold 22 million copies of books it had picked. No marketing department could possibly compete with that.

Winfrey shuttered the original Book Club in December 2010, nearly half a year before “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended its run, but it wasn’t long before a reboot was in the works. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 named its first title on June 1, 2012; the picks were fewer and farther between but still, Oprah sold books. And when Apple announced that Winfrey would bring “Oprah’s Book Club” to Apple TV+, it meant only one thing for the publishing industry: more sales.

As it turns out, it also meant more of something that has occasionally dogged the mogul and sometimes made her gun-shy: controversy. Recent events surrounding the selection of Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt” not only signaled that her influence might be on the wane in the social-media era but it also harked back to old-media disputes of book clubs past. Below is an abbreviated history of Winfrey’s most contentious picks.

Jonathan Franzen, “The Corrections”

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen, perhaps apologizing.
(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for The New Yorker)
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Winfrey chose Franzen’s 2001 breakout novel for her book club in September 2001, two months before it won the National Book Award for fiction. Franzen filmed an interview with Winfrey that month, but before he was due to appear on the show, he criticized her in interviews, calling a number of her past selections “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional” and worrying that male readers would avoid a book with the Oprah seal on the cover. Shortly afterward, Winfrey withdrew Franzen’s invitation to the show. A stream of public apologies from Franzen — thanking Winfrey for her “enthusiasm and advocacy” at the National Book Awards that November — as well as a more effusive private letter — didn’t help.

James Frey, “A Million Little Pieces”

James Frey on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ (2006)
James Frey, in the hot seat.
(George Burns / Harpo Productions)

Frey’s now infamous 2003 not-quite-memoir was selected by Winfrey 2½ years after its publication, in September 2005, and as the New York Times reported, it became “the fastest-selling book in the club’s 10-year history.” But four months later, the Smoking Gun website published an article detailing a number of fabrications in the supposedly true story. On the Jan. 26, 2006, episode of Winfrey’s show, Frey returned to the set with his editor, Nan Talese, and Winfrey publicly skewered them both. “I feel duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers,” Winfrey told Frey. And when Talese, prodded by Winfrey to explain herself, said Doubleday’s legal department did not fact-check books, Winfrey replied, “Well, that needs to change.” (For the most part, it hasn’t.) Later, Winfrey reportedly apologized to Frey for inviting him and Talese to the show under false pretenses: Talese said they were invited back to join a panel discussion called “Truth in America,” only to find that they were the only panelists.

Jonathan Franzen, “Freedom”

Jonathan Franzen
Franzen, reconciled with Oprah.
(Los Angeles Times)

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Nine years after Franzen’s public spat with Winfrey over “The Corrections,” she selected his 2010 followup, “Freedom.” Each told the other it was an “honor.” and the hatchet was mostly buried. But Winfrey couldn’t help noting that his dismissal of the show had led people to believe he was a “snob.” “I am a Midwestern egalitarian,” Franzen responded. “I do not think of myself as a snob.” He also said, in a nonapology, that “the big thing I learned from the experience was to have more respect for television.” He later told a journalist that he’d submitted to TV coaching, practiced his “onstage embrace” with Winfrey backstage and found her public reminder of the “Corrections” fracas “perfectly disingenuous.” As he summed it up to the Wall Street Journal, “It was work. There were no disasters … I think I like her more than she likes me.”

Jeanine Cummins, “American Dirt”

Author Jeanine Cummins (second from right) with Oprah Winfrey, joined by authors (left to right) Esther J. Cepeda, Julissa Arce and Reyna Grande.
Author Jeanine Cummins (second from right, very uncomfortable) with Oprah Winfrey, joined by authors (left to right) Esther J. Cepeda, Julissa Arce and Reyna Grande.
(Karen Ballard)

Winfrey’s third pick for her new Apple TV+ fed a firestorm that was already raging around Cummins’ thriller about a Mexican woman seeking refuge in America from a drug cartel. Flatiron Books had acquired the novel for seven figures and marketed it as a landmark work on Mexican immigration, earning widespread backlash from the Latinx literary community. Most prominent among the critics was author Myriam Gurba, who launched the debate into the public sphere via a widely circulated review arguing that Cummins was appropriating Mexican American experiences. A number of authors signed a public petition asking Winfrey to rescind her pick in late January. Gurba and three others launched a Latinx literary advocacy group, #DignidadLiteraria, and requested a private sit-down with Oprah, who could “join us on a mission of repair.” (Winfrey’s representatives reportedly were conferenced in on a conversation between #DignidadLiteraria and Flatiron owners Macmillan last month via phone, but otherwise have not engaged with the group.)

Winfrey released two episodes of “Oprah’s Book Club” on Friday. Cummins and three Latina writers — Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce and Esther Cepeda — joined Winfrey onstage while Cummins’ editor, Amy Einhorn, and Macmillan President Don Weisberg weighed in from the audience. Notably missing were representatives from #DignidadLiteraria, and Cepeda told Winfrey, “I wish Myriam Gurba was here to speak for herself.” She followed up by asking if Winfrey would engage with the group. “I can’t say what my engagement is going to be,” Winfrey replied. “What I can say is I’m going to do better in terms of my own selection.” Some in the media and on Twitter have responded positively to the conversation. Others have said it did not go far enough, and #DignidadLiteraria condemned the episodes in a statement, calling the conversations an attempt to “quash our campaign of dignity.”

Kate Elizabeth Russell, “My Dark Vanessa” — dropped

Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Kate Elizabeth Russell, not on Oprah.
(Elena Siebert)

Shortly after the “American Dirt” controversy blew up, another began to grow over Kate Elizabeth Russell’s “My Dark Vanessa,” a novel about a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with a predatory boarding-school teacher that also sold for seven figures. In an essay in Gay magazine, writer Wendy C. Ortiz criticized publishers for elevating white voices over nonwhite authors, citing her 2014 memoir, “Excavation,” about her own sexual abuse as a teenager, as an example. While stopping short of accusing Russell of plagiarism, Ortiz alluded to “eerie similarities” between the books. Later, Russell outed herself as an abuse survivor online, perhaps to emphasize that the novel arose from her own life. The publisher had pushed the book’s publication date from January to March after learning that it was to be Winfrey’s next pick. Last week, however, “Oprah’s Book Club”abruptly dropped it. As O magazine books editor Leigh Haber said, “We are going to be very cognizant of wanting the selections not to create noise around the book that prevent her from discussing the book.” It seems one controversy this year was enough.

Maher is the news and digital editor of Publishers Weekly.


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