the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 1   --   February, 2002

A Book, an Author,
and a Talk Show Host

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III. The Talk Show Host (Oprah)


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      III. The Talk Show Host (Oprah):

       Oprah Winfrey has a -- and is best known for her -- popular television talk show. Each episode reaches a larger audience than practically any best-selling book reaches in a year. Her Book Club segment -- a monthly one at first, but only semi-monthly by 2001 -- , devoted to a single work of fiction, is -- to judge by the response to it -- a popular part of her show. (In early April 2002, however, Oprah announced that her Book Club would no longer continue as before, and that she would only occasionally (rather than regularly) devote precious TV time to mere works of fiction.)
       Oprah's Book Club is -- make that: was -- one of the rare instances of any significant time on any popular television programme in the United States being devoted to literature in any form. Oprah's selection is also the single most anticipated event in American publishing. Being selected for Oprah's Book Club is an instant and absolute guarantee of an increase in sales in the hundreds of thousands. Any book that previously had not sold exceptionally well is instantly lifted to bestsellerdom. (In the United States, for works of fiction, no prize can claim to be anywhere near as influential in boosting sales -- sales of The Corrections barely budged after it won the supposedly prestigious National Book Award, for example. As prime movers of works of fiction the French have the Goncourt, the Brits have the Booker, the Americans have Oprah. Draw your own conclusion.)
       Franzen was well aware of what it meant for his book to be chosen by Oprah. He is quoted in The Oregonian as saying:
What this means for us is that she's bumped the sales up to another level and gotten the book into Wal-Mart and Costco and places like that. It means a lot more money for me and my publisher.
       (Curiously, he does not say that it means the book will reach a larger audience (though one might generously read that into his awkward statement about increased sales) or that more people will be exposed to his brilliant work.)
       Because -- one assumes -- of Oprah's great power, few in the publishing industry are willing to express even the slightest reservations about Oprah's incredible power, or her selections. This is unfortunate. There are the occasional snide remarks about her choices, and even a critical article now and then (see for example Cynthia Crossen's piece in the Wall Street Journal (13 July 2001) -- and then, for example, a defense of Oprah at Holt Unlimited), but by and large most approve of her doings.
       Oprah's Book Club does raise at least some questions, however. For example: a number of commentators suggested, apparently in all seriousness, that Franzen's chances of being awarded the National Book Award for Fiction were low, because the award-judges would not want to alienate Oprah Winfrey (whom they had honored a few years earlier for her contributions to American literature). Oprah's power (and potential vindictiveness) were believed to be so significant that they might trump questions of literary merit. The committee was not swayed (or not sufficiently swayed) -- Franzen's book won the award -- but the fact that industry observers and commentators thought it might be a factor in the selection of the prize-winning book is disturbing.
       More significantly, Oprah seems to be attracted to a certain type of book, telling a certain type of story. As Franzen famously said: "she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones" -- though, curiously, he doesn't name names. (The Corrections -- as a saga of a troubled family -- fits part of the Oprah-model very well, so it certainly isn't a choice that stands that far apart from any of her previous ones.) The limitations of her selections do have consequences, as publishers for example focus on books that they believe might fit the Oprah-profile (knowing that hitting the jackpot -- by being selected -- makes up for a great number of failures) while not paying as much attention to other types of literature. Oprah's audience, too, may be getting short-changed in being presented so many titles that follow a similar arc, rather than being introduced to the true riches of the literary experience -- though this may arguably be outweighed by their at least being pushed to read in the first place.
       (Reading has an incredibly good reputation; it is considered to be per se a commendable activity. Why this is is not completely clear. You'll find few more fervent reading enthusiasts than the complete review, but the benefits of reading bad books -- full of misinformed writing, full of bad writing, etc. -- escape us. Similarly, reading much popular literature strikes us as in no way superior to watching much popular television: it is merely a different sort of pastime. Good books are a different matter -- but there is little differentiation between good and bad, thoughtful and lazy, thorough and misleading in how books are considered nowadays. Getting people to pick up books is good for the publishing industry, but what is really necessary is to get people to read -- critically, thoughtfully, carefully. Oprah's Book Club does try engage readers in some discussion of the texts she considers -- but generally only to a limited extent, and too often with a rah-rah enthusiasm that doesn't allow for critical consideration of the books.)
       We also find the notion of communal reading as practiced on Oprah a slightly disconcerting notion (but that's probably a personal issue). Still: most people stopped doing that after leaving school (though people do get together in smaller-scale book clubs for the same thing). Is this large-scale read-along idea a Chicago thing (cf. the ambitious One Book One Chicago programme) ?

