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Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Mess with Oprah

The current issue of The American Scholar carries a very good piece (“Unauthorized, But Not Untrue”) by Kitty Kelley that touches on her most recent biography, on Oprah Winfrey, and the power of her subject to block publicity for the book. Some of our leading intellectuals, Larry King and Barbara Walters among them, banned the author, and Charlie Rose somehow did not think a biography of, arguably, the most influential woman in the country was worth a sit-down. Given the immensity of the subject, the negative impact on book sales was huge.

Kelley addresses the curious criticism now routinely hurled at books like hers: that they are “unauthorized.” Frank Sinatra tried to stop her book about him by filing a goofy lawsuit that claimed that only he and he alone or someone that he authorized had the right to write his life story. Kelley says unauthorized now seems to mean something nefarious, as if the writer was being charged with “breaking and entering.” “Authorized” biographies can have value, but Kelley points out that they also frequently are sanitized and homogenized and cites valuable “unauthorized” books like Robert Caro’s on Robert Moses or Seymour Hersh’s on Kissinger as examples.

The piece is not simply a laundry list of complaints nor a rant; Kelley’s tone is fairly good-humored. She is a really good journalist, if not a literary biographer, diligent and comprehensive. I was at Simon & Schuster when her biography of Nancy Reagan was published and I remember that the legal vetting process was exhaustive. Nevertheless, once the book was published, Kelley was criticized and accused of fabrications, including that she had made up sources (sources, fearful of the subjects, sometimes lied afterward), but no lawsuits followed. The reach of the powerful did: Barbara Bush was so incensed—her husband did not come off well—that once she achieved the White House, she was able, apparently merely by striking fear, to have Kelley’s books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan removed, so far permanently, from a display on First Ladies at the Smithsonian.

Convincing the public that “unauthorized” when applied to a book is the same as illicit, even criminal, is a kind of propaganda. Readers can decide for themselves if the “private” part of the life of a presidential candidate should be off-limits even when, say, a false impression of family harmony is purposefully constructed to create an attractive image.

What matters most in all this is the power of unhappy subjects to control, by intimidation, the publicity, and thereby the discourse. It gets worse when the press self-censors. I know of one editor who thought the Kelley-Winfrey story a good one but laughed off the possibility of running a piece about it: it seems there are reporters who write books or may one day write books and who might like to get some really great exposure on a certain daytime program…


  1. Great post, Carole. I think your comments about the danger of self-censorship due not to fears of government repression or mob violence but rather due to careerism and groupthink are spot on.

    On a different note, one of the most enjoyable publishing lunches I ever had was an afternoon with Kitty Kelley's agent when she was between books, which the two of us spent brainstorming ideas about whom she should next turn her jaundiced gaze upon: Barbra Streisand? Michael Jackson? Katie Couric? She ended up doing the Bushes, obviously a far better choice than any of the half-baked ideas I came up with . . .

  2. Thanks Karl.

    Years ago, my husband was interviewed at length for a long profile on Rupert Murdoch, for whom he had worked. Afterwards, the writer thanked him and commented that he had spoken for the record, unlike almost everyone else interviewed. My husband said, "Well, they may have to work for Rupert one day, whereas I already have."

    On your other note, the Michael Jackson might have sold quite a few reissued paperbacks a year or so ago, so that idea was not so off.

  3. Carole--Thanks for the tip. I'm printing the article so that I can read the whole thing.