Oprah Winfrey and Franzen: One snit begets yet another

On Books

November 11, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

It's sorely tempting to call the whole thing a soap oprah. You must know the story: After producing two novels that earned quite serious critical esteem, Jonathan Franzen took 10 years to write his third, The Corrections. Reviewers hailed it as a masterpiece of literary fiction. Then on Sept. 24, Oprah Winfrey announced the book had been chosen for her chat-show book club -- televised dinner with the author and all.

On the readings-and-signing circuit, Franzen told interviewers that he was far from thrilled by the distinction, now most famously asserting that "I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition" -- which he suggested has little or nothing to do with Winfrey's values.

Franzen's condescending snit begot a retaliatory snit from Winfrey. Swiftly, she put out a statement that "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. ... We're moving on to the next book."

Sic transit Oprah.

Most writers today, serious or superficial, cynical or sincere, believe that a Call to Oprah is the equivalent of hitting the top box of the top lottery. They know that being touted as an O-Club pick can increase sales of their books by 500,000 copies or substantially more. In conventional royalties , that can mean well more than $1 million. They immediately imagine a lifetime of utter ease and freedom to write absolutely whatever they want to at whatever pace or place they choose.

Franzen issued something like an apology, sliced so thin that many took it to be churlish. Winfrey declared on Oct. 22 that her show would have nothing to do with Franzen. Publisher's Weekly, the pre-eminent trade magazine, called the whole thing "one of the strangest turns in the recent history of book publishing."

The saga is a sort of Wagnerian superlative of the dilemma that occurs when writers turn into marketers. For most writers I have known, going on the road is grindingly humiliating. But, praying for recognition and sales, a call to major television is hugely exciting. The mainstay of such interviews -- and nowhere more than on the Winfrey show -- is painfully probing questions about the author's private life, with only superficial pretension that those agonies have much to do with literature.

That is the heart of the conflict for authors. Which is more hideous: To feel trivialized or humiliated by gossipy personal probings before a huge audience -- or to endure the terror of anonymity, to feel ignored, to sense one's self has disappeared?

From my observation, most meter maids and many street panhandlers get more respect from strangers than do most writers -- who lead lives of quiet deprivation.

I am not talking about industrial authors -- those trade-mark names that appear on bestseller lists but never in book reviews, those whose works seem more like the product of an assembly line than an artistic mind. They may have agonies of their own -- Danielle Steel, who has sold something like a half-billion volumes of genuine trash, recently shed her fifth or sixth husband, and is said to be miserable.

Such personal trials are not related to the woes of the writer who gets inadequate recognition while deeply aspiring to produce art -- an immortal pursuit of truth that will endure for all time.

I see them at book signings, in interviews. I see them, brave and troubled hearts, feeling that they are debasing themselves by chatting about or reading aloud from work they deeply believe deserves to be read in full.

Rightly or wrongly, they perceive these knots or handfuls of listeners in bookshops to be the same posse of pensioners who the night before, the shop before, the city before, came in out of the heat or cold to drink the same plastic cup of flat, warm white wine and to nod off.

This can take its toll. It did with Jonathan Franzen.

I know of no scholarly study of the full inventory of the quality and nature of O-books, as the trade calls them. Many have been efforts by distinguished authors, if not usually, as Franzen put it, "from the high-art literary tradition." Nothing by John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro -- all of whom had highly recognized books out in the last two years.

Among the O-Clubbers have been Toni Morrison, Jane Hamilton, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat and Andre Dubus. I have not read all the O-books, but critics I respect and who have made what appear to be careful looks report that they often tend toward victimhood, sexual abuse in childhood, really bad marriages, social issues that emphasize private personal suffering. Whatever the often considerable literary merits, that holds high potential for exploitation in daytime chat television.

Everybody agrees that books chosen by Winfrey (or her staff) automatically crank up immense sales -- sales that would never occur otherwise.

But no one questions that all the O-books were going to be reasonably well-read anyway. The endorsements mean a huge addition to the total number of sales for the individual books. Does that mean an expansion of total readers? Not necessarily, I would guess. Buyers, certainly. Such is the selling power of high-intensity mass-market television persuasion. No one can be sure what proportion of those suddenly created buyers actually read the books.

The moral of the tale?

This drama has nothing to do with literature or aesthetic values. It's all about commerce and egos, petty posturing, the dangers of being blinded by footlights. And bunglingly self-important though he may be, I'm on Franzen's side.

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