Authors of the world rejoice as Oprah's book club embraces modern literature

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The Independent Culture

There on the set of her perennially popular television programme was Frey, basking in Winfrey's praise for his 2003 memoir about time spent in an institution for alcohol and drug addiction called A Million Little Pieces.

Such is the influence of Winfrey's recommendations that by yesterday, the book, just released in paperback for the first time, had soared to number one on the Amazon bookseller website. This was a singular event for publishers who have been in mourning since 2002, when Winfrey essentially abandoned her format of promoting a new book each month on her television show. She said at the time that she had run out of decent books to share with her viewers. It had "become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," she said.

Her decision to put the club on hiatus greatly dismayed America's publishers who had become used to seeing sales of a book take off once given her stamp of approval. Typically, a book picked for her club instantly sold one million copies. Normally, sales of 20,000 for a new book are considered respectable.

She resumed her book club soon afterwards, but in a radically different form. She began a crusade to persuade her fans to take up the classics. Among the titles she urged on her followers was John Steinbeck's East of Eden, while she dedicated this summer to flogging Faulkner.

But it is hard to bring dead writers on to the set to chat about their works, taking away one of the most important elements of her original club format. And, in truth, her quest for the classics was only moderately successful. Membership of her book club began to dwindle.

At last, she has relented and vowed to return to where she started, though this time she promises to consider an even wider array of titles, from fiction, to non-fiction, current affairs and biography. Certainly, the authors need no longer be dead.

"I've decided I will open the door to all books as potential Oprah's Book Club selections," Winfrey announced on her television show. " I feel this will give the book club a whole new range of opportunities to explore the world through words."

The first to benefit will be Frey, who professed to being utterly shocked when contacted by the show's producers with an invitation to appear with Winfrey. The two of them conspired to ensure that the writer's mother was in the studio audience. And the host, of course, gave her whole-hearted approval. "It's a gut-wrenching memoir that is so raw and so real," she said of the book.

Among others celebrating will be the 100-odd authors, including Jane Smiley and Jhumpa Lahiri, who earlier this year wrote an open letter to Winfrey urging her to "consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers", suggesting that her abandonment of contemporary works was hurting sales.

There was speculation in 2002 that her decision to scale back the club was a reaction to a public spat with Jonathan Franzen. Winfrey withdrew an invitation to appear on her show after the author of the acclaimed book, The Corrections, made disparaging remarks about the club.

But this week, she denied the dispute had influenced her. "Jonathan Franzen was not even a blip on the radar screen of my life," she said.

The power of Winfrey's patronage

By Robert Hughes

JONATHAN FRANZEN The Corrections

After selecting this ambitious exploration of the neuroses of 21st-century American life, Winfrey dumped Franzen when he publicly questioned some of her other literary selections.

WALLY LAMB She's Come Undone

Winfrey's selection of this debut novel from a nationally honoured teacher charting 40 years of a woman's life catapulted him on to the national bestseller lists.

ANITA SHREVE The Pilot's Wife

Although already a successful magazine writer, the addition to the club of Shreve's novel about a wife investigating the life of her dead husband sent sales of this book sky high.

URSULA HEGI Stones From the River

The inclusion of this bold novel about a small town's complicity with the Holocaust provided the author with a platform from which to reach national acclaim.

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