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
“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
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
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
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.
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.
“He said resentfully,” Ms.
“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
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.”