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Franzen just says no to Oprah

Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

While the news in the American publishing industry concerns its lofty goals of responding with flags flying to the terrorism war, it's nice to know there's still time for a good old-fashioned catfight.

 
 
This week's
book reviews

"Mrs. Kennedy
The Missing Years of the Kennedy Years"

"Sky Of Stone"


Children's Corner
Teen-agers learn to cope with losing loved ones


Book & Author Dinner
Secret tapes contribute to tell-all epic

   
 

The fur has settled a bit between novelist Jonathan Franzen and TV's Oprah Winfrey who had a falling-out over his reservations about appearing as her author of the month in October.

Unless you've been in germ-free isolation recently, you know that Winfrey canceled Franzen's appearance after he announced that he felt "uncomfortable" with the prospect that his best seller, "The Corrections," would have an Oprah Book Club sticker slapped on it.

"I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it," he said last month. Franzen added that most of Winfrey's other selections were not in the same "high-art literary tradition" as his books.

Anyone who had read Franzen's searching and revealing 1996 essay, "Perchance to Dream," in Harper's would not be surprised by his comments. Apparently, the large staff behind Winfrey's book club failed to do so. If they had, I believe they would have told their boss to avoid this guy.

At the time he wrote the essay, Franzen had published two novels which, despite favorable reviews, did not sell well. He became depressed and used the essay to explain both the cause of his malaise and its cure.

He faced the question: Was it a sickness of his soul or a sickness in society that caused literary fiction to seem irrelevant?

Anticipating the attention that Oprah would bring him five years later, Franzen wrote that for authors today, "money, hype, a limo ride to the Vogue [photo] shoot were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture."

In this 19-page article, Franzen raises several key issues that are still true today, but the point that bears on the Oprah situation is the place of a serious artist in a culture that most values financial success and celebrity.

A spot on Oprah Winfrey's show contains elements of both. The author becomes a well-recognized name and makes a lot of money after an appearance. In return, the writer virtually becomes the property of Harpo Productions, Oprah's company, in the month or so leading up to the appearance.

A young novelist whose life was changed overnight by her Oprah selection described the experience to me as "being taken over by Oprah's people" while the various segments were being taped.

I wasn't able to contact her at her home or through her publisher during this time. We talked later and, while she was both flattered and grateful for the attention, she found the experience a little eerie.

"I wasn't allowed to talk to anybody. Everything had to go through Oprah's people."

It's obvious from Franzen's essay that he would have rebelled at that kind of control.

"No matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run," he wrote, "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."

It's clear that Franzen has had a change of heart, a change that he recognized in the 1996 essay when he realized that he needed the "community of readers" in order to reconnect to society.

He freely participated in the publicity campaign his publisher Farrar, Straus &Giroux conducted for "The Corrections." The book became the most-talked about novel of the summer, and critical praise supported the hype.

Franzen was a best seller at last, but he could not go that extra step. The reservations about giving up his art for a month to Oprah in favor of promotion -- "I could not imagine not owning what I had written" -- proved too strong.

The publishing pundits have largely sided with Oprah over Franzen's reservations. Oprah has "elevated" the "execrable" taste of the American mass market." She has made reading "respectable again" as though it somehow has recently become an objectionable activity. She respects her viewers enough to give them books other than cheap romances, and Franzen is just an ungrateful snob.

But Franzen didn't ask to be on Oprah. "You just don't do that," said Pete Miller, spokesman for FS&G.

In fact, unlike other novelists who became best sellers after their TV appearance, he was already on the Top 10 list.

Did he need Oprah, or did she need him and his best seller? Maybe she felt it was time for something other than "middlebrow" on her show.

His objections -- a temporary loss of independence and the fear that his fine book would be seen in a lesser light -- were valid ones, and Oprah refused to address them.

If you don't play by her rules, you don't play.

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