On September 17, 1996, Oprah Winfrey announced she was starting a book club. The beloved television personality introduced the venture on that day’s episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, stressing she wanted to “get the whole country reading again.” At the time, few would have predicted the massive success the project would accumulate. By fair means, it seemed unlikely that a middle-of-the-afternoon talk show host’s book recommendations could influence the way the average American reader discovers and purchases books, let alone have any impact on the course of literary history. Nonetheless, from its first 1996 installment, the club transformed into a cultural and commercial phenomenon – members were enthralled by Winfrey’s recommendations, leading some books to become bestsellers overnight. Fast forward to the 2020’s, celebrity book clubs are all the rage. Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Florence Welsh, Kaia Gerber, and Noname, among others, now represent a new generation of literacy facilitators.
Celebrity book clubs are popular for a reason: they are easy to join, require little engagement, and provide intimate access to Hollywood’s biggest stars. You can read and follow along on your own or create a small group with friends and family. In any case, the book club figurehead will accompany you through the reading process and lead discussions on important themes. Because their celebrity status grants them access to key players in the literary field, many of these stars organize sit-downs with authors to discuss novels even further. This factor is especially important in understanding the power of the celebrity book club. Winfrey’s model remains successful because it was marketed towards one group in particular: the “middlebrow,” as referred to by scholar and professor Beth Driscoll. This group consists of readers that occupy a space in contemporary literature that is considered less elite than literary fiction. Namely, they are working professionals with a university degree who have time to read recreationally. The middlebrow is also feminized and ambitious; they have the drive to increase their status but rely on cultural mediators to help them break into the elite cultural sphere. In fact, this orientation towards women readers, characters, and subject matter is the reason the club’s status was considered middlebrow in the first place.
In The New Literary Middlebrow, Driscoll asserts that women’s reading has historically been degraded because it tends to emphasize emotional connections rather than literary quality and innovation. In response to those beliefs, Oprah’s Book Club created a mediated model where women could engage with popular literature and interrogate the critical values of their patriarchal societies. Winfrey offered women a safe space to exchange ideas and her public persona gave the club credibility as a model for literacy. Her charismatic demeanor laid the foundation for an unintimidating and accessible setting where pleasurable and complex novels could be explored without judgment.
The massive success of the celebrity book club has provoked the classist response that if a written work is accessible, then there is little cultural capital to be gained from it. In other words, book clubs have no serious literary value because they were created for the masses. This criticism follows a long line of condescending responses to cultural forms targeting and consumed primarily by women. Strictly speaking, these criticisms hide discrediting attitudes towards the activities women tend to partake in. Winfrey chose to empower diverse groups of women by telling them they are capable of exploring various literary works. Such examples of support and personal growth abound. For instance, in January 1998, Oprah’s Book Club studied Paradise (1997) by Toni Morrison. At the time, the novel was fresh off the press and represented Morrison’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Winfrey expected the reading experience to be arduous and invited the award-winning author to lead a formal seminar for her audience. In conversation with Winfrey, Morrison was quick to offer comfort: “That you got it is what I’m trying to tell you. You got it and you didn’t believe you got it.” Morrison’s intention was to validate the audience’s disorientation, to reassure them that it was normal not to “get” everything in Paradise. However, she also sought to change the way these women approached their incomprehension. She incited them to think of “not getting it” in a way that focuses less on the author’s intention and more on personal interpretation. In the end, Morrison empowered Winfrey’s readers by applauding their willingness and authenticating their efforts rather than belittling the way they approach literature. Like Winfrey, she recognized the eagerness of the crowd and pushed for their accreditation.
Today, similar discussions continue to take place on social media. According to Instagram director of fashion partnerships Eva Chen, the platform has shown “a significant spike” in literature-related content in recent years, with the hashtag #bookstagram being excessively popular during the first week of every month, when Reese’s Book Club and Well-Read Black Girl announce their new picks. In 2019, Noname started the Noname Book Club, which “is a Black-led worker cooperative connecting community members both inside and outside carceral facilities with radical books.” More recently, Kaia Gerber uploaded a video of her chat with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. The talk, watched by thousands, brought Harris to share a list of Black and queer theory texts, thereby granting her millions of followers access to graduate-level discourse. Now more open and public than ever, women-focused book clubs serve as powerful mediums that push many to refuse their marginalized positions.