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

A Book, an Author,
and a Talk Show Host

(page 2)

page 1 | page 3

      II. The Author (Franzen):

       In his much-quoted 1996 Harper's article Franzen wrote:
For a long time (...) I took a hard line on letting my work speak for itself. I refused to teach, to review for the Times, to write about writing, to go to pub-industry parties. To speak extranovelistically in an age of personalities seemed to me a betrayal; it implied a lack of faith in fiction's adequacy as communication and self-expression, and so helped, I believed, to accelerate the public flight from the imagined to the literal.
       He went on to write that he learned his lesson (long before the publicity department at Farrar, Straus & Giroux put together his book tour for The Corrections): silence isn't the answer. And, if nothing else, what he did wind up saying did attract attention.
       Whether his latest book, The Corrections, itself was then entirely subsumed by his extranovelistic antics remains to be seen: the work was certainly not allowed to speak for itself. At this stage (less than half a year after its publication), the book itself looks to have had an impact much like that of his first novel: lots of media attention, some fabulous reviews, but little wide resonance. The Corrections has now racked up huge sales, but whether people are actually reading it and responding to it remains an open question.
       In an interview with Sven Birkerts (conducted 5 September, when the book had just been made available) Franzen notes:
I feel like I'm getting a lot of publicity and that there are a lot of sales, but I'm not sure if the book is a youth phenomenon, particularly. The thing that's driving it locally is editors between thirty-five and fifty, who find the book relevant.
       He certainly was getting a lot of publicity, and sales were presumably already good (or at least bookstore orders; it was still pretty early for there to be many sales) -- but how odd to assess the expectations for a book by the reaction of "editors between thirty-five and fifty". (Writing about his first novel in the Harper's article Franzen recalls: "the optimism of publishers who imagined that an essentially dark, contrarian entertainment might somehow sell a zillion copies". Presumably, it was editors in a similar age-group back then too that enthused over his work. And, again: The Twenty-Seventh City got a great deal of publicity and some great reviews too ... just not the sales.) Already here Franzen was looking towards a certain audience, finding approval exactly where he wanted it -- in a tiny demographic, but one that could appreciate his work as part of the "high art literary tradition".

       The Corrections was well on its way to becoming, if not a blockbuster, at least a bestseller by mid-September, and Franzen will have been well-pleased. Still: solid sales don't necessarily mean great impact -- or much of any impact at all.
       The announcement that The Corrections had been selected for Oprah's Book Club then put it in another league, guaranteeing a huge number of additional sales. The selection also guaranteed something else: a public debate about the book. Sure, Franzen embarked on an extensive book tour where he would engage readers and answer their questions, sure, he would discuss the book on radio shows -- and maybe he had even already been booked to appear on PBS's show with Charlie Rose. But Oprah offered much more: a larger audience, and the guarantee that at least a fair number of viewers would have at least taken a look at the book. At one go, Franzen would be faced with -- and able to address -- an enormous audience that had actually made some sort of effort to immerse itself in his text and would be willing to try to respond to it -- something that most of the radio chat shows and Charlie Rose could not offer. For an author who wants to show the relevance of his writing, here was the ideal stage.

       So what did Jonathan do ? He expressed reservations.
       Apparently he expressed reservations numerous times. The most damaging statements seem to have been those printed in The Oregonian (12 October).
       First, Franzen stated that he considered turning down Oprah's invitation, explaining that he saw the book as his creation and didn't want "that logo of corporate ownership on it" -- meaning the Oprah-sticker that would be published on the cover of the next editions of the book. This alone should have been enough to tip off readers what Franzen's true concerns are: image is everything, content is nothing. (As we will see, this seems also to be Oprah's sole concern.)
       Oprah's seal is an endorsement, if not quite a corporate logo. Aesthetically it isn't pleasing -- but then many covers aren't aesthetically appealing even without stickers disfiguring them. But aesthetics weren't Franzen's concern. The New York Times (29 October 2001) reported:
He said he had no problem with any number of alterations -- including logos and pictures of actors on paperbacks editions reissued after the book becomes a movie.
       No, Franzen's reasoning was that there is something special about a book when it is first published, that it's "the one moment to have your name and the title of your book on the cover". (These, of course, remain on the cover, even when Oprah's sticker is put on them ... perhaps Franzen wasn't aware of that ?) Franzen also said: "The reason I got into this business is because I'm an independent writer, and I didn't want that corporate logo on my book."
       Franzen ignores a number of points:        Clearly, it was specifically the Oprah-endorsement he found objectionable -- just as he embraced the FSG-association (with all the benefits that come with it, including the "literary"-label) and the ridiculous blurbs provided by his friends and admirers for the back cover.
       (In one of Franzen's most bizarre comments -- showing how out of touch with the real world he is (and giving some insight into his own feeling of self-importance) -- Franzen also said that getting picked by Oprah's Book Club is "an implied endorsement, both for me and for her". This particular implication -- that there is some reverse-endorsement benefiting Oprah because she selected The Corrections (or because Franzen allowed her to select it ?) -- escapes us.)