       (At this point we at the complete review should probably make our own opinion of and attitude regarding Oprah and her undertakings clear. We are familiar with Oprah's talk show and have seen a number of episodes, including Book Club-episodes. We have not found ourselves particularly impressed by any aspect of the show (in particular: the subjects covered and the way they are covered), beyond the superficial professionalism of the presentation of the show. We have not found the way she presents her Book Club titles or the information provided in these episodes of much interest or use. (It's not how we approach books -- but if people respond to what she does we don't have too much of a problem with that.) Only a few show-topics or guests could motivate us to tune in to the show -- maybe three or four a year grab our attention. (In other words: we aren't representative of Oprah's audience -- since we generally aren't part of Oprah's audience.)
       As to Oprah's Book Club: it appears that -- besides Franzen's book -- we have read only two of the titles she has featured (to date) -- and none of the titles have been reviewed at the complete review. We can't judge the general quality of the books she selects, but most hold little appeal to us. But remember: there are a lot of books out there, and so little reading time, and we, like most readers, have to be extremely selective in what titles we pick up.)

       We were pleased to hear that Oprah selected The Corrections for her Book Club. We had been fairly impressed by the book (see our review). It is a book that deserves to reach a large audience, and Oprah's seal of approval meant that it might reach an audience that otherwise might have shied away from it because it (and its author) seemed a bit too literary, a bit too heavy.
       Oprah was enthusiastic in endorsing the book, Franzen less so in accepting his good fortune. He said he considered turning down the invitation, and he continued to express some reservations. Nevertheless, he accepted, and went along with the pre-show preparations.
       It was Oprah then that decided she had enough: barely a month after making her selection, Jonathan Franzen was disinvited from appearing on her show and The Corrections left in Oprah Book Club limbo. (It was not de-selected and stricken from the rolls, but it was ignored, as Oprah announced: "We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book.")
       Oprah's announcement stated
Jonathan Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.
       It is a curious (and presumptive) way of disinviting someone, as if Franzen himself declined to appear. However "uncomfortable and conflicted" Franzen might have been, he had jumped through all the Oprah-hoops and gone along with everything in preparing for the show. It appears that if it had been up to him, he would have gone through with it. Oprah decided -- well within her rights -- otherwise.
       Oprah can, of course, do anything she wants on her show -- and invite and disinvite anyone she wants, for any reason. Still, her decision seems unfortunate -- and the way she did it hardly less tactful than many of Franzen's remarks.
       Franzen had made some injudicious remarks -- about corporate logos and high art and the like --, but mainly he had only raised questions about what it meant to be an Oprah selection (daring to suggest that it was not solely a boon). Oprah would have to be remarkably thin-skinned to be offended by these. More significantly: by having Franzen on the show she could have raised these issues and taken him to task. But constructive (or at least revelatory) argument isn't what Oprah wants; all she apparently wants is a nice sit-down dinner without any air of dissent.
       Oprah stated: "It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict." That is, in a way, nice. But art challenges conventions. Art calls things into question. Art stirs things up and makes us uncomfortable. Art thrives on conflict. To shy away from that so completely is to ignore the power of literature (and of Franzen's book), blunting its impact so that it is, indeed, seen as little more than harmless entertainment.
       (One of the most disappointing things about American celebrity talk-shows -- the whole gamut from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno through Oprah through Charlie Rose -- is their non-confrontational (or even anti-confrontational) approach. No critical stance is ever taken, no actor is ever asked why his or her new movie is so poor, no author why they write such tripe, etc.)

