When Oprah Stomped on Franzen, It Revealed a Vast Culture Split

It should have been obvious that the marriage of Oprah Winfrey

and Jonathan Franzen was headed for trouble.

Ms. Winfrey, of course, is the heartland priestess of the

soccer-mom set, the you-go-girl mogul whose dewy chat show is one of the most

successful daytime television programs in history. Mr. Franzen, a Mid westerner

by birth, is nonetheless an adopted New York novel is ton the rise-a prodigious

De-Lillo heir apparent in chunky-framed specs and cheek scruff.

To borrow from Donny & Marie, she’s a little bit country,

he’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

When Mr. Franzen, after his novel The Corrections was selected for Ms. Winfrey’s book club, got

himself into trouble by whining about

Oprah -fication and even grousing about the yawning “O” logo on his

book-Eek! A logo !-and wound up

getting himself booted off an upcoming episode of Ms. Winfrey’s show, people

saw it coming. And that was before Mr.

Franzen babbled in the Oct. 12 Oregonian

that he saw himself as “solidly in the high-art literary tradition.”

What was telling about the Franzen-Winfrey contretemps was the

five-alarm outrage of Manhattan’s literary publishing community. Faced with a

choice-reprimanding arguably their brightest star in years or alienating a

woman who spends many of her shows in the company of a bald-pated schmaltzateer

named Dr. Phil-judgment was swift.

New York publishing chose Oprah.

This love affair had been all but official, of course. With her

powerful show and her loyal viewership, Ms. Winfrey has done more than any

individual in recent memory-perhaps more than anyone, ever-to generate new

readers and revenues for literary fiction. A book picked by Oprah is a

best-seller, period. If the Franzen flap clarified anything, it was that Ms.

Winfrey was now fully ingrained in New York publishing culture, as

untouchable-or even more untouchable-than The

New Yorker and The New York Times

Book Review.

“When I ever even come close to voicing any sympathy [for Mr.

Franzen], I am actually shouted down-even with people who I am intimate with,

who would tell me the truth,” said one New York editor. “There seems to be a

genuine siding in the literary community with Oprah. I don’t think it’s false;

I don’t think people are lying. Whether it’s good or not, I’m not sure.”

But that raises a delicate question: How genuine is the

publishing community’s public show of support for Ms. Winfrey? Notwithstanding

the recent displays of fealty, there has always been an undercurrent of

resentment against the talk-show host. It’s not the kind of resentment that

rears its head in plain view.

Clearly, there are people in New York’s publishing world who may

be more simpatico with the now-beaten-and-bedraggled Mr. Franzen than they’ve

been letting on in the last couple of weeks. As one New York book editor said,

when asked if anyone in the city actually respected Ms. Winfrey not as a sales

rainmaker, but as a literary fixture: “Not really. I think that’s a fact-an

uncomfortable fact, but a fact.”

Is some of this snobbery? Surely. There are those in the New York

publishing world who see themselves as the keepers of the American literary

flame and can’t stand the fact that, in the past several years, their influence

has come to be dwarfed by a woman with a squishy talk  show. And even though Ms. Winfrey has picked books by Toni

Morrison and Bernhard Schlink, there are those writers who, as New Republic senior editor James Wood

notes, believe “that if you were selected by Oprah, it probably meant that you

hadn’t written a challenging and serious novel, at the deepest level.”

But you’re not likely to hear many people this publicly. Those

inclined to criticize Ms. Winfrey fear being branded an elitist and making an

enemy of such a powerhouse.

“Let me ask you a question,” said a well-connected book editor,

but only after being assured that his name would not be used in print. “How

many editors or publishers have you found that are willing to, in any way, see

any fault in Oprah?”

On the record? Zero, of course.

The fact that Mr. Franzen touched off a dispute along cultural

lines is somewhat ironic, considering that one of the most central tensions in The Corrections ‘ Lambert family is the

tension between the Middle American parents and their children, who have all

moved to the East Coast to pursue a sort of sophisticated lifestyle that

boggles their parents. Henry Finder, the literary editor of The New Yorker , said of the book: “There

are cultural divides, there are geographic divides, and some of them are played

out in this controversy, and yet those very divides are very well dramatized in

the book.”

Still, trouble arose when Mr. Franzen, who had written two

previous novels, went out on the road with his third, giving readings and

signing books at primarily independent bookstores. He also gave interviews, and

here he started raising eyebrows after Ms. Winfrey’s book-club selection was

announced. Mr. Franzen told various outlets, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , The

Oregonian , the Web site of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Ore., and NPR’s Fresh Air , that he was worried that Ms.

Winfrey’ send or sement would scare off his core fans -especially with the

Oprah Book Club seal on the extra 500,000 copies of his novel printed to meet

expected demand.

Jonathan Galassi, Mr. Franzen’s editor at Farrar, Straus and

Giroux, said that on the road, the author was constantly confronted by fans who

were dismayed that his book could be somehow associated with Ms. Winfrey.

“He told me many times people

in the lines at his readings saying things like that to him, which I think is

one of the reasons this kept coming up with him,” Mr. Galassi said. “He kept

getting it thrown at him-it wasn’t so much something he was generating. It was

being forced upon [him]; he was being made aware of it constantly.”