       Franzen is also quoted in The Oregonian as saying:
I feel like I'm solidly in the high art literary tradition, but I like to read entertaining books and this maybe helps bridge that gap, but it also heightens these feelings of being misunderstood.
       The words "high art literary tradition" got a lot of play -- "a phrase he'll ironically be linked with forever", Verlyn Klinkenborg opined in an editorial in The New York Times (30 October 2001).
       Franzen tried to excuse and explain himself. In The New York Times (29 October 2001) he is quoted as acknowledging: "Mistake, mistake, mistake to use the word 'high' ". (Note that he acknowledges not choosing his words carefully, but does not distance himself from the substance of what he said. His statement here suggests he believes he merely expressed himself badly.)
       Elsewhere he puts a different spin on his words. It is unclear whether Franzen is referring to the statements quoted in The Oregonian when he wrote in The New Yorker piece, "Meet me in St. Louis" (24/31 December 2001; now available online as Ducking Out at The Guardian):
... in a moment of exhaustion in Oregon, I conflate "high modern" and "art fiction" and use the term "high art" to describe the importance of Proust and Kafka and Faulkner to my writing.
       In The Oregonian quotes there is no mention of these authors -- is he referring to another mention of the words "high art", or is he trying to pull a fast one over on readers of The New Yorker who don't have access to his original statements (or at least the way those statements were reported) ? (And isn't "art fiction" -- whatever the hell that might mean -- an equally pretentious term ?)
       Franzen's statement, as quoted in The Oregonian, seems clear enough. Note how he implies that "entertaining books" are something clearly different from "the high art literary tradition" -- the old canard that if it is literature it can't be entertaining. It is something that apparently deeply haunts Franzen: try as he might he is embarrassed by the idea that his book might be accessible, or a fun read (as if that meant it couldn't possibly be challenging or thoughtful).
       In an interview with Dave Weich (at, Franzen graciously if circumspectly responds to Weich's comment that he found The Corrections "hard to put down", saying "I'm glad you found it that way." Before Weich's insistence that the novel is a good read can get out of hand Franzen then cuts in: "Yet in some ways, I think it's less immediately readable than the other two" (meaning his previous two novels -- about which Weich had just said "I could hardly force myself through them !").
       In fact, the most offensive part of Franzen's statement quoted in The Oregonian is his concern about "these feelings of being misunderstood". Clearly, it is more important to him that an intellectual audience (or one from the high art literary tradition) is drawn to his book than that members of Oprah's audience are. If it is labeled a popular book, a book with mass-appeal, then it apparently might not be seen the way Franzen wants it to be seen. Franzen has no faith whatsoever in the vast majority of his potential readers. (Note that nothing about the book itself, not a word Franzen wrote, is altered by the book being an Oprah selection.)

