Curling up with Oprah and Emma: The Faux Intimacy of Celebrity Book Clubs
March 2017, Emma Roberts is on The Late Show discussing the release of her online book club, Belletrist, with Stephen Colbert. They strike up a playful rapport: he plays the fuddy-duddy and she plays the millennial. She tries on his glasses and marvels at how blind he is. Roberts has started the book club with her best friend, she says, due to demand from her Instagram followers for reading recommendations.
“It’s an online book club—how do I discuss it with you?” Colbert asks.
“Instagram Live!” Roberts replies.
Doesn’t he know? Social media’s how it’s done!
She has a point. Book clubs have, throughout their existence, served a dual purpose: to recommend reading to their members, and to provide forums for discussion. While these purposes have remained core to the nature of the book club, the clubs themselves have evolved over time.
In the mid-’90s, book clubs took a new form with Oprah. Oprah has been a uniquely influential personality in several ways, not the least of which is her culture of accessibility. Her book club selections are, as Anne Helen Petersen describes them in her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, decidedly “midcult”—that is, not quite high art, but not quite lowbrow culture. They reflect a diverse authorship, often discover new and overlooked talent, and remain unintimidating to her substantial fandom.
I wasn’t very aware of Oprah’s Book Club growing up, but it still had some presence in my childhood home. Her selections peppered our shelves, and I remember my mom sharing them with me when I was a teenager. Mary McGarry Morris’s Songs in Ordinary Time, an Oprah pick, is still on my shelf today. I recently asked my mom about her relationship with Oprah’s Book Club. “Her picks were uneven,” she said. “But she has a good eye for the underappreciated writer. I really like that.”
“Her picks were uneven,” she said. “But she has a good eye for the underappreciated writer. I really like that.”
Oprah’s Book Club traditionally took place on The Oprah Winfrey Show. A book club discussion on TV—a one-sided conversation masquerading as a two-sided conversation—demands real intimacy from the television personality, and Oprah delivered. Oprah’s readers felt a friendship-like connection, that she could offer them life advice. Today, Oprah continues to offer her book club selections online, branded as Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
At the start of 2016, feminist darling Emma Watson launched a book club called Our Shared Shelf with Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road as her pilot selection. The club has since gained a solid moderator team on Goodreads, and Watson has been spotted hiding selections around Paris in a partnership with The Book Fairies. The Our Shared Shelf team appears to consciously target activist voices and—more than its peer clubs—voices of color, drawing from the writings of bell hooks, Maya Angelou, and Marjane Satrapi. Our Shared Shelf also has a distinctive community feel to it: its Instagram page includes pictures and commentary on the current book from readers. Watson is less of a host in this club; she’s another member. Yet the tone of Our Shared Shelf still feels like a (bookish and cutesy) call to action.
Both its aesthetic and its joyful intent are very “white girl English major,” like riced cauliflower and exposed brick walls.
Belletrist, on the other hand, feels like literary porn. Roberts and Karah Preiss host the online platform, which features a rosy backdrop, author interviews, and quotes from the likes of Daphne Du Maurier and Anne Sexton. Although Belletrist officially launched in 2017, Roberts has been posting book recommendations to Instagram for several years. Whether due to the involvement of Preiss or the publicity of a launch, or simply due to a current culture that promotes self-reflection and emotional intelligence, Belletrist marks a noticeable shift in Roberts’s book selections in highlighting mostly women authors. Given that Roberts and Preiss are drawing from an industry that has been criticized for its misogyny, I admire Belletrist for its decision to take both a literary and a feminist direction. Still, I doubt that Belletrist is on a mission to incite social change. Both its aesthetic and its joyful intent are very “white girl English major,” like riced cauliflower and exposed brick walls. But the pleasure of “[celebrating] great books and the people who read them,” as reads the mission statement on its website, feels like a worthwhile endeavor in its own right.
Lena Dunham offers Lit Thursday as part of her and Jenni Konner’s feminist platform, Lenny Letter; as suggested, Thursdays feature book recommendations. It also includes a plug for their new Lenny Books imprint with Random House, which targets “exciting, emerging voices—in fiction and non-fiction.” I appreciate the intention of Lit Thursday (though I often find myself using the phrase “good intentions" to qualify criticisms of Lena Dunham, so this wasn’t surprising). It draws from a diverse authorship and highlights excerpts with each selection, and the editorial team has a clear mission of intersectional feminism and sex positivity: all ingredients for a celebrity-run book club that could be fantastic and unique. That said, browsing Lit Thursday feels a bit like being whacked in the face with a dildo. The opportunity for real curatorial strength is lost in a hovering defensive posture: their readership—and society, by extension—is presumed to be repressive in one way or another. How dare we?
That said, browsing Lit Thursday feels a bit like being whacked in the face with a dildo.
In sharp contrast, Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram book club is almost offensively inoffensive. It’s a J. Crew of book clubs; her posts feature shelves organized soothingly by primary colors like cashmere scarves, and books spread across beach blankets. The selections tend to the likes of bestselling authors Ruth Ware, Liane Moriarty, and Paula Hawkins. Like Roberts and Preiss, Witherspoon doesn’t appear to have an agenda, other than possible publicity. Moriarty is probably a branding choice, as Witherspoon stars in the HBO adaptation of her book Big Little Lies. Generally, Witherspoon’s book club is bland and fun, even featuring posts with her kids.
“Instagram Live!” Roberts isn’t wrong. I follow the Instagram accounts of all of the book clubs listed above for reading recommendations—and, of course, for their “bookish mood posts.” It’s a colorful and easy way to keep a following; as users browse Instagram on the subway, we’ll scroll across a picture of Witherspoon reading next to the window, in perfect lighting. She just looks like she has a Nature Box subscription and separate moisturizers for morning and evening. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
R. Mark Hall says in “The ‘Oprahfication’ of Literacy,” “Members of ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ gained entrée not only to Winfrey’s dining room but to that intensely private and solitary activity, reading.” If you go to Watson’s Instagram, it’s filled with pictures of her holding up her book club selections. She’s reclining on her bed. She wears no (let’s be real—minimal) makeup. You’re welcomed into her room to read with her. She knows that we want in.
A few weeks ago, I texted my writing group, “All I really want is to be just famous enough to have my own celebrity book club.” I was kind of kidding. But I kind of wasn’t. Because, like portion-packaged organic snacks delivered to your door, isn’t book club ownership one step closer to having it all?
Laura Briskman is a writer and textbook editor living in Queens.