Mr. Franzen told The

Observer that he had given the interviews within just a few days of each

other beginning on Oct. 4, a day in which he gave six interviews. As soon as he

returned to New York a week later, he found out that Ms. Winfrey had read some

of his comments and wasn’t happy.

“When I got back from the tour-Oct. 12, I guess-was when it all

went down,” Mr. Franzen said. The word was that Ms. Winfrey had already

scrubbed his appearance on her show.

Mr. Franzen sat down to write a letter saying he was sorry for

hurting her feelings. “I immediately wrote to Oprah Winfrey herself and

apologized very quickly, and everything I’ve been saying subsequently to

interviewers I’d already tried to privately convey to her. But I knew she was

in a hard position, and I was not trying to talk my way back onto the show by

that point,” Mr. Franzen said.

Mr. Franzen’s letter apparently made no impact. On Oct. 22, Ms.

Winfrey confirmed in a statement to Publisher’s

Weekly that Mr. Franzen’s appearance had been canceled and the book club

would be moving on to the next title.

A spokesman at Farrar, Straus & Giroux said that the

publisher was still working to get Mr. Franzen’s book discussed on the show,

even without Mr. Franzen appearing. A spokeswoman for Ms. Winfrey said that on

Oct. 12, “Oprah’s decision was made and was final at that point.”

Since the blow-up, Mr. Franzen has been nothing but apologetic.

“I inconsiderately and

unwisely gave voice to some ambivalence or mixed feelings as a writer who was

relatively on the margin, certainly on the margins of the mainstream. I

expressed some discomfort with being pushed in the middle of things,” he said.

“And again, it was dumb and inconsiderate to express those misgivings in a

public way.”

In effect, Mr. Franzen was qualifying his apology-not expressing

regret at what he said about Ms. Winfrey’s show and book club, but regret at

saying it out loud.

“The fact is one, you can be married to someone and be out with

your buddies and talk about the person you love in ways you really wouldn’t

want to be heard by the person you love,” he said. “So, it was really -saying

things in the wrong place is what it amounted to.”

And indeed, though it’s hard to say that sitting through the hour-long

show would not be worth the roughly $1.5 million extra in royalty payments that

selling through the 500,000-copy Oprah-driven print run would bring, one can

understand why Mr. Franzen could be ambivalent about appearing on Oprah. For

her segments, Ms. Winfrey can turn up the Vaseline-and-gauze quotient,

encouraging authors, in line with the rest of her show’s format, to dwell on

their personal relationships, traumas and tragedies and explain how these led

them to come to the novel they produced-frequently one of the least favorite

ways that novelists like to speak about their books.

“If I were talking about somebody’s work and got into the true,

genuine literary details-ideas, images, themes-I don’t know that it would go

for very long on Oprah , on any

television show,” said a book editor. “The actual literary meat-and-potatoes of

that book are never going to be discussed on any television show.”

Much has been made of Mr. Franzen’s interview with Terry Gross on

Fresh Air , where Mr. Franzen

expressed concern that the Oprah selection may turn off male readers and called

the B-roll footage of Mr. Franzen walking through his old neighborhood in St.

Louis “bogus.”

But perhaps the most telling moment in the interview came after

he had finished discussing his concerns about being an Oprah author. Ms. Gross

began a line of questioning about how much of the novel was based upon Mr.

Franzen’s personal experiences..

Mr. Franzen responded, “Well, part of it grew out of my own

experience, and I’m guessing you’ll have a question or two along those lines.

It was-”

“He said resentfully,” Ms.

Gross interjected.

“No, no, no, no, no, no,” Mr. Franzen said. “No. I don’t watch Oprah , but I do listen to your show, so

let me leap-frog over that to … some of the thematic reasons why I was

attracted to that.”

The author was artfully dodging the whole question while sneaking

in a careful dig at Ms. Winfrey. NPR had asked an Oprah question, and he didn’t

want to answer it.

To be sure, the Franzen-Winfrey dispute has taken on a life of

its own also because of the amount of literary rubbernecking and petty envy.

Mr. Franzen, with his well-reviewed book, souped-up handsome-man jacket photo

and the kind of glossy-magazine advance hype Angelina Jolie can’t get, was

simply on too high of a run, some said, which made him a big, easy target.

“Look, let me put it to you bluntly,” said an editor. “The

literary world runs on envy. The envy level in respect to Jonathan Franzen was

already running at flood tide before The

Corrections was selected by Oprah. It was simply too much to bear that in

addition to being knighted as the literary man of the hour for his book, that

he should become rich from it as well. Jon Franzen simply had too much good

fortune for one book at one time, and so he needed to be made to feel bad about

it.”

But then again, Mr. Franzen also took on the one person he wasn’t

supposed to challenge-in New York or anyplace else.

“This is so fucking weird! This whole thing,” said the same

editor. “This wonderful woman devotes a portion of her daytime program to

praise-songs to particular novels that not only bring news of literature to an

area of broadcasting that was totally devoid of it, but that manages to

motivate hundreds of thousands-even millions-of readers to go out and buy that

book, and the literary world has a problem with this? I mean, in its darkest

terms, that’s insane.”

A little bit later, the editor ended the interview by saying,

“Can I stop talking about this now? It just upsets me.”