       In the interview Franzen made some other remarks regarding the Oprah-selection:
The problem in this case is some of Oprah's picks. She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight. And she's an easy target.
       These comments also met with a lot of criticism: apparently Oprah's book-selections are generally considered beyond reproach (not necessarily good, mind you -- just beyond reproach). Unfortunately, Franzen doesn't specify which titles make him cringe. (He also doesn't explain what this "good fight" that Ms. Winfrey is fighting is.)
       In a Newsweek article (5 November 2001) Franzen mentions that he doesn't own a TV, and he is quoted as saying: " 'The Oprah Show,' like almost everything on TV, is not really quite real to me because I don't see it". His pleas of ignorance sound fairly disingenuous: for someone who doesn't see Oprah's show he certainly seems to know enough about it (and her other Book Club selections, and the good fight she is apparently fighting).
       Franzen likes to plead ignorance (of the arty-otherworldly kind) and naïveté. On the one hand he likes to say he is dealing with the real world in his books, but, when it's convenient -- or when it fits the image of himself he is trying to promote --, he admits he isn't very in touch with the real world.
       His excuse that he doesn't watch Oprah is a feeble one, and it also raises questions about his claims about himself and his fiction.
       For one: how can any author aspiring to write insightfully about American society not have a television ? Yes, there are segments -- slivers -- of American society that don't have televisions, but the masses certainly do have it. Indeed, other than the Amish, so-called intellectuals are probably the only group who probably don't have televisions in any significant numbers (not that those numbers are very significant -- television ownership among US households is somewhere high in the 90th percentile).
       In a 17 December interview, posted at The New Yorker's website (but not published in the magazine itself), Franzen admits: "I love TV, too, but mainly as a means of procrastinating." He also says: "If I ever buy a TV, it will be mainly to watch sports." In his 1996 Harper's article he wrote of a time when he apparently still had one (though he didn't get cable), noting that "I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV".
       TV bad, being a novelist good: it is a recurring theme in Franzen's statements throughout. And surely it is this attitude that led rise to his (honest) comments: he was wary of the audience that watched Oprah, the masses who permitted this "banal ascendancy of television" -- and he believed himself better than it.
       (His chariness is not absolute: Franzen had no such qualms about appearing on Charlie Rose's talk show, with its PBS imprimatur and intellectual (if tiny) audience. Indeed, he had appeared on it at least once long before the publication of The Corrections (apparently dragged in front of the cameras by friend David Foster Wallace -- so The New York Times of 29 October 2001). Charlie Rose does reach an audience that Franzen is probably more in tune with -- those "editors between thirty-five and fifty", for example, who were so supportive of his book. Note, however, that Charlie Rose is intellectually hardly more engaging than Oprah -- or Jay Leno, for that matter. Yes, the guests aren't giggling pop-stars, but rather imposingly attired states- and business-men and intellectuals (with a few actors and athletes and the like thrown in for good measure), but Rose does little more than provide them with a platform for their little spiel (much as The Tonight Show or Oprah does). He kowtows to his guests and considers their works largely uncritically. His deference is no doubt appreciated by the likes of Franzen: Rose didn't ask any probing questions about the Oprah-affair -- but he also didn't ask any very probing questions about The Corrections.)
       There is nothing wrong with Franzen's attitude towards television -- though one might wish he were clearer in expressing what exactly that attitude is. In fact: there is nothing wrong with Franzen not feeling comfortable appearing on Oprah and engaging with her audience. Maybe he feels unable to do it. Maybe he just doesn't want to have anything to do with the people who make up the bulk of Oprah's audience. Prissy elitism is -- or can be -- a defensible position. And Oprah's Book Club shouldn't necessarily be unquestioningly embraced: a healthy critical look at Oprah's previous selections and the influence her selections have on, for example, the publishing industry seems entirely warranted.
       What is unfortunate is that in alienating so many people Franzen pulls his book down with him. It becomes guilty by association, taken to be a mirror of its asinine-appearing begetter.
       Franzen's ambivalent approach is entirely off-putting: he is apparently a man with no convictions. People who have difficulty separating an artist from his work (and there seem to be many such people) could hardly expect much from a man spouting such a mix of ill-considered, conflicted, and conflicting pronouncements.
       Franzen rarely seems to say what he means; instead, he seems to say what he thinks people want to hear. He acknowledges this in his article in The New Yorker of 24/31 December 2001, offering it as an odd sort of excuse:
And, because I'm a person who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas, I'll respond in kind to each kind of reader.
       He is apparently so eager to please and has so little backbone that he can be convinced of anything. People tell him they are disappointed that Oprah picked his book, and he'll agree with them. People tell him they're thrilled Oprah picked his book and he'll agree with them.
       In part that particular issue is larger than Franzen, and has to do with the greater meaning of a book becoming an Oprah selection. One wonders why people -- other than Oprah's loyal viewers and Book Club participants -- could possibly care what Ms. Winfrey thinks of a book. To imagine that it is somehow debased (or, conversely, elevated in value) by being selected for Oprah's show is absurd.
       One can grant that there probably are people who have read a representative selection of titles featured on Oprah's Book Club (say ten or so) and disliked all of them: such readers have the right to express some disappointment in a particular book being chosen, as that seems a reliable indicator to them that they will not enjoy the book. But one suspects that most people who told Franzen: "I'm so sorry that Oprah picked it" are sorry not because it says anything about the book, but rather because of Oprah's audience. One suspects that such people believe the book is too good for Oprah's audience. And one suspects that Franzen feels the same way.
       In New York (5 November 2001) Franzen's agent, Susan Golomb, helpfully explained:
He never said he didn't want to do the show. He'd shot footage. But he had a very intellectual readership. He feared that some people who might not like the typical Oprah book might not pick up the book.
       These are perhaps the panicked words of an agent who sees her percentage of the Oprah-windfall disappearing (and thus may not reflect Franzen's actual fears). Nevertheless, it is an odd defense -- an odd statement. Note the use of the past tense ("he had a very intellectual readership") -- though it is not as far-fetched as one might think: Franzen's two earlier novels had long ago fallen out of print. He never had very many readers, but in the late 1990s and in 2000 it seems safe to guess that he had essentially none (aside from his magazine-readers, as he continued to publish in The New Yorker and the like). More significantly: Golomb sees the Oprah-selection leading to an either/or dilemma: alienate his intellectual readership or alienate the Oprah folk (which she -- no doubt safely -- assumes must be not intellectual). Franzen clearly chooses one side over the other: he is more afraid of alienating his "very intellectual readership" than of alienating Oprah's viewers. A telling choice.
       It again comes down to image: the writer Franzen wants to be seen as -- and the readers he wants to have. The taint of mass-culture, of the book being made available at "Wal-Mart and Costco and places like that" -- perhaps even next to the Michael Crichton books, god forbid ! --, is just too much for him from the "high art literary tradition".
       Not that he isn't tempted by the mass-appeal ..... It should not be forgotten that Franzen never turned down Oprah: it seems safe to assume that he would have appeared on the show if he could have. Part of that was no doubt due to intense pressure from his agent and publishers and all the other people with a vested interest in the success of the book, but one imagines that, despite his enormous doubts, Franzen did sincerely want to take advantage of this great opportunity. But he also wanted it to be crystal clear that he was a reluctant guest, a visitor from another literary land.
       How far Franzen was willing to go is shown by the fact that he had already participated in preparing much of the material for the Oprah show. As described in The Oregonian:
He did a two-hour interview in Chicago with someone from Winfrey's staff, which will be edited down to three minutes on the program, and shot some "B-roll" footage with an Oprah camera crew in St. Louis.
       Franzen describes some of the humiliation he went through (and ambivalence he continued to feel) in the making of the St. Louis footage in his article in The New Yorker ("Meet me in St. Louis"; also available as Ducking Out at The Guardian). It is admittedly a one-sided account (Franzen's), and meant in part as a defense of his position, but one wonders why he put up with this. For one's book to be selected -- whether for Oprah's Book Club or the National Book Award -- may put it in some pretty dubious company, but to have one's life repackaged in this outrageous staged and completely fake manner ("we shoot four takes of me making a left turn into Webster Woods", etc.) in some elaborate and eventually ultra-compressed dog-and-pony show is outrageous. It is hard to respect any author -- indeed, any person -- who would put up with this. And apparently all of Oprah's authors do put up with it, and apparently so did Franzen.
       So perhaps his unfortunate comments were a backhanded way of backing out -- allowing him to avoid actually turning down Oprah, but, by getting her to disinvite him, at least avoiding the public humiliation of having his complicity in Oprah's (or her producers') packaging of the Franzen-product broadcast for all the world to see.
       (Another theory: Oprah disinvited Franzen not for his comments but because he was such a dud in the St.Louis footage and the taped interview. If it wouldn't make for great TV, put a different spin on it and get rid of the sure-fire ratings-loser.)

