A Smart Writer's Dumb Move
It may have simply been the wrong cultural moment to come off as an elitist literary prig; after Sept. 11, aren’t there bigger things to worry about than Oprah’s logo on your book cover? But perhaps the humbling of The Corrections’ Jonathan Franzen by Oprah Winfrey, the American media, and even his own bookish peers speaks to a larger tectonic shift. There used to be a place on the pop scene for a novelist who sneered at the bastard compromises of the marketplace. There was a time when Norman Mailer was a rock star because of his literary arrogance. That moment has passed. If you aren’t writing for all readers, says the consensus in this battle, why are you writing in the first place?
The details of the kerfuffle are familiar by now, as is the high comedy of watching a man jam all three feet into his ostensibly articulate mouth. The Corrections had turned out to be the great American novel Franzen had promised; not only were gushing reviews and a National Book Award nomination his, but Winfrey had chosen it for her Book Club, knocking the print run from 90,000 to 800,000.
And then, on the book tour, Franzen discussed his ambivalence about becoming one of the chosen. He wasn’t thrilled to be appearing on Winfrey’s show, ”the sort of bogus thing where they follow you around with a camera.” He sneered at her previous choices: ”She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe.” The logo particularly chafed his knickers. ”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. Still, shouldn’t Franzen have thought of that before he agreed (or let his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agree) to the deal? Isn’t this the equivalent of accepting a dinner invitation only to tell the hostess that the food sucks and her friends are morons?
Winfrey pulled the plug in ladylike dudgeon; although The Corrections is still a Book Club pick, the author won’t be appearing on her show. And despite Franzen’s subsequent, highly conflicted pleas for forgiveness (”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”), she’s in her rights.
The far nervier thing would have been for him to go on. Oprah never would have done it — too much to lose — but can you imagine the collision of literary pretense and paperback populism? If she had dragged poor, stammering Franzen out in front of a nation of outraged Gentle Readers, we might have dived into precisely those questions of art, taste, and class that the author inadvertently raised. Is a writer wrong to mistrust the embrace of a mass audience? Why would you want fewer people reading your novel? If some of Oprah’s book choices tend to fall out of art and into earnest, womanly fiction, is it enough that she’s getting people to read? Where is the line between a great read and great art? And why, dear God, does Jonathan Franzen think an Oprah fan can’t tell the difference?