Oprah's 'club' gets clubbed Books: Book lovers are up in arms over the short shrift given to their novel by the talk show host.

September 27, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The bookworm has turned.

A year after starting a publishing phenomenon that has sent eight books to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey angered some of her most faithful book club members this week by giving short shrift to the latest selection, "Songs In Ordinary Time" by Mary McGarry Morris.

"Bring back MMM!" is the rallying cry in the e-mail and online posts of a small but passionate band of readers who bonded over the summer while sharing their thoughts on the 740-page novel. With questions about everything from "Songs'" liturgically inspired title to its ambiguous ending, they say they had looked forward to the show discussing the book for weeks.

But when Monday came, Winfrey spent most of the time celebrating the book club's first anniversary by asking celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and Tony Danza about their favorite books. She devoted less than five minutes to "Songs."

This prompted a rash of online complaints, the first really negative reviews for the book club, which has impressed skeptical critics with the quality of its selections and earned Winfrey the Literary Marketplace "Person of the Year."

Ironically, the very forum for these complaints were the America Online message boards set up by Winfrey to encourage discussion.

"The books she's chosen are wonderful. The fact that she wants to get people reading again is wonderful," says Meg Lytton, a retired English teacher from Vienna, Va., who is active in the "Bring back MMM!" movement. "But don't call it a book club, or say it's a discussion, and then give us four minutes."

Winfrey quickly posted an apology for the show, but it did little to quell the complaints. Audrey Pass of Harpo, Winfrey's Chicago-based production company, noted yesterday: "We will be sensitive to the fact that viewers look forward to an extended discussion of the book."

The readers are still restless.

" 'Outraged' is a good word to use when describing how I felt after watching Oprah the other day," John Feudo of Massachusetts wrote by e-mail to The Sun. "I purposely left work early to watch the show. Those of us who spent our summer lost in 'Songs In Ordinary Time' demand more of Mary Morris, and less of Tony Danza and company."

"I don't usually correspond via the message boards, but I was just amazed that Oprah would carry on about herself and how wonderful she is and barely spend a moment on the book that was supposed to be featured," Christine Kenny wrote The Sun. "I don't need Oprah to tell me what to read and probably won't make an effort to read her selections in the future."

It should be noted that only a fraction of Winfrey's estimated 15-20 million viewers have complained. Fewer than 50 people posted online criticisms, after a summer that saw more than 2,000 messages posted regarding "Songs."

Within that group is a subset of 15, now so close that they have started reading non-Oprah books together.

Winfrey's apology, posted Tuesday night, read in part: "You are absolutely right. We decided to have a big Book Club Anniversary celebration and then got so excited about that we overlooked the summer book discussion. With 'Songs' being such a rich and complicated book, we were also at a loss to do it justice."

Those meant-to-be soothing words proved to be gasoline on the fire.

"WHAT???" wrote a Maine woman who identifies herself by the screen name Bkwonder. "I began buying Oprah's book selection so that I could be part of something bigger, to be connected to people," she wrote to The Sun.

"I even bought the book at Starbucks as part of Oprah's campaign against illiteracy. Now I'm not one of those people who never read until Oprah, I read her selections so that I can be part of a group experience and then get to hear what the author has to say. Where can you do that?"

That is the key difference between Winfrey's book club and the thousands of others across the nation -- she can deliver the chosen author to her national TV audience.

Meanwhile, the author can count on becoming a millionaire thanks to royalties. ("What were you doing when I called you?" was reportedly the only on-air question from Winfrey to Morris, which also outraged the posters.)

For Viking-Penguin, Morris' publishers, the situation is a delicate one. After all, Winfrey essentially rescued a literary novel that received mixed reviews when it was published in 1995 and transformed it into a best seller. Efforts to reach Morris through her publisher were unsuccessful, and Viking had no comment.

Her book continues to sell well. "Songs" was No. 26 on the USA Today list this week and was No. 4 on the Publishers Weekly list for trade paperbacks, which also includes these other Winfrey selections: Maya Angelou's "The Heart of a Woman," Wally Lamb's "She's Come Undone," and Ursula Hegi's "Stones From the River."

And if the pattern holds, the latest pick, Ernest Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying" will soar to No. 1 next week, with or without those alienated by this week's events.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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