Toni Morrison is not only a best-selling author, she holds a very renowned and prestigious position in the literary world - she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Nobel Prize winner, and a professor at Princeton University. Her novels are also regularly featured on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. It comes as no surprise that with this profile, her latest novel, Paradise was an instant bestseller. Released in January of 1998, it was the #9 bestseller for that year, according to Publishers Weekly. However, the novel itself received far less praiseful reviews than her previous novels. Many critics considered Paradise to be her worst novel; and many readers got very lost and confused with the novel's plots and characters. Had Paradise not benefited from factors related to Toni Morrison's notoriety, it probably would not have succeeded based on its literary value alone. Although it is hard to attribute specific factors to the book?s sale, the Oprah Effect and Toni Morrison's reputation as an author have greatly influenced the sales of Paradise.
Oprah Winfrey picked Paradise to be the Book-of-the Month on January 16, 1998. This was within one week of the book's release. It was also Oprah's second of four Toni Morrison novels selected for the book club. Song of Solomon, originally published in 1977, was picked in 1996. After Paradise Oprah went onto select Morrison's The Bluest Eye in 2000 (first published in 1969), and then Sula (first published in 1973) in 2002. Oprah also has bought the rights to Morrison's Beloved and created a movie out of it, in which Oprah herself played a starring roll.
Oprah started her book club in 1996. She opposed the idea at first because of fear of poor ratings, but decided to go ahead with it because of the prospect of being able to meet the authors. Toni Morrison is one author with whom she has become particularly friendly. Oprah is a very vocal lover and supporter of Morrison's work. Morrison has appeared on Oprah's show several times and the women have formed a friendly relationship. Oprah's friendship with Morrison and her love of her work strongly influences her book club selection. As of 2002, four of the 48 Oprah books are authored by Toni Morrison. Since Oprah will always read everything Toni Morrison's publishes, then Morrison has a greater chance for her works to be picked by Oprah. Paradise would not have had such a good chance to be a book-of-the month had the same story been written by a budding and unknown author.
Since Paradise was declared an Oprah book within days of its release, it is not possible to draw a direct relationship between the books sales pre- and post Oprah's influence. However, based on the pattern of the Oprah Effect, it probably greatly helped Paradise's sales.
The effect of Oprah's book selection on sales of other books is astounding. As of December 1999, all 28 of the Oprah books had made the weekly bestseller chart. For example, on November 19, 1996 Oprah picked Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon as a Book Club book nineteen years after its original publication. In the first week after its selection, it hit the Publishers Weekly trade paperback bestseller list. It also sold 40,000 copies in less than a week, which is ten times the number that was sold in all of 1995. Some of the novels, like Paradise made Publishers Weekly Top 10 annual list. For example, Jacquelyn Michard's Deep End of the Ocean went from having 68,000 copies in print pre-Oprah to selling four million copies and was a 1996 bestseller. White Oleander by Janet Fitch went from 25,000 printings to one million as a result of the Oprah Effect, and a bestseller in 1999. The Corrections by Joanthan Franzen and Cane River by Lalita Tademy also became annual bestsellers after being picked for Oprah's book club. It can be inferred from these sales figures, that the Oprah Effect also benefited Paradise.
The announcement of an Oprah book takes a lot of careful behind-the-scenes planning between Harpo productions, the author and the publisher. All of her book picks are kept secret from the public until she announces them on her show. She picks all of the books for her book club herself, and does not get any profits from them. Once she decides on a book, she contacts the author and the publisher. Like many of authors, Toni Morrison was quite surprised to hear from Oprah. When Oprah first contacted her after having read Beloved, Morrison's attitude was a distant polite. "It was like, 'All right, dear. What is it you're calling for'" (Max 3). Since then, the two women have appeared to have become friends. After an author agrees to have their novel featured as a Book of the Month, a lot of hushed work is done between publishers and booksellers. Oprah keeps her book picks a secret until she announces them on her show. Five hundred free books are provided to the Oprah audience. Then Oprah requests that 10,000 are donated to libraries. Generally, for Oprah books, at least 650,000 hardcover and 800,000 are delivered to bookstores in time for the announcement of the book on the television show. When the booksellers order the book, they do not even know which book it is; they are simply buying the Oprah brand book (Max). Entertainment Weekly reported on January 30, 1998 that 725,00 copies of Paradise had been printed. However, it is not clear from this statistic if that includes both hardcover and paperback. In the first 13 months of print, the publisher announced that 804, 862 domestic, non book-club edition copies of the book had been sold. Since the book's publishing release and the announcement of it as an Oprah Book of the Month pick were virtually simultaneous, it is not possible to tell whether the book club had a direct effect on sales.
