Is Oprah's selection of Uwem's Akpan's "Say You're One of Them" surprising? Yes, but maybe it shouldn't be. Oprah's picked books with cannibalism of children, incest, autistic-child love stories, hermaphrodites, and pretty much any other theme or style or length you could imagine.
So the fact that she's finally selected a short story collection (yes!), and one with large amounts of French in the text (I mean lots — you better be a francophile) follows her modus operandi: unpredictability. No, seriously, anyone who says that there is a narrow theme has not been paying attention. And yes, of course given her generous and wide-ranging selections, Jonathan Franzen is still feeling stupid.
Although I'm incredibly glad that Oprah picked a short story collection, "Say You're One of Them" is hardly unknown. It was widely reviewed to great acclaim (I even picked it for one of the best short story collections of 2008). And before Oprah's announcement, BookScan said that it's sold 32,000 copies. That's about 42,000 copies in real life, and counting all the secondhand and library reads, more like 50,000. Most short story collections are lucky to sell 2,000.
Why this short story collection? Well, a factor that worked in Akpan's favor was that some stories were more novella length than short story length. In other words, Oprah's trying to dip her club into the short story form gradually, easing them off the extended narcotic of the novel onto the spiky uppers of stories. Longer stories mean fewer character introductions, an easier read (or so some think).
Also, these stories come from the perspective of children, which I think hits the nerve of the maternal demographic in her club.
More importantly, what will this do for the short story form?
- One, I think it might make publishers reevaluate (at least a smidgen) the possibility that some short story collections will actually make money. Between this and Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro, could we start to see the age of the blockbuster short story collection?
- Two, I think we'll see a brief uptick in people reading short story collections. Never underestimate the power of Oprah, people. Many people reading Uwem Akpan might have never not read a short story collection in the last decade, or perhaps never. It's like reading a graphic novel: read one and you're hooked. Or if not hooked, at least more likely to buy something of that type in a bookstore.
Remember, though, that this isn't the first time a short story collection has stomped over industry expectations by being selected by a high profile club. The Today Book Club selected Adam Haslett's "You Are Not A Stranger Here," in 2002, which vaulted Haslett into sales and stardom. That move made waves back then, and I hope Akpan's Say You're One of Them
makes even bigger waves this round.