Jonathan Franzen’s criticisms of commercial culture and his concern about the commodification of literature predate his run-in with Oprah. In the omnipresent “Why Bother?”—written while he worked on the novel that would become The Corrections—Franzen anticipates some of the problems he would later encounter with The Corrections.
There’s never been much love lost between literature and the marketplace. The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness. To an economy like this, news that stays news is not merely an inferior product; it’s an antithetical product. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable.
By all accounts, an immortal work of literature was just Franzen’s goal with The Corrections. When Oprah selected it for her book club, it would not have been unreasonable for him to worry that his work of art was being transformed into the commodity of the month.
Also predating Oprah was Franzen’s awkward hovering between belletrist and bestseller. Predictably, after the publication of “Perchance to Dream,” there was monumental anticipation of his next novel. And with the anticipation came the counterbalance of revulsion. As Andrew O’Hehir wrote on Salon, “It [became] the unlikely object of a fizzing media frenzy whose superficiality [alienated] the very people most likely to admire the book. I’ve had three literate-minded friends in the past two weeks, when told I was reading The Corrections, roll their eyes and make snorting noises: ‘So—is it the Great American Novel or what?’” This common refrain of rejecting something because of its popularity is apparent on Amazon, where The Corrections’ customer reviews are split almost evenly between 1s and 5s on the one hand, and 2s, 3s, and 4s on the other. It is a polarizing book, and this polarization is largely due to factors outside of the book.
But the degree by which Franzen and the hoopla around The Corrections were larger than The Corrections itself at the time of its publication, became hugely exaggerated by the end of September 2001, and going into October.
Oprah contacted Franzen and his publisher to say she wanted The Corrections to be her next book of the month. Franzen voiced his reservations, but ultimately accepted initially when Farrar, Straus and Giroux agreed that some copies of the book would be available without the Oprah Book Club logo.
Looking back, Franzen describes being selected by Oprah as a shock:
Surprise is a word. It was so unexpected that I was almost not surprised. It was like, ‘Oh, hey Oprah. Thank you for calling. Oh, yeah. That’s nice.’ And I put down the phone, because it had literally not once crossed my mind that this might be an Oprah pick. Partly because she seldom chooses hardcovers. Partly because she does choose a lot of female authors. And partly because, as the review in the New York Times said, this feels too edgy to ever be an Oprah pick.
According to Franzen, Oprah’s producers agreed that it was a strange choice for them. But unusual or not, these uncomfortable partners had work to do. In order to prepare for Franzen’s appearance on the show, Oprah’s crew needed background footage of Franzen in Webster Woods, the suburb of St. Louis where he grew up. Never mind that he hadn’t lived in Webster Woods for close to two decades. The filming did not go particularly well, but they were proceeding with preparations for the show when the debacle really began. From Franzen’s essay “Meet Me in St. Louis”:
I’m due to take the evening’s last flight to Chicago, where, in the morning, Alice and I will tape ninety minutes of interview for Oprah. Earlier today…Winfrey publicly announced her selection of my book and praised it in terms that would have made me blush if I’d been lucky enough to hear them. One of my friends will report that Winfrey said the author had poured so much into the book that “he must not have a thought left in his head.” This will prove to be an oddly apt description. Beginning the next night, in Chicago, I’ll encounter two kinds of readers in signing lines and in interviews. One kind will say to me, “I like your book and I think it’s wonderful that Oprah picked it”; the other kind will say, “I like your book and I’m so sorry that Oprah picked it.” And because I’m a person who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas, I’ll respond in kind to each kind of reader. When I talk to admirers of Winfrey, I’ll experience a glow of gratitude and good will and agree that it’s wonderful to see television expanding the audience for books. When I talk to detractors of Winfrey, I’ll experience the bodily discomfort I felt when we were turning my father’s oak tree into schmaltz, and I’ll complain about the Book Club logo. I’ll get into trouble for this. I’ll achieve unexpected sympathy for Dan Quayle when, in a moment of exhaustion in Oregon, I conflate “high modern” and “art fiction” and use the term “high art” to describe the importance of Proust and Kafka and Faulkner to my writing.
