Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Postmodern Popular Audiences

By Young, John | African American Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Postmodern Popular Audiences


Young, John, African American Review


Throughout the twentieth century, African-American writers have faced what James Weldon Johnson called "a special John Young problem which the plain American author knows nothing Pr about-the problem of the double audience" (247). The mainstream, or white, publishing industry has either ignored black literature altogether or promoted it cautiously during brief periods of perceived public, or white, interest. During the New Negro Renaissance of the late 1920s and early '30s, and again during the "Second Renaissance" of the late 1960s and early '70s, major publishing houses considered black authors sufficiently marketable to offer in significant numbers, but even within these moments of visibility the production of black texts for white profit has led to questions about how much artistic authenticity African-American authors can preserve. Over the past five years, however, an extraordinary movement away from this racialized hierarchy has developed, as Oprah Winfrey's television book club has dramatically shifte d the publishing world's balance of power. As a New York Times profile concludes, "Winfrey has taken considerable cultural authority away from publishers" (Max 40). In this essay I examine the "Oprah Effect" on the career of Toni Morrison, who after three appearances on "Oprah's Book Club" has become the most dramatic example of postmodernism's merger between canonicity and commercialism. I argue that the alliance between Morrison's canonical status and Winfrey's commercial power has superseded the publishing industry's field of normative whiteness, enabling Morrison to reach a broad, popular audience while being marketed as artistically important. By embracing "Oprah's Book Club," Morrison replaces separate white and black readerships with a single, popular audience.

Before her first Oprah appearance in December, 1996, Morrison was a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, an endowed professor at Princeton University, and one of the most respected voices in contemporary American literature. While Pierre Bourdieu's inverse equation between cultural and commercial capitals would make this aesthetic success dependent on a consequent lack of marketability, since aligning herself with Winfrey Morrison has become the best-selling author of Song of Solomon, nineteen years after its first publication; of Paradise, her latest novel and probably the least accessible book she has yet written; and of The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel and the most recent

Oprah selection. [1] In each case Morrison has appeared on Oprah to discuss her novels with Winfrey and selected viewers, while stores have sold the books with special "Oprah's Book Club" stickers and often in displays based more on Winfrey's appeal than Morrison's. While Morrison's books had long sold well, the Oprah connection has propelled her into an altogether higher order of marketability. [2] Morrison's embrace of popular markets extends as well to the audiobook versions of her novels, which constitute another important merger of "high" art with "low" media.

I will argue that this connection between high cultural forms and popular audiences is a crucial stage in African-American women writers' adaptation of authorship's public space. These writers, who have only very recently established themselves commercially, let alone canonically, engage in a complex interaction with the market and the canon. Television and audiobook audiences commodify Morrison's texts while also crediting her with a new kind of social authority. By constructing an audience built through popular, ostensibly low, culture for her serious novels, Morrison explodes the high-low divide that still holds for much of postmodern art. Morrison sells herself and her novels, like jazz, through popular media and thus constructs herself as a self-consciously commodified textual authority.

No doubt it is tempting to conclude that Morrison simply sells herself out by appearing on Oprah, reducing her sophisticated texts to the lowest common denominator of daytime TV discourse.

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