       In The New Yorker piece Franzen says: "I'll repent and explain and qualify, to little avail." There is little in Mr. Franzen's public comments that expresses much repentance -- and what explanations and qualifications he has offered seem no less wishy-washy than his original statements. Indeed, he has never, to our knowledge, made any real effort to explain or clarify his comments -- and he unfortunately does not do so in the very odd The New Yorker article or any number of interviews.
       (Noteworthy in The New Yorker article is the tense. The story is written in the present, but about events which happened in the past. This allows him to write prospectively: I will repent, he says -- admitting, perhaps, in this oblique manner ("but this is all still in the future") that he hasn't really done it yet.)
       Instead, Franzen's statements continue down much the same road he has been travelling all along. In an interview in The Independent (17 January 2002) Matthew Sweet writes:
"I was particularly dismayed," he tells me, "by the ridiculous media image of me as some raging ivory tower elitist. You had to quote very, very selectively to make me into that. In fact, The Corrections was a good Oprah choice because I have low taste myself, to use terminology in which we're stuck ..."
       As any reading of the -- admittedly often edited -- interviews shows, Franzen manages to come off as some sort of elitist (more a pathetic than a raging one) without too much help. And statements such as: "The Corrections was a good Oprah choice because I have low taste myself" don't exactly help matters. (It is what has become an almost typical Franzen statement, taking the vocabulary being tossed around and trying to make himself sound like-minded with Oprah and what she stands for -- without providing any actual information -- , and managing to offend Oprah and her acolytes once again -- here by implying that all Oprah's choices are "low taste".)
       His sense of self-importance (and self-delusion) remains undiminished, as he states in the same piece:
The intensity of vituperation and rage directed at me in October was determined by the state of the national psyche. We had op-ed pages in the New York Times where it was Anthrax, Anthrax, Afghanistan, Afghanistan, and the Villain Franzen.
       In The New York Times (29 October 2001) there were flailing attempts to (apparently) explain himself: "Both Oprah and I want the same thing and believe the same thing, that the distinction between high and low is meaningless." And yet the distinction refuses to go away in any discussion about the whole matter -- in part because he can not make it go away, in part because he does not want it to go away.
       There is a whole litany of other statements from Franzen, all leading nowhere, as well -- the empty praise of Oprah fighting "the good fight", for example. And so on.