       Disinviting Franzen was, perhaps, excusable -- and perhaps not even such a great loss. All indications from his media appearances are that he is not very good at expressing himself well under such circumstances -- and usually what authors have to say about their books isn't really that interesting or informative anyway. But Oprah didn't just disinvite him: she threw out the baby with the bath water.
       Amazingly, she even said that Franzen would not appear because he "is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection". Funny -- we had thought a book had been selected, and there she was telling us it was an author that was selected.
       Indeed, Oprah sadly shows that for her, too, it really isn't about the book at all. The book is only a prop. Content is nothing, image everything.
       There was no reason not to keep The Corrections as an Oprah's Book Club selection -- and to have a show about it. The book did nothing to offend her or her audience. The book did not suddenly become less valuable or less interesting because its author proved not to be very tactful. Her audience still had just as much to gain from it and a discussion of it. The show-format Oprah traditionally adheres to would have had to be altered somewhat, but there is no reason to think that a fruitful discussion would not have ensued. But apparently that was not at all what Oprah had (and has) in mind.

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       The Franzen-Oprah fracas makes for good entertainment. Pretentious author versus populist talk-show host: a match made in heaven. It has unfolded nicely, too, as author Franzen continues to shove foot after foot in his mouth, without ever clarifying his position. He tries to respond to the whole to-do diplomatically, but every olive branch he extends winds up thorny and splintered. Oprah Winfrey, meanwhile, doesn't even bother commenting -- and, amazingly, almost no one dares even hint that she may have done something wrong as well.
       For whatever reason -- presumably because he is deeply insecure as an artist -- Jonathan Franzen felt "conflicted" about appearing on Oprah Winfrey's television show. He was even honest and forthright enough to make his feelings known -- something for which he should be commended, not chastised. However, for someone who works with words, Franzen was remarkably careless and inept in how he expressed himself. Indeed, the defining characteristic of practically all his statements on the matter was (and continues to be) their ambiguity.
       As a so-called artist, Franzen apparently seeks approval from a specific audience -- an "intellectual" audience. In his eyes, Oprah's mass-appeal apparently threatened how his book would be perceived. He saw his work being degraded by being flogged at Wal-Mart, rather than at the local independent bookstore. Suddenly, he feared, his audience (the one he wanted, the intellectual one, the literary one) wouldn't -- no, couldn't -- take him as seriously any more.
       Franzen is, of course, an idiot for thinking this way. What matters isn't how a book is perceived, but what a book actually is. It's the content that counts, not the cover.
       Yes, there are fools out there who believe a book chosen by Oprah for her Book Club by definition can't be good. But such people really are fools. They may fit the image of the type of reader Franzen would like, as they are readers with some standards (readers who don't buy their books at the supermarket check-out line, and who won't pick up the latest Michael Crichton or John Grisham), but their standards are not good ones. Not literary ones. Their standards are image-driven, and so they are empty.
       In a way one must admire Franzen: to him image is even more important than money. He was willing to jeopardize a guaranteed windfall for his misguided ideals. (As it turned out, the Oprah effect and the aftermath were strong enough (and the backlash weak enough) to leave him both with his ideals and the whole pile of cash.)
       What is worrisome, however, is that he was also willing to put image ahead of his readers. A writer who wants to be relevant, who wants to engage his culture, who wants to get more of a reaction than just "sixty reviews in a vacuum" must reach out to the public. Not just to the adoring intellectual audience he would like to have fawning over him, but the greater reading public. Oprah gave him the chance to reach it -- and suddenly it was all too much for him.
       Suddenly Franzen wondered whether it wasn't better to remain the effete artsy novelist in his ivory tower. There is nothing wrong with that, or art just for the sake of art, or looking down on your audience(s). There are few less populist book review fora than the complete review, for example; we revel in snotty obscurity. But Franzen claims he also wants to be relevant -- and so it seems odd that he would sabotage his greatest opportunity to become so. He also managed, again and again, to alienate the Oprah-audience -- those book-buyers that would normally shy away from pretentious-sounding tomes with literary aspirations like his, but who could be convinced to at least take a look at the book because of the endorsement of a bona fide populist like Oprah.

