This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

September 30, 2002 — Who says he's stupid on purpose, just to sell books? No, no, no, his supporters insist — the fact that Jonathan Franzen goes public with his walking thumb act at the same time that he just happens to have a new book out is merely an amazing coincidence.

Whatever: Last month, while most of the book industry was enjoying the annual book industry holiday known as August, Franzen 1) released the paperback version of his novel, "The Corrections" and, B) stuffed his famous foot down his gullet once again. Then, in the manner of a gin–mill intellectual who insists he's sober by smashing a beer can onto his forehead, Franzen followed up with another foot–chewing session.

This time, it was all prompted not by the sexism and latent racism that led him to renege on having been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her TV talk show book club — remember? When he said book clubs in general, and Winfrey's "coffee klatch" in particular, made him uncomfortable? — but by the chance to, er, choose a book himself for another, er, talk show book club.

Yes, in late July Franzen actually participated in NBC TV's "Today" show book club, wherein some generic establishment author is asked to select a book by a newcomer. Franzen, following in the footsteps of culture vulture John Grisham (who selected Stephen L. Carter's "The Emperor of Ocean Park," a book most critics decried not as much for being bad as for being published), selected Adam Haslett's "You Are Not A Stranger Here." What's more, Mr. Quality Control admitted that Haslett is a former student of his.

But the real fun came about two weeks later, when the Underground Literary Alliance — the renegade group led by Karl "King" Wenclas and dedicated to exposing New York's literary elite — uncovered the fact that just after Franzen had accepted Winfrey's offer to be on her book club and his publisher had shipped another 400,000 copies of his book with the Oprah's Book Club seal on them, at which point he had essentially quit the club, the multi–millionaire author had won a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $20,000. Franzen had applied for the award, supposedly intended to help struggling writers, after signing his million–dollar contract for the book and movie versions of "The Corrections." What's more, his good friend Rick Moody had been on the judging panel.

Most people would have gone into "no comment" mode, as, say, fellow multi–millionaire Rick Moody had done when the ULA had discovered that he'd been given a Guggenheim Fellowship, another grant for struggling writers.

But you've got to hand it to J–Franz: he immediately started talking.

Seemingly completely nonplused by the query, the novelist told the ULA he had, of course, been engaged in a covert operation to make up for the fact that the NEA's budget had been cut by right–wingers in Congress. "I used all of it [the $20,000] to buy work from a couple of underappreciated visual artists I know, since visual artists can't get NEAs anymore," he explained.

But of course, two paintings for $20,000 doesn't sound like the price tag for work by artists who are exactly struggling. And so, the heat was on.

The New York Post's Page Six column immediately picked up the story and ridiculed Franzen, while the trade newsletter PW Daily mischievously used the occasion to remind booksellers of Franzen's disparaging comments about independent bookstores (he'd said he was happy to see them disappearing, calling them "badly stocked, weirdly opinionated, ickily self–congratulatory." Hey, he ought to know.)

Franzen, as is his wont, then immediately went into spin control for himself, which is to say he called Page Six reporter Ian Spiegelman and began the work of digging the hole deeper by changing his story. He hadn't bought two expensive paintings, he told Spiegelman. He'd meant to say he'd spent the money on "17 sculptures" by a struggling artist who was, no kidding, really struggling.

Well, when first we practice to deceive, etc. — the increasingly complicated plot came to an abrupt end in another phone call to Spiegelman two days later. It seems J–Franz hadn't read the contract he'd signed upon accepting the NEA, but, well, someone had pointed out to him that you're not supposed to spend NEA money on anything other than expenses related to your writing. Oopsie!

So, Franzen told Spiegelman he'd use the money for, er, "research" on his next novel.

Meanwhile, how's that new release of "The Corrections" doing? It's number ten on the New York Times bestseller list. And a new collection of Franzen's essays, "How to Be Alone," is getting rave previews.

Clearly, sometimes it pays to be stupid.

Of course, it won't pay for the National Endowment for the Arts. As if they needed more bad publicity about how they spend the taxpayers' money. I've always considered myself a poster child for how the NEA is supposed to work — I've never made more than poverty–level wages as a writer, and when I won an NEA ten years ago, it led to the most prolific and award–winning stretch of publication I've ever had.

But even I feel critical of an organization that would allow its precious funds to be so wasted. Both Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen deserve public chastisement for their unethical swindle of the taxpayers and more deserving writers. And Franzen ought to give the money back immediately. Anything less is an outrage.

And as much of a buffoonish laughing stock as Franzen continually proves himself to be, it's time for people to realize there's nothing funny about how detrimental this "serious, high–art literary writer" is ultimately proving to be for mother literature.

Last Week’s Column: WHY On a book tour for a poetry anthology, people keep asking our intrepid columnist: Why poetry, why now?


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