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A Reluctant Member of the Club

An author suffers slings and arrows over his response to Oprah.

November 01, 2001|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Why is everybody so upset with Jonathan Franzen? All he did was to utter publicly what countless other writers have long thought: that the Oprah-ization of American literature may have its problems after all.

Six weeks ago, after his third novel, "The Corrections," was picked for Oprah's Book Club, Franzen expressed ambivalence at the selection, especially the placement of Winfrey's logo on the dust jacket, which, he has said in interviews, made him feel "like there's my book, and then there's her book, and they're not necessarily the same." It was that logo of corporate ownership that was gnawing at him, he said. His comments prompted Winfrey to take the unprecedented step of uninviting Franzen from appearing on her show, although "The Corrections" remains a book club choice.

Meanwhile, he has become a favorite target of the very literary press that, just a month ago, couldn't bend over far enough to accommodate him. He has been vilified as ungrateful, a whiner, someone without the grace, or the intelligence, to embrace his status as a major media star.

All this makes for a compelling story, but unfortunately, it's the wrong one. The Oprah-Franzen flap is not entirely about what Publishers Weekly columnist Steven Zeitchik calls "juicy questions of literary celebrity, media icons, hi-lo art and spin control"; if these topics are in play, it's because a scandal-hungry media have put them there.

"Somehow," Franzen says by phone from his home in Manhattan, "the media have gotten the idea that I don't like Oprah and her book club. But through it all, I have never felt toward Oprah anything but cordial and grateful, so it is particularly painful to see this cast as me versus Oprah. That is totally not the point."

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Franzen's regret may sound disingenuous, but, in fact, he's on target. What we're looking at, after all, is a twofold issue, the first having to do with American literary culture's propensity to eat its children, the other involving his own uncertainty about where he stands. This is not, in other words, a story about hubris--or, as he puts it, "arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey"--but, rather, one of visibility, the story of what happens when a writer's work grows too large for it to be controlled.

Control, of course, is one of the engines the American literary community runs on, especially at a time like this, when the mainstream seems to have passed it by. Like any subculture unsure of its importance, it operates by hierarchy, assigning value to certain books and authors, seeking to set itself apart.

In the last few weeks, Franzen says, he's been approached by people who consider him a hero for what they see as snubbing Winfrey, which "makes me uncomfortable; I want to tell them, 'I'm not who you think I am."' On the other hand, he has a similar reaction to readers who attack him, who consider his response the height of insolence. In that sense, it's not only Franzen who's ambivalent about Winfrey, but the entire literary universe, which wants to embrace her visibility, her market potential, while seeking distance from the pandering this implies.

"There's a fundamental anti-intellectualism in American culture," notes Janet Fitch, whose first novel, "White Oleander," was an Oprah book in 1999. "But side by side with that is a distinct strain of intellectual elitism, what you might call the ragged elite." As a result, Fitch suggests, literary culture often suffers from a garret mentality, the idea that publicity is incompatible with art. "If you remove the garret, the suffering," she says, "identity crumbles. If you're not keyed to success, you can be ambivalent about acceptance outside your circle."

Fitch's comment is a telling one, for it captures the paradox of Franzen's situation to a T. Anticipated as the literary event of the year, "The Corrections" has exploded like a pipe bomb in the messy middle ground where literature and commerce collide. Even now, it continues to occupy such a territory; amid the furor over Winfrey, the book was nominated for a National Book Award, and in spite of everything--or perhaps because of it--it still sits atop national bestseller lists.

Faced with that, what writer wouldn't be confused, especially one like Franzen, who, just five years ago, published a long essay in Harper's lamenting the state of the American novel, whose pleasures he regards as discrete and singular, antithetical to consumer culture and its desires? "Even now," he says, "I can't comprehend the success of the book in any way but one reader at a time; when strangers come up and say they like it, that I get, but the media stuff simply doesn't signify."

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