My wife, Edan Lepucki, is a newly-minted member of the Oprah Book Club. She also has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a story forthcoming from CutBank. So basically, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the books and the reading business. Plus, she’s totally hot. Here’s her writeup of the most recent Oprah literary extravaganza:
I’d decided to read The Road after it emerged victorious from the Tournament of Books. The day I went to purchase it, the stack of paperbacks had already been blessed with a golden O, signifying that it had been inducted into Oprah’s Book Club. I’d never before read an Oprah pick along with millions of other book club members, but I decided to give it a try. What would it be like? I was both excited to see the episode with McCarthy, and ashamed to be excited – I’ll admit, I ripped the O sticker off my copy. I was superior to all those soccer moms, wasn’t I? I didn’t need Winfrey to tell me what to read.
On this blog and others, I’ve been unsettled by the slight tinge of sexism that colors some comments about Oprah’s Book Club. So many people were surprised she’d chosen The Road, such a dark and literary novel. Some readers even threw around the phrase “chick lit” to describe her previous picks (except for Faulkner, of course!), and worried her viewers might not “get” McCarthy. But are the books of Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende and Edwidge Danticat, just three of the many former club picks, “chick lit” simply because they are written by women? Even though I’d never participated in Oprah’s club, I always thought it was a good thing – it sold books, lots and lots of them, and got people to read. So what if those people were mostly women? Does that make their enthusiasm and discussion of text less valid?
Of course, I’m asking myself these questions. I mean, I sometimes don’t read a book my mom has recommended to me. The reason? It’s too much of “a mom book” – meaning what, I’m not sure. I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.
Okay, I’m getting off track, because everyone knows Cormac McCarthy is all man. What would he do in Oprah’s Chicago studio, with all those women clutching their copies of The Road, wanting to know: What has happened to the world? Why didn’t you name your characters?
Turns out, the real book club discussion is happening online – if you sign up as a club member, you can post on a message board, and get discussion questions, and so on. The episode of Oprah had none of that, only an interview with McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute, couched between segments with Michael Moore and Bono’s Vanity Fair gig.
I’m sure many of you have already heard about the interview, which was McCarthy’s first (and probably his last, Oprah told us). She asked him, “Did you always know you wanted to write?” to which he answered, “I think.” She asked, “Are you passionate about writing? Is it your passion?” to which he answered, “I don’t know… passion seems like a pretty fancy word.” She asked him about writing process; turns out, he types on a portable Olivetti typewriter, doesn’t plan the story out too much, and doesn’t tend to fraternize with other writers. They devoted much of the interview to McCarthy’s previous era as a pauper.
To me, the most interesting question Oprah asked McCarthy was about the absence of women in his books. A good question, considering all the women who were now his biggest fans. He answered, “Women are tough,” meaning, I suppose, that he doesn’t know how to depict them on the page. Oprah didn’t push this, and I wish she would have – How is a female consciousness different from a man’s? Is McCarthy more interested in a world made and unmade by men? Is he simply afraid of getting it wrong with the ladies? Or is he just really into cowboys?
Oprah looked pretty nervous throughout the interview, and not wanting to upset a man who never talks about his work, she played it safe. That’s fine, Oprah, that’s fine – but you better make Jeffrey Eugenides jump through some hoops, or I’m defecting from your army.
Bonus Link: As you may have heard. Oprah’s next pick is Eugenides’ Middlesex.