       It was in The Independent that Franzen also made one of his most unfortunate (and revealing) remarks. He said he could have lived with the many insults and nasty remarks:
But it was the constant reproduction of an exceptionally unflattering photograph, taken by an 86-year-old photographer, that pained me
       He perhaps only meant it as a humorous comment (though he nowhere displays much of a sense of humor). Instead, it strikes one as a heart-felt injury. And it shows once again: to Franzen, image is everything, substance nothing. Like the pristine book cover, like the taint of an Oprah endorsement: Franzen wants to be perceived in a certain way (as an author with an intellectual readership, for example) -- or as the guy in the Greg Martin photo (that's the publicity shot used in all the advertisements etc.). (See the Flak-article Jonathan Franzen's author photo for a fuller discussion of this issue.)

       Franzen has continued to work towards shaping his image as that of the rarefied novelist (though admittedly journalists are attracted to the quirky and may therefore give it undue attention in their coverage). In the articles about him, and the interviews, his Harlem studio gets considerable mention, as does the fact that he doesn't own a television set. Also: the fact that he wrote with the shades drawn, occasionally even blindfolded, and with earmuffs and earplugs. (Anything to keep the real world at bay.) Also: his failed marriage. (Love can't conquer all -- but at least it no longer distracts the artist from his one duty in life: to create.)
       In his on-line only interview in The New Yorker he describes his working environment and tools:
I sit at an old oaken teacher's desk scavenged from N.Y.U. I have a cushioned metal office chair that I found by the side of a road in Rockland County, in 1982. I use a used 486 I.B.M. clone that I bought for a hundred and fifty dollars through an ad at the gym. My software is the excellent, vintage WordPerfect version 5.0, pirated long ago. I have a dot-matrix Panasonic printer, bought in 1989.
       Nicely fitting the romantic image of the quirky writer, the struggling artist, the nostalgist who recognizes the true value of the objects around him. But is this a person who can be taken seriously as a commentator on the times ?
       For someone who claims not to be media savvy and to have been constantly misrepresented in media commentary Franzen has been exceptionally active in promoting his book. Author profiles have been published in many of the major magazines and newspapers, in both the United States and Great Britain, and he has made himself available for a large number of readings, book signings, and media interviews. He seems to have had a resounding lack of success in presenting himself the way he wants to be seen -- coming across as a bumbling, otherworldly author of grand tomes who doesn't quite fit in modern times. Unless of course -- as seems likely -- this is exactly the image he wants to present.

