''The Corrections'' guy has begged forgiveness -- but a writer shouldn't try to pick his fans, says Ty Burr
What’s the most consistent source of laughs in pop culture at this particular moment? You won’t find it at the multiplex or anywhere on TV. You’ll find it only in the newspapers, whenever novelist Jonathan Franzen opens his mouth and jams yet another foot in.
Too bad — things were going so well. His third novel, a 568-page epic of satirical family dysfunction called ”The Corrections,” came out in September to glowing, indulgent reviews. After getting nominated for a National Book Award, it seemed to be well on its way to becoming that very rare thing, a commercially popular work of intellect and art.
Then Oprah Winfrey came calling. Now, for a book to be chosen for ”Oprah’s Book Club” is the publishing equivalent of winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Immediately, ”The Corrections”’ print run went from 70,000 to 800,000, under the correct assumption that Oprah’s imprimatur, plus Franzen’s appearance on her show, would prompt a groundswell of sales.
And isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t you want more people reading your book rather than less?
Jonathan Franzen doesn’t think so, apparently. During stops on his promotional tour last week, the author kept grousing that he was uncomfortable with that ”Oprah’s Book Club” logo plastered on the front of his novel. ”I see this as my book,” he said, ”and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it.”
Well, that’s his call, and not necessarily a bad one, but don’t you think he should have thought of that before he agreed (or let his publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, agree) to the deal? Let’s be forgiving and say Franzen was conflicted, torn between his desire to be a poster boy for the New York Review of Books and the chance to be, oh, a mass-market whore. At least that’s how he made it sound in subsequent comments, where he called Winfrey’s show ”the sort of bogus thing where they follow you around with cameras,” and said of her previous Book Club choices, ”She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe.” Amazingly, Franzen was surprised when Oprah pulled the plug; although ”Corrections” is still a Book Club pick (it would be impossible and pointless to recall the new print run with the logo), the author won’t be going on the show.
And STILL he kept at it, saying by way of apology, ”To find myself being in the position of giving offense to someone who’s a hero — not a hero of mine per se but a hero in general — I feel bad in a public-spirited way.” Well, thank you, Mr. Franzen, I’m sure that makes Oprah feel so much better.
What’s surprising is how few of his peers are defending Franzen’s right to his anti-populism. He’s been slagged by fellow novelists like Rick Moody (”The Ice Storm”); he’s even been criticized on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. You almost have to feel sorry for the guy. Certainly, he has given much thought to the place of the novel today; Franzen’s first moment in the sun, in fact, was a massive 1996 essay in Harper’s Magazine that chewed over many of the same issues being obscured here.
In that essay, Franzen wrote: ”The nature of the modern American market — its triage of artists into Superstars, Stars, and Nobodies; its clear-eyed recognition that nothing moves a product like a personality — is a hard place indeed.” Obviously, he feels uncomfortable being turned into a product; clearly, he is unsure about whether its better to be a Nobody or a Star. These are valid emotions, and they deserve a full and articulate hearing.
Unfortunately, Franzen is lousy at articulating them. Instead, he has ended up suggesting that he’d rather have fewer readers if they’re the right kind of readers, and he’s pretty much said flat out that Oprah’s readers AREN’T the right kind of readers. Which is an unforgivable position to state out loud and an untenable, elitist position to even think.
”Elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature,” Franzen lied, er, wrote back in that 1996 essay. ”Even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.” Ah, dear. How to explain that being ”better than Crichton” doesn’t make you any less of a butthead?