This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

October 26, 2001 — It's official: Jonathan Franzen is a buffoon.

The author of the most hyped book to come down the pike in many a moon — "The Corrections" — got into trouble this week for some remarks so foolish they seem almost deliberately suicidal.

This, after an autumn in which he was bulletproof. Franzen, you see, had been declared by some mysterious power to be the author of this year's "it" book, and up until now had provided us with an intimidating look at the bandwagon effect — "The Corrections" was getting rave reviews before it even existed. Even before a Publishers Weekly preview dubbed it a "masterpiece" it was the buzz of the industry. So it was not so much enlightening as sickeningly inevitable — in that so much of it had so little to do with, you knew, the actual content of the book — when upon official release America's few remaining book review sections unleashed the slobbering hounds of fulsome praise and lavished "The Corrections" with citations such as the one in the New York Times Sunday Book Review that said it had "wordplay worthy of Nabokov."

A poor–man's DeLillo, was more like it to this reader, who found its dark sardonicism repellant, not to mention sophomoric, with occasionally perceptive but mostly over–written description that's slavishly imitative of the God of Boy Fiction, Don D. It also struck me as likely to have a high rate of return once all the readers who bought it because of the hype actually tried to wade into its smarmy pretentiousness.

But what do I know? Quickly indeed did the book climb bestseller lists, and was soon named a finalist for the National Book Award and, even better — and more lucrative — "The Corrections" was selected for Oprah's Book Club.

Franzen's publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux upped the initial print run of 80,000 copies to 800,000 . . . with the little Oprah's Book Club seal on each and every one. Everybody was going to get rich, and off a book that was a "masterpiece," no less.

Except then Franzen started giving interviews.

In an October 12 interview with The Portland Oregonian he said that he was upset about the little Oprah seal, for one thing. "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it," he said. Apparently, the corporate logo already on the book jacket — the one saying FSG, which is owned by the Holtzbrinck conglomerate, which is far bigger than even the mega–corp which is Oprah — was different.

Franzen also said that insofar as being chosen by Winfrey goes, "we feel it does as much for her as it does for us." After all his book, he said, "was already on the bestseller list and the reviews were pretty much all in."

Why someone from FSG did not immediately race to Portland with a large, fluffy sock is anyone's guess, but the 42–year–old boy genius was not done yet.

Three days later in an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" he told host Terry Gross that he was still conflicted about Oprah because — well, "So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say 'If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.' Those are male readers speaking."

And that's a male dunderhead speaking. And still he wasn't done. He went on to mock Winfrey's program, repeatedly asserting he had never stooped so low as to actually watch it (and don't you love a culture critic who insists he knows nothing about the culture he critiques?), and noting that he had already done some preliminary filming for his segment — "the sort of bogus thing where they follow you around with the camera and you try to look natural." He had yet to film a dinner where he met with readers — the "coffee klatsch," he called it.

Well, let's see, how many different people does that offend? Men are too stupid to read but Franzen prefers them to women readers, especially, apparently, those that watch Oprah. Is it misogyny, do you think, or class prejudice, or worse?

Whatever it was, Winfrey took the hint. On Monday, she announced, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book."

Thus does class meet boorish elitism. Franzen, through his publisher, issued an immediate sort–of apology: "I try to explore complicated emotions and circumstances as honestly and fully as I can. This approach can be productive on the page, but clearly hasn't been helpful in talking to the media, many members of which used the occasion of my book tour to raise questions about Oprah's Book Club and the supposed divisions among American readers. The conflict is preexisting in the culture, and it landed in my lap because of my good fortune. I'm sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely."

So, as it turns out, it was Terry Gross' fault; even though she started off the interview by gushing, "I read your book and I loved it!" and did not press him in the least or follow up on his blatantly chauvanistic take of Oprah's audience, she was, apparently, out to get Jonathan Franzen . . . a poor, "inexperienced" lad with only two previous books and hundreds of previous interviews and public appearances under his belt.

Still, even though it wasn't his fault, Franzen now has a real problem on his hands, and so does his publisher. Will Oprah fans — and they are legion — return his book in mass umbrage, not to mention, as per my prediction, massive relief? Will booksellers who ordered extra copies in anticipation of the now–cancelled Oprah showing demand rebates if those 800,000 copies don't sell? When, do you think, another FSG title will be an Oprah's Book Club selection?

And, as an added bonus, Franzen can kiss goodbye any chance at the National Book Award — which two years ago gave Winfrey a special medal in recognition of her contributions to the industry. Why offend her further by giving an award to the writer she fired?

In the long run, though, it's unlikely Franzen will suffer much more than that. He's already a multi–millionaire, having gotten a $1 million advance for the book, which he also sold to the movies and to 17 foreign countries during the big buildup before "The Corrections" even existed. And, even as, two days after Winfrey fired him, and one day after his loopy apology, Franzen stumbled through another — saying in a USA Today interview that "I feel bad" about offending "someone who's a hero," although "not a hero of mine per se" — and while Winfrey's fans excoriated him on the message boards of her website, highly–placed FOF's (friends of Franzen) began stirring to his support. Laura Miller, the books editor of Salon, for example, while admitting a personal friendship with Franzen and being ginger not to similarly offend Winfrey herself, wrote an editorial saying part of Franzen's problem was that "there are so many people who are primed to believe the worst of him."

Of course, this is the exact opposite of the truth — as mentioned above, no book in recent memory has been so forcefully and successfully pre–ordained to be a hit. What critic or reader wants to go against such a momentous swelling of praise? It's the ultimate in peer pressure.

And, in fact, "The Connections," I mean, "The Corrections," becoming a hit is something in which many have made heavy investments — a lot of famous critics have raved on Franzen's behalf, so they've got to be proven right; publications such as the New York Times have done multiple, fawning celebrity profiles of him, so he can't turn out to be a fool; and, of course, a prestigious publisher has printed up 800,000 copies of his book, so it's got to be good. Over time, it's a safe bet these factors will have more influence on how Franzen is treated in the media than the anger and hurt of the members of Oprah's Book Club. It'll become another one of those things where the media has a complete disconnect with its readership, not to mention reality, and Franzen's egregiously revealing, carefully articulated comments, repeated and lengthened from interview to interview, will be rendered something not so bad, something flip and less considered — say, a "gaffe" or a "slip."

Meanwhile, the sentient are left to wonder why Franzen went after Winfrey, and so repeatedly, and in such ugly fashion, and to understand that it's a revealing moment in the culture war. While yes, people like me sometimes complain about her middle–of–the–road selections — and look what happens when she picks a supposedly high–brow book — there's no question she usually chooses fine writers, often great ones, many of them overlooked minority writers. And certainly she's done wonders for the business and American literacy in hard times. Besides, all she offered Franzen was a significantly increased readership. What's to not like?

But having read his book, it all seems part of the egotism of the pose to me. He wants the DeLillo boys; everything else seemed like it was in the bag already anyway.

Well, in more ways than one, the cat, at least, is out of that bag.

Last Week’s Column: HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOBY Amidst a flurry of notices that the novel is dead comes the 150th anniversary of a great novel that seems as alive as ever.


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