The interview in Oregon that he refers to was with Jeff Baker of the Oregonian.9 In the article that Baker wrote, based on the interview, we see both instances of Franzen getting himself in trouble:
He said he’d think about it … Turn down Oprah? Seriously?
“Yes, I was very serious,” Franzen said. “I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it.”
What logo of corporate ownership? The sticker on the cover that says Oprah’s Book Club?
“It’s not a sticker, it’s part of the cover,” Franzen said. “They redo the whole cover. You can’t take it off. I know it says Oprah’s Book Club, but it’s an implied endorsement, both for me and for her. 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.”
And later in the same article, in response to a question about what Franzen’s participation in the book club did for Oprah:
“It gets that book and that kind of book into the hands of people who might like it.”
When asked what he meant by “that kind of book,” Franzen said being picked for Oprah’s Book Club “heightens this sense of split that I feel. I feel like I’m solidly in the high art literary tradition, but I like to read entertaining books and this maybe helps bridge the gap, but it also heightens these feelings of being misunderstood.”
In the fall-out from this article, the issue with Oprah was resolved. On October 21, she put the following announcement on her website:
Jonathan Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we’re moving on to the next book.
This was Oprah’s only public response to the Franzen controversy. Her website still displays this note, along with a glowing review of the book. The restraint is quite the contrast with the page for A Million Little Pieces, which mentions that controversy prominently.
Franzen made a string of attempted apologies in response to Baker’s article, but it was damage control, too little, too late. One of Franzen’s attempts at making amends came in his National Book Award acceptance speech, where he said, “I’d also like to thank Oprah Winfrey for her enthusiasm and advocacy on behalf of The Corrections.” This sounds somewhat insubstantial, but it is considerably better than the apology he stumbled through with USA Today: “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.”
His more successful approach was a plea for pity, which took the form of his having been ill-prepared for the public spotlight after years of isolated writing. “I was in this little room up in Harlem working away on this book that I wasn’t getting anywhere with. And the day consists of eight, ten, twelve hours of seeing no one and talking to no one.”6 For someone who is preoccupied with how the novel fits into contemporary society, specifically with regards to its place next to electronic media, and who has spent a decade working on a novel, Oprah choosing his work for her book club would be a surreal event. With this in mind, it’s easier to be sympathetic with him. It gets even easier if you accept his clarification of what he meant to say:
In the Harper’s essay, I was talking about having studied who reads fiction in this country. I, more than anybody else, know that there is no such thing as a certain kind of reader. There are people in prison who are reading Celine and Kafka and Proust. They came in there without a high school degree and they find their way to those books. Very different people find their way to work. I know that, and I think the worst of this for me is this idea that I have something against certain kinds of readers … It’s a grievous misunderstanding, because I really feel truly the opposite of that.
Accepting that Franzen does not look down on his readers, I’d like to look at his reluctance about being included in Oprah’s Book Club on two fronts: concerns about corporate control of art, and the relationship between author and reader. Because it is Franzen and his response to this situation that are at issue, I will continue to utilize his analysis in my discussion.
The first issue manifests in the Oprah Book Club logo on the hardcover edition of The Corrections. Franzen’s objection here is that the logo implies endorsement of him and by him.7 It is the by him that concerned Franzen, and why he was reluctant to accept the club’s invitation. He wasn’t sure if he supported the club. As he said in an interview with Dave Weich for Powells.com, “The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks. She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.”
This concern of Franzen’s about commerce’s control of art is one that should not have surprised Oprah. It is one of the themes of the book, given prominent voice in Chip’s character, a professor and ex-professor deeply under the influences of Marx and Foucault. It was a theme in 1996 in “Perchance to Dream,” wherein Franzen discusses the blockbuster focus of publishing, and the mistake of measuring the industry’s success by the paydays of the bestsellers. It is a theme he would turn to again in Discomfort Zone, when discussing his hero, Charles Schultz. The reason that has been such a lasting concern for Franzen is that he has a deep-seated distrust of “our expectations of entertainment (the book must bring something to us, rather than our bringing something to the book).” The desire that we should bring something to books leads into Franzen’s second hesitation with Oprah.
