Too Good for Oprah

by | Nov 7, 2001

Jonathan Franzen liked it when Publishers Weekly dubbed his new novel, “The Corrections,” a “masterpiece.” He liked it when his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, sent advance copies of the book to reviewers with a note from the editor-in-chief calling it “one of the very best [books] we’ve published in my 15 years at FSG.” […]

Jonathan Franzen liked it when Publishers Weekly dubbed his new novel, “The Corrections,” a “masterpiece.”

He liked it when his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, sent advance copies of the book to reviewers with a note from the editor-in-chief calling it “one of the very best [books] we’ve published in my 15 years at FSG.”

He liked it when The New York Times said “The Corrections” was “everything we want in a novel” and when Fortune called it “the novel of the year” and when Newsweek described its last 100 pages as “unforgettably sad, indelibly beautiful” and when the Philadelphia Inquirer declared, “This is a great book. It needs to be read.”

He liked it when “The Corrections” was touted as Pulitzer material and when it was named a National Book Awards finalist.

He liked it when the book’s first printing was upped to 65,000 — huge for a guy whose last novel sold fewer than 20,000 copies — and when foreign publishers paid handsomely for translation rights, and when Hollywood producer Scott Rudin (“Wonder Boys”) snapped up the film rights.

He liked it when “The Corrections” made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers List, debuting at No. 5 on Sept. 23.

But Franzen, it would seem, didn’t like what happened next.

On Sept. 24, Oprah Winfrey hailed “The Corrections” as “the best 568 pages I’ve read in years” and chose it for her popular book club. That endorsement from the most influential promoter of books in history prompted Farrar, Straus & Giroux to increase the print run from 65,000 to 600,000. Legions of readers turned out to buy “The Corrections,” whose dust jacket now bore the lucrative Oprah’s Book Club logo, and it rocketed to No. 1 on The New York Times list. The added sales, it is said, will swell Franzen’s royalties by more than $1.5 million. Thanks to Oprah, millions of people who would otherwise never have heard of Franzen or his book now know something of both.

But there were no thanks to Oprah — not from Jonathan Franzen. Some authors would have reacted to such astonishing good fortune by expressing heartfelt gratitude. Franzen offered whiny insults instead.

“Do we have to have that Oprah symbol on the front of the book?” he asked in one interview. “There’s something very uneasy-making for me about having that corporate branding right there next to my name and title.” Not so uneasy as to decline Oprah’s imprimatur (and the extra $1.5 million in royalties), you understand. Just uneasy enough to wrinkle his nose at the thought of the rancid masses lining up to read his book.

“I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it,” he told The Oregonian. He feared the Oprah symbol would be seen as “an implied endorsement, both for me and for her” and that her selection of his book would tarnish his artistic purity. “I feel like I’m solidly in the high art literary tradition,” he explained, and the knowledge that his book was being read by hundreds of thousands of (ugh) talk-show viewers filled him with “these feelings of being misunderstood.” Yeah, it stinks when crowds of people who never even went to graduate school show up to buy and read your “high art” novel.

On National Public Radio, Franzen commented that “more than one reader” had confided to him that they were “put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick.” He worried that men would think it was a chick book, dashing his “hope of actually reaching a male audience.” In a typical backhanded compliment, he said of Oprah: “She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself…”

Oprah finally had enough of this, and cancelled Franzen’s appearance on her show. Only then did it finally seem to dawn on him that he was being a jerk. But just as he didn’t know how to say “thank you” properly, he couldn’t manage a decent apology.

“It is so unfortunate that this is being cast as arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey,” he told The New York Times. After all, “I like her for liking my book.” But not for anything else, of course.

A few days later he tried again. “To find myself … 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.” It’s hard to say which is worse: Franzen’s manifest insincerity or his need to emphasize that Oprah is no hero of his.

Actually, what is worst is Franzen’s notion that Oprah’s vast following is a threat to good literature — that only sophisticates, not people who watch daytime TV, can appreciate the “high art literary tradition.”

Sophisticated readers are made, not born. They are made, in part, by reading more books, better books. Does the author of “The Corrections” really think that fine novels have nothing to say to people whose literary tastes are not as highbrow as his? If so, he is not only an ingrate. He is an ego-blinded snob.

Franzen thinks he’s too good for the likes of Oprah and her fans. He’s got it exactly backward.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. This is an excerpt from his weekly newsletter, Arguable, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Arguable at no charge, click here.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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