Volume III, Issue 1 -- February, 2002
A Book, an Author,
and a