In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen presents two models of how fiction and readers relate: the Status and Contract models. The Status model says that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” The Contract model says, “difficulty is a sign of trouble. In the most grievous cases, it may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community; of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection—of being, in other words, an asshole.” While it appears to many readers that Franzen ascribes to the Status model, he claims to be a Contract model person, which goes some way to explaining his Oprah reservations.
If Franzen is a Contract writer then he feels responsible for a reader’s reading of his work. If readers think he made it needlessly difficult to feel sophisticated or “high,” he will have broken his end of the contract. That’s not a big deal for a novelist who writes two acclaimed books that don’t sell. But it is a problem for an Oprah Book Club author who feels like his work is going out to people who might not find their way to the book naturally. In a way, this is thoughtful of Franzen: he doesn’t want to bother innocent readers with his work, which they won’t like. But, why is he concerned about his book disappointing Oprah’s readers, if not because he does think his book is too sophisticated?
The question I would put to Franzen is why he wouldn’t trust Oprah to judge her audience better than he can, particularly when he does not watch her show? His responsibility for the book goes only as far as the words inside it. After all, it was Lynn Buckley, not Franzen who designed the cover. She has as much reason to object to the logo as anyone. And no one would have come to Franzen and told him he wrote a bad Oprah book. His readers’ recourse would have been with Oprah, not him. She didn’t change the words, even if she changed who read them.
But all of this I believe to be irrelevant to The Corrections. The book succeeds according to the criteria of both the Status and the Contract models. “With certain novels, of course, the distinction doesn’t matter so much. War and Peace, The House of Mirth: you call them art, I call them entertainment, we both turn the pages.” It’s the same with The Corrections. To return once more to Infinite Jest—a Status book to many, a Contract to some—its demanding nature is why it couldn’t be an Oprah book and The Corrections could.
For the Oprah controversy Franzen paid a price. Or, considering how much money he’s made in royalties, maybe he was paid a price for something of his artistic soul. We can understand why he might have made this bargain by looking at some of the things Franzen’s said about one of his literary heroes, William Gaddis. Franzen quotes from Gaddis’s The Recognitions,8 mentioning that the following words are from the author’s stand-in: “What is it they want from the man that they didn’t get from the work? What do they expect?” Speaking further about Gaddis, Franzen says, “Gaddis recognized that no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who’s really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.” This, it seems, is what Franzen should have done: followed the reclusiveness of Roth, Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis.
But that only works from the social perspective. For the individual, Franzen from the inside, being silent like Gaddis felt like being oblivious instead of obscure. And he didn’t want to be isolated. Recall from Franzen’s Charlie Rose interview, “People are lonely. You’re alone with yourself. And novels are about connecting across the great gaps from the rather lonely center of one person to the rather lonely center of another.”
The Corrections does this very well. Whatever else we might think of the Lamberts, we certainly see them struggling through their lives. As we read on Oprah’s website, “Finishing The Corrections, we feel (as we do in real life) awe and profound respect for the bravery and resilience of the deeply flawed human beings who manage to be born, and die, and survive all the moments between.” Franzen, too, we saw struggle through this saga. His public fumblings humanized him greatly, even if they did not exactly warm everyone to him.
Laura Miller wrote in an article on Salon that, “Oprah’s selection of The Corrections was a bold, generous choice for a book that is also bold and generous. If the author has on this occasion lacked the nerve and imagination of his creation, well, writers are human beings, too, and sometimes they screw up. The books are what matter, if we could just manage to remember that.” Franzen agrees, even if his actions didn’t always suggest it:
I worked for many years to find that tone for the book, and I worked for many years to find a structure that would make the book really, really work. And that’s intrinsically uninteresting material, so there is this kind of, “Okay, well, let’s talk about the person.” And then I sort of trot out my really rather ordinary life experiences, and feel as if I’m a disappointment … I wish I had something more interesting to say, but the book is where it’s at; the author is not.
In this last sentiment Franzen is right: The Corrections, in more ways than one, is where it’s at.
From a Charlie Rose interview.
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