       The Corrections is Jonathan Franzen's book and, one might say, he can do what he wants with it. To a certain extent that is true. He has certain legal rights (he could, for example, eventually withdraw it from the market (he probably can't do it immediately because of the rights he signed away to his publisher) -- or from certain specific markets --, or not allow it to be translated, etc.). But by and large the book, once published, is out of his hands. Buyers, and then readers will ultimately decide the significance and the fate of the work. Which is as it should be.
       In the end content alone will triumph: the book will stand or fall on its words. But unfortunately, until then, other factors play large -- and, in this case -- dominating roles. It is not the book's content but what the book has come to stand for that currently dominates reception of the book. The Oprah-Franzen debacle is what people debate when the book is mentioned. Many of the British reviews (published, unlike most of the American reviews, after Oprah disinvited Franzen) devote considerable space to the Oprah-affair instead of focussing on the book. Articles and interviews can't get around the issue (with rare exceptions, such as the ridiculously soft interview by Franzen-employer, The New Yorker). The book itself ... well, it gets bought and, one hopes, occasionally read, but mostly it is just a symbol, a coffee table conversation piece.
       Franzen doesn't seem to mind. Presenting the proper image of himself was clearly always more important than actually getting a broad readership that might actually respond to his work. He wasn't able to shape the image completely as he wanted, but he clearly opted for the elitist label (though also admitting to his own "low taste" in his bumbling pandering way).

       Oprah made a fine choice in selecting The Corrections for her Book Club, a challenging work of serious (but also very entertaining) fiction that many members of her audience might have been reluctant to seek out on their own. Unfortunately, Oprah felt obligated to invite the author along with the book. Disinviting the author (in a rather peculiar way), she then also flung the book aside.
       Oprah's television show is personality-driven. Mainly by Oprah's own very dominating personality, but apparently also that of her guests. A book, alone, is apparently of no interest to her or her audience. It is the author that gets to take center-stage; the book is only a prop, occasionally pointed to and touched upon in conversation. What is presented to the audience is the story behind and around the story, not the work itself.
       It is one way of looking at literature. We would suggest it is a bad way.

       It is unfortunate that Oprah did not have Jonathan Franzen on her show. His weak, ambiguous comments were not flattering, but they were hardly insulting. Oprah must be aware that much the same is murmured behind her back all across the country. (Just because publishers kowtow to her in their dealings with her shouldn't make her think they actually take her (and especially her literary tastes) seriously; some do -- and some certainly don't.) Instead of addressing the issues Franzen raised, Oprah chose to make sure they would be completely avoided. Perhaps her audience can't bear the slightest hint of confrontation, perhaps she can't bear the slightest hint of disrespect. But her actions don't make the issues go away.
       Worse, far worse, than disinviting Franzen was her decision to overlook the book she had just a few weeks earlier praised so highly. Suddenly, without it's author to hold it in his lap, it wasn't worth considering any more. The message is clear: it's not the book that counts, only the author. If the author can't play along at Oprah's little game then the book isn't worth your time.
       If the consequences were restricted to Franzen's book then there wouldn't be much harm. But, specifically because this has been framed as a clash between the "high art literary tradition" and populism, the implications are much broader. All serious fiction, all "literary" fiction, all literature which aspires to more than empty entertainment or hackneyed formulations has been tarred with the same brush.
       Oprah's actions focus all attention on the author. The value of the book -- which she herself acknowledged -- is not even secondary, it is deemed irrelevant. All that matters is the author.
       In this media-age image is important. Authors must be able to present themselves effectively in print interviews, on radio, and, if they're lucky enough to have the opportunity to appear there, on television. Franzen did present himself effectively: as the otherworldly author from that high art literary tradition who looks down upon television (he doesn't even own one !). That is exactly the image he wanted to present; far from being naïve, he arguably handled the media in a masterly manner, playing it perfectly. It is, of course, not the sort of image Oprah -- whose focus is entirely populist -- is comfortable with, and in the end she decided not to allow him to perform in her carefully controlled forum.
       The real damage here is this shift of focus from the work to the author. But there are other harms as well: just as there are stupid, narrow-minded readers who won't read a book because Oprah selected it for her Book Club, there will now be even more close-minded people who won't read a book just because its author is an arrogant and obnoxious boor. (There are already a lot of people like this, but it seems safe to say that there will now be more.) Franzen believed the selection of his book for Oprah's Book Club might help "bridge that gap" (between -- one guesses -- popular and serious fiction, to put it simply). Instead, Franzen's and Oprah's concerted efforts have widened the gap. It is now an abyss.
       Books should not be judged by their covers (an idea Franzen tellingly does not subscribe to). And books -- fiction, in particular -- should also not be judged by their authors. In this age, where authors have become the product, where the first-person confessional is an all too popular form of what currently passes for fiction, the distinction between book and author has, admittedly, occasionally become blurred. But real fiction, like all real art, stands apart from its creator.
       (It is surely no coincidence that the work Franzen has published since the release of The Corrections consists of self-absorbed, first person non-fiction narratives (his pieces in The New Yorker -- where he apparently has carte blanche to publish whatever he wants -- during this time include ones about the demise of his father, the previously quoted "Meet me in St. Louis" (subtitled: "A writer's televised homecoming") and -- just what the world needed ! -- his view of the events in New York in mid-September). The one topic that might be of actual interest to readers -- the Oprah debacle -- is essentially ignored (he touches on it in "Meet me in St. Louis", but provides no insight whatsoever into any aspect of it there).)
       (Note that "Meet me in St. Louis" is now available online at The Guardian, albeit with a very different title: Ducking Out. From "meet me in ..." homecomings to "ducking out" -- how the winds shift (even if the content doesn't).)

