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Oprah's book club christens Franzen's 'Freedom'

The talk-show maven seems to have forgiven the bestselling author after their 2001 kerfuffle.

September 18, 2010|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

Oprah Winfrey went back to author Jonathan Franzen for her book club on Friday, admitting "we have a little history this author and I." Winfrey selected the 51-year-old writer's new novel "Freedom," as the first selection of the final season of her syndicated show.

"Now you haven't heard me say this word often, but this book is a masterpiece," she said on her television broadcast.

The choice was to some surprising.

In 2001, Franzen's book "The Corrections" was selected for Oprah's book club, an honor that often propels books to bestseller lists. Franzen, however, expressed ambivalence about the choice, calling some of her selections "schmaltzy" in remarks that were widely circulated. In response, Oprah declined to have him on her show, and for a time severely curtailed her book club selections.

Yet Oprah's selection of Franzen's novel Friday fits with her grander narrative of redemption and reconciliation. "Oprah Absolves Franzen," Entertainment Weekly declared Friday. "That she appears benevolent and humble is very Oprah and very nice," Macy Halford wrote on the New Yorker's book blog. "There is a genuineness at the heart of this particular venture."

Franzen appeared in Los Angeles Thursday night to read and discuss his new novel at the Library Foundation's Aloud series. Although the author declined to discuss the news before Oprah's official announcement, fans were happy to hear that it was in the works.

"Oh, I think that's great, " said author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, who attended the Franzen event Thursday night with her book group. Bynum was named one of the New Yorker's "20 under 40" earlier this year. "I'm pleased that she didn't let the kerfuffle influence the way she feels about this book."

Although the selection for Oprah's book club is a closely guarded secret in publishing and broadcasting, news that Franzen's book had been chosen leaked Thursday after anonymous booksellers told the Associated Press they had seen copies of "Freedom" with the Oprah book club sticker on the cover. Winfrey posted the news on her website Friday morning.

In announcing her latest selection Friday, Winfrey said that her book club would be going with her after she leaves commercial television.

The 576-page "Freedom" is, by all accounts, a major work. The Times book critic David L. Ulin called it a "rich and nuanced novel," that is a "consuming and extraordinarily moving book."

The critical attention has generated controversy in the few weeks since the book's release. Bestselling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult used the discussion of Franzen's "Freedom" to call attention to the ways they believe book reviews treat male and female authors, and their novels about home and family.

Yet Franzen's book sales have not suffered. According to Nielsen BookScan, "Freedom," which went on sale Aug. 31, had sold 97,000 copies before Oprah's announcement. Sales have been so brisk that some bookstores have had a hard time keeping it in stock.

Publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux says that the book is now in its fifth printing, with 337,500 copies in hardcover. It is currently No. 1 on the Times bestseller list.

carolyn.Kellogg@latimes.com

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