Oprah’s Top Literary Scandals

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Oprah’s name signifies much more than the famous talk show host herself — it stands for character: lifting oneself up, striving for human decency, searching for philanthropy and constantly improving one’s self-awareness. Oprah often guides us “to live our best life” by showing us… what to purchase. In fact, the New York Times has called her “the most powerful endorsement in pop culture.” And, the pressure for Oprah’s “picks” to perform is most apparent when she reaches out to the literary world. According to Business Week , “Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.” With those odds and that much personal pull, something is bound to go awry. Here are a few titles she touched that turned to gold, but not without a dash of drama and controversy along the way.

Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret

In January of 2006, The Secret made its appearance on Oprah with great praise, promising to bring “strength, power, unlimited abundance, health, and joy” to life’s suffering. Its method is simple — think positively and good shall come. Within hours of airing, The Secret became a bestselling hit, heralding its gurus Joe Vitale and James Arthur Ray. However, public opinion would soon sway. In March 2007, Vitale claimed on Larry King Live that Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old murder victim, “attracted” her own horrific death, leaving viewers a bit skeptical of the practice he preaches. Meanwhile, a self-help retreat led by Arthur Ray in 2009 left three followers dead at a sweat lodge in northern Arizona, resulting in three counts of manslaughter for its “spiritual” guide, who plead “not guilty” and currently waits to stand trial.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Although Freedom is new to Oprah’s Book Club, Jonathan Franzen, Time Magazine’s “Great American Novelist” is not. In 2001, his work The Corrections was picked for Oprah’s club — Franzen supposedly even engaged in B-roll footage and even sat down for an interview with Ms. Winfrey herself. However, in October, he showed signs of discomfort being a part of the “O” brand, worrying that a label of “corporate ownership” would discourage male readership — sparking a whole other controversy with not only the queen of daytime herself, but also feminists alike, resulting in Oprah revoking his book club membership, at least temporarily. The two mended ways in 2010, and Oprah threw his latest literary feat into the “lady” fire, just in time for her final season.

Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious

In October of 2007, Jessica Seinfeld sent Oprah Winfrey 21 pairs of shoes, retailing at about $16K to $20K in total, as a thank you to the madam mogul for having her and her cookbook — Deceptively Delicious on the show. After airing, this healthy collection of treats whipped to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, but not without a bit of backlash. Viewers feverishly compared Seinfeld’s book to one published earlier in the year — The Sneaky Chef by Missy Lapine. Besides sharing a similar concept, they have 15 similar recipes. However, what dug at certain viewers more was that a celebrity was chosen to fete her culinary dishes over the lesser known, but more credentialed chef, Lapine, who had reportedly pitched to Oprah five times prior to the Seinfeld episode, without success.

James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces

Author James Frey, or “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night” came on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005 to discuss his harrowing drug addiction memoir and Oprah’s Book Club selection, A Million Little Pieces. In January of 2006, The Smoking Gun released a damning special report exposing Frey’s flagrant embellishments. Humiliated, Oprah brought Frey back onto her show to hand him his cone-shaped hat, and the book was officially removed from the book club list. In 2008, Oprah confessed that she had a revelation while meditating and invited Frey back onto her show to publicly apologize for taking his lies “too personally.” The James Frey incident sparked a public meditation on whether Oprah’s Book Club should stick with fiction to avoid the squirrely nature of memoir veracity.

Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth

Eckhart Tolle’s New Age-flavored text, A New Earth became Oprah’s Book Club pick #61. Coupled with its predecessor The Power of Now , A New Earth sold 8 million copies. Oprah’s evangelism quickly earned her the monikers “New Age witch” and “the most dangerous woman on the planet” by televangelists such as Bill Keller. Oprah’s self-help enterprise even prompted an essay from action hero and defensive Christian, Chuck Norris. In “Oprah’s New Easter” Norris calls Tolle’s work “religion lite” and gently attacks the text as “a blend of half truths and half fabrications.”

Elie Wiesel’s Night

On the heels of James Frey’s memoir debacle, Oprah selected Elie Wiesel’s 1958 piece, Night for her book club list. The holocaust story quickly topped both “biography” and “fiction” best seller lists. While publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux affirmed Night a memoir, most school curricula considered it a novel, causing confusion for retailers. Nerve-shot booksellers Barnes and Noble and Amazon publicly fretted over their internal categorization systems. According to the Associated Press, an Amazon.com editorial review labeled Night “technically a novel,” although so true to Wiesel’s experiences that “it’s generally — and not inaccurately — read as an autobiography.” Amazon blamed the double listing on a data source problem while Barnes and Noble quickly removed the title from the fiction list.

Herman Rosenblat’s canceled memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of Love That Survived

Author Herman Rosenblat, the guest who provided “the single greatest love story” in the history of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008, also became the poster boy for the lost art of fact checking. Rosenblat wooed Oprah and her audience with his story about a girl who threw him apples over a barbed wire fence when he was a youth in a concentration camp. Years later, he cooed, they re-met by chance on a blind date and married. Publishers said “Heck, yeah!” and rushed to commission a book. However, in 2007, moods sobered as facts debunking Rosenblat’s tale began to surface. An Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was canceled but not before versions had already appeared in Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul as well as in Laurie Friedman’s children’s book, Angel Girl .

Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back

When author Terry McMillan’s whirlwind romance cum immigration novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back — which was based on McMillan’s real life love affair with a Jamaican man half her age — was published, maturing single ladies all over America stood up and cheered. Then, in 2004 McMillan’s marriage became seriously ungroovy when the author’s husband, Jonathan Plummer made the shocking confession that he was gay. McMillan filed for divorce. On September 27, 2010, the two appeared on Oprah to discuss their post-divorce relationship, which Entertainment Weekly later deemed one of Oprah’s 12 most memorable episodes. In the fall of 2010, McMillan penned “5 Steps to Get to Happy” for O Magazine to promote her new book, Getting to Happy which debuted at number 4 on the New York Times Bestseller List.