       Authors are often obnoxious. As with athletes, as with actors and other artists, performance is in almost no way correlated to personality. Great writers have often been terrible people. Often, too, -- surprisingly -- they aren't good with words in public, they express themselves awkwardly and badly. None of it matters: all that matters is their work, the written words they produce.
       (Granted, there is an argument -- apparently a popular one in this day and age -- that in fact all that is of interest is the author as personality and that what s/he actually produces is irrelevant. Numerous examples of both popular and so-called literary authors would seem to support this model. We are strongly opposed to this attitude -- but acknowledge that it is an entirely reasonable one.)

       There are a lot of books out there, vying for attention. Serious, literary fiction gets less shelf space (especially in high-traffic outlets) and less publicity (though, admittedly, more book review coverage) than mass-market fiction. Anything that points readers towards good, worthy literature (as The Corrections is) should be applauded. Oprah generously pointed the way to The Corrections -- and her audience responded. It is only one book, but perhaps it could have helped pave the way for some of these readers to take up other challenging literature as well. Instead, ogreish author Franzen was dangled in front of them, and he proceeded to made all the wrong impressions (largely, we suggest, on purpose, as he clearly felt uncomfortable in front of this particular crowd, which wasn't at all his scene). The book sells like hotcakes but fades from view -- it is, all along, little more than a phantom, obscured from view by the two personalities, monolithic Oprah and the shifty rarefied shape that is Franzen.

       All that is relevant, at the moment, is: Oprah. All that is relevant is: Franzen. The noxious aftertaste left by the pretentious author -- taken, no doubt, to be representative of a whole class of so-called literary writers -- lingers. It is going to take a long time for the dust to settle and for the book to emerge from all this rubble. In the meantime, literary fiction won't find itself holding any greater appeal for a large part of the public.
       It is a serious blow for literature. Authors have often been at the center of literary debate instead of their books, but rarely so completely. It is not a healthy shift -- not for literature and not for readers. (Writers likely don't care much, believing that they can pull off just what Franzen did and present whatever images of themselves they want to.)

       We can only implore you: read the book -- or another book, or many books. And ignore the personalities. (And, yes, we are aware of the irony of writing a piece that focusses almost entirely on the personalities and says almost nothing about the book .....)

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