       Franzen's struggles to write The Corrections are well-documented and also often repeated. He manages to get all the artistic clichés in the story: the great suffering and sacrifice (years of toil, most for naught) and then the moments of inspired genius (almost all of the book was written "in the last ten, eleven months" he told Sven Birkerts). His travails find some mention already in his Harper's piece, and many of the articles about the book and the author mention it.
       Emily Eakin, in an article in The Observer provides a bit more detail, reporting that in 1996 Franzen:
... sold The Corrections to Farrar, Straus & Giroux on the basis of 200 pages. Yet when his 1997 deadline arrived, he had thrown all but 20 of those pages away.
       Ah, yes, the perfectionist artist. The great artist (in that high art literary tradition) who can't be bound by such trivial mundane matters as deadlines. (God forbid he should be in any way professional in his dealings with his publisher, that wouldn't do at all.) All that matters is the art work .....
       In this case it (eventually) worked out well: The Corrections is a fine novel, and has proved a very popular one. Money has been made by all involved. One might also admire publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux for standing by their man (after he had already presumably lost a fair amount of money for them with his two previous novels). We're big fans of valuing art over all else and not worrying too much about mundane corporate affairs, but feel compelled to point out that paying Franzen for work he doesn't deliver is a misallocation of funds that works to the detriment of writers (and the reading public). Presumably only part of the money was advanced to Franzen upfront (with the balance of the advance to be paid upon delivery), but this amount nevertheless represented monies that couldn't be used to purchase and/or publicize other worthy works. In Franzen's case the bet paid off (for the publisher) ... but it doesn't seem like a good way to run a business. And there is a hidden cost, borne by writers with less influence, as well as readers. (Most authors, it should be noted, can't get such cushy deals from their less obliging publishers.)

       In his much-quoted Harper's article Franzen wrote about the reaction in 1988 to his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. To him the biggest surprise was:
... the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture I'd intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.
       Franzen did manage to provoke a great deal more with The Corrections -- but the book hardly played a role in the provocation (or the reaction). Franzen did engage with his culture -- but in a way that was anything but constructive. Book sales were boosted; maybe that is all that matters. Some of the people who bought it are bound to read it (one imagines). For now, though, the book floats not in a vacuum but lost in a tangle of irrelevance -- almost all of which was Franzen's doing.
       Franzen's yammering attracted attention, but of the worst kind. Franzen's book deserved better. Franzen's audience -- indeed, all readers -- deserved far better.
       In his Harper's piece Franzen speaks proudly of "belatedly following my books out of the house". The literary world, the reading public, and most of all his own book, The Corrections, might all have wished that he had stayed at home.
       There seems to be ever more to be said for the reticent author. Writers are generally so careful with what they put down on the page, yet the microphone and the public stage can bring out the worst in them. They certainly did in Franzen's case. His ill-considered and confusingly and badly expressed thoughts did only harm (except perhaps for Franzen, who apparently revels in the image of himself he has propagated).

       Jonathan Franzen wrote a good book. Why couldn't he then leave be ? Why did he have to start worrying about who might read it and about how the book might be perceived by various segments of the population ?
       Franzen spoke of "the feelings of being misunderstood", yet the one things he has not done is made any attempt to explain himself in any coherent manner. From the first -- and to the end -- his comments seem to have been designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. (And remember: to his credit, it's worked for him -- if not for his book or his readers.)

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