In Defense of Jonathan Franzen
The last few weeks have been both a confounding embarrassment of riches and an oily pile of rags for novelist Jonathan Franzen--and, being a true artist, he created all of it. With his third novel, The Corrections, earning rave reviews, heavy advance sales, and a National Book Award nomination, Franzen evidently couldn't stand all the prosperity. He tempted fate by doing the financially unthinkable: He dissed Oprah.
Along with The Corrections' other accolades, the sweeping novel was chosen as a selection for Oprah's Book Club. The honor is a not-quite-capital-L literary seal of approval: Winfrey--the talk-show host, the actress, the magazine, the walking, talking sister-girl culture industry--is no highbrow lit-crit along the lines of Northrop Frye, nor even a well-established ink-stained tastemaker such as The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley. But she likes books, and millions of people like her. And that has made her the King Midas of modern letters--what she touches turns to sales. Few want to mess with something that can move hundreds of thousands of books and bring a seven-figure take to authors with protruding ribs and threadbare tweed jackets.
Yet mess with it Franzen did. In an Oct. 12 interview in the Portland daily The Oregonian, Franzen said he had considered turning Oprah down, noting his worry that the Oprah club logo (emblazoned on the jacket of chosen tomes) might confer upon the book a big-business brand imprimatur. "I know it says Oprah's Book Club, but it's an implied endorsement, both for me and for her," Franzen said. "The reason I got into this business is because I'm an independent writer, and I didn't want that corporate logo on my book."
This didn't sit well with those who believe Oprah's club is a godsend for underappreciated producers of literature. Outraged writerly types, scrambling to shine upon themselves the most flattering anti-elitist light possible, flogged Franzen for his sin. Mildly miffed at Franzen's apparent refusal to worship the market-forming Goddess of Bound Editions by having dinner with her on the air, Oprah herself added a slap on the wrist. "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book-club selection," Winfrey said in a statement. "We're moving on to the next book."
Saul Bellow once estimated that no more than 250,000 Americans--less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the population--take serious lit seriously. Those who applaud Oprah's list do so because of its ability to cross media, to move a TV audience that may or may not be subliterate to buy books with Serious Ideas and a sense of literary history. Oprah is the vehicle by which book sales will travel, and by which authors will appeal to more than the privileged quarter of a million.
The Oprah club has additional significance, some say, because it has the potential to bridge the cultural chasm between the lowbrow and the highbrow. Franzen had already fallen into that chasm with some statements on the necessary difference between high and low art, as well as by waging a consistent, years-long rhetorical war on the detrimental intellectual effects of low-culture's medium, television.
Writers from Andre Dubus III (whose House of Sand and Fog was an Oprah selection in 2000) to canon father Harold Bloom and Harper's editor Lewis Lapham--a patrician liberal who occasionally bids to temper his elitism with a nod toward the falsely egalitarian (such as television), and should know better--have taken Franzen to the high-culture woodshed for a lesson in manners. Don't be so uppity, Franzen's correction-minded elitist cohorts have been telling him. This could be good for us--wink, wink.
Franzen uncharacteristically delivered a pathetically disingenuous mea culpa to appease them: "I'm sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely." Weak words from one who works with words for a living.
All this correcting of Franzen and lauding of Oprah--and the less-than-high culture she embodies--rings hollow when one looks at the effects Winfrey and her (often nonliterary) list of favorites has on the book industry. Small and regional publishers and the authors who write for them have been further forced off of national bookstore chains' shelves because of the popularity of the Oprah selections. While Winfrey's enthusiasm for books is admirable, one wonders whether a McDonald's-like effect isn't taking hold, a fast-food ethos that deems only the mass-marketable fit for consumption.
Oprah's list represents corporate aims--centralization, large-audience-specific marketing, and sales in big numbers. Franzen's self-appointed task in writing The Corrections was to attack all of that--and he succeeds. It would be hypocritical for him to roll over so Oprah could scratch his belly.
Set variably in Philadelphia, New York, Lithuania, and the mythical Midwestern town of St. Jude, The Corrections rates as a Big Novel about small lives. Not that the Lamberts--the aging mother and father and three grown kids who people the book--are any smaller than the rest of us. We're all subject to the fallout from acquisitions, mergers, downsizing, and corporate bed-hopping that surrounds us, even though we have no power to determine exactly what shape any of it will take. We're all bombarded with consumer goods that sometimes threaten the sanctity of human relationships because of their insistence that we love them. We all deal with family intrigues and compete for the love of our failing parents even as we teeter our way through our approximations of lives.
This kind of universality suffuses Franzen's work, and it does a hundred times more to lend perspective to the times we live in than even an ironist could find in a tear-soaked hour or two of Oprah. The tough love--kind of a stern paternalism--with which Franzen treats his all-too-humanly flawed Lamberts is a heavy slap at the complacency wrought by television and the consumer cult that drives it.
The literary world--the socioeconomic equivalent, in the American media and entertainment industry, of a Third World country--owes the likes of Oprah nothing. Books such as The Corrections have the strength to stand on their own. The scandal here is not that Franzen didn't want to break bread with a book-loving TV star. It's that so many of his authorial colleagues wanted him to contradict his own highly worthy novel and have it don kneepads.