In the publishing industry, which has traditionally been dominated by white males, Oprah's book selections completely take away cultural authority away from the publishers in their decisions of which books to print. (Young)
Paradise fits in with the similar themes that most Oprah books share. Many are a "moving, painful human story that?s not too hard to read". Most of them are written by women, most of them take place in a small town rather than a city, and many involve the element of abuse of a young female. (Max) Paradise fits all of these qualities. Oprah aims to select accessible literary fiction that encourages people who normally do not read books to read. According to Young, the Oprah phenomenon bridges the gap between "low art" and "high art" for Morrison's work because of the popular media attention that it gets from Oprah. She is already part of the literary canon, and then becomes accessible to the readers through her discussions on Oprah's show. Furthermore, Toni Morrison releases books on tape for most of her books, including Paradise, that she has recorded herself. This also bridges the gap because it makes her voice familiar to her audience (Young).
Toni Morrison's first appeared on Oprah's show in December 1996, after Song of Solomon was selected. Another show also featured Toni Morrison giving a lecture about Paradise to Oprah and twenty audience members. Many of the audience members were frustrated with the novel because they had trouble understanding and interpreting it. Morrison would not answer many of the specific questions about the novel's characters. Instead, she replied, "If it's worth writing, it?s worth going back to." That show received the lowest ratings of any of Oprah's book club episodes. This is a sign of the unpopularity of the book among people who bought it and read it.
The prestige and respect that Toni Morrison has achieved for herself in the literary community commands an automatic attention to any new work that she publishes. Toni Morrison holds a unique position as an African American female novelist who not only is part of the literary canon, but is also a best-selling author.
Toni Morrison's work is classified as literary fiction, which is uncommon among popular bestsellers. She can win the Nobel Prize one day and then speak to an every-day Oprah audience about her books the next . She is an established woman among the literary elite. A press release from the Swedish Academy at the time Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature said, "As the motivation for the award implies, Toni Morrison is a literary artist of the first rank. She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the lustre of poetry." (Nobel E Museum) Her novels are accepted into the literary canon and often studied in education, from middle school through the university. This can be seen by the vast number of doctoral dissertations and books of criticism on her works that have been written.
Paradise is the first novel that Toni Morrison published after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Needless to say, it was a long anticipated novel. She has also won the Pulitzer Prize. With her reputation, every work of hers is anticipated as masterpiece. Unfortunately, Paradise did not quite fit this mold. The poor character development and complicated underlying religious themes contributed to the books poor reviews. The theme of good vs. evil and a male dominant society vs. an all female society were stereotypical and over-emphasized. However, this did not override the fame of her name and the history of her quality novels, and Paradise still was a bestseller. In fact, Paradise is Toni Morrison's only novel that has ever made an annual bestseller list. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that it has sold the most copies, but it is still significant that what is considered to be one of her lesser novels became an annual bestseller. Beloved, which one the Pulitzer Prize did not even become an annual bestseller. As Toni Morrison becomes more popular and achieves more awards, people are probably more willing to read and buy her work, despite the literary value of it.
There are other Nobel prize winning authors that have also experienced bestelling success for subsequent novels. William Faulkner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis all produced annual bestsellers after they won the Nobel Prize. Most of them also had numerous bestsellers before they won. This shows that a Nobel Prize could have an affect on the sales of subsequent novels of an author, but no direct correlation can be drawn.
Besides her many awards, another sign of the literary quality of Toni Morison's Paradise is that it bears the Borzoi seal of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. "The house of Knopf has long been one of America's foremost book publishers - known for both the quality of its authors and for the high level of its book design and production." (Knopf online). Since 1915, Knopf has published the works of 21 Nobel Laureates, 49 Pulitzer Prize winners and 29 National Book Award winners.
Knopf started his publishing company in 1915, and in 1960, Knopf publishing became a division of Random House. Toni Morrison worked as an editor for Random House for eighteen years when she became a novelist. It is likely that her connection with Random House helped to get Knopf as her publisher.
Clearly, Toni Morrison is part of a literary elite. This canonization as well as her familiarity through popular media make her a best-selling author.
Bowker's Annual. (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002)
Gray, Paul. "Winfrey's Winners." Time. 2 Dec. 1996: 84.
Kinsella, Brudget. "The Oprah effect: how TV?s premier talk show host puts books over the top." Publishers Weekly. 244.3 (1997): 276(3)
Max, D.T. "The Oprah Effect." The New York Times. 26 Dec. 1999.
Young, John. "Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Postmodern Popular Audiences." African American Review. 35.2 (2001): 181-204.
Nobel E Museum: http://www.nobel.se/nobel/
Oprah Book Club online: http://www.oprah.com/obc/obc_landing.jhtml
Knopf Publishing online: http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/