CHICAGO â€“ Oprah Winfrey has blessed the book world’s eternal underdog: the short story.
Publishing’s surest hitmaker announced Friday that her latest pick was Uwem Akpan’s debut collection “Say You’re One Of Them,” practically guaranteeing hundreds of thousands of sales, numbers generally unthinkable for short stories beyond works by Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever and other giants of the art form.
By Friday night, “Say You’re One Of Them” was in the top 5 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.
In making her 63rd book selection on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the queen of talk said she never before had given a book of short stories the nod because, she explained, “usually short stories leave you wanting something and you’re like, `Huh, what happened?”
Akpan’s book, she went on, was an exception.
“This is a first for me because each one of these five stories really just left me gasping,” she said in brief remarks toward the end of her show. “Just an incredible book.”
Akpan, 38, is a native of Nigeria and an ordained Jesuit priest who in 2006 received a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan. His work is set in Nigeria, Rwanda and other African countries and often centers on children in distress. In 2005, The New Yorker featured him in its debut fiction issue.
Winfrey did not interview him during her show Friday, though Akpan was in the audience, and he stood up and waved.
Each of the separate stories in “Say You’re One Of Them” is told from the perspective of an African child, the narratives touching on the hardships and joys of growing up in Africa.
The audience applauded enthusiastically and cheered when Winfrey concluded by saying everyone would leave with a free copy of the book.
Until now, Akpan had endured the common fate of short story writers: well-liked by reviewers and little known to general readers. Combined hardcover and paperback sales for his book, first published in 2008 by Little, Brown and Company, were 32,000 before Friday, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 75 percent of sales.
Winfrey’s previous selection came a year ago, when she chose another first-time author, David Wroblewski, for the novel “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”
Friday’s announcement caps one of publishing’s most memorable weeks, beginning with the release of the late Ted Kennedy’s “True Compass” and continuing with Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” and Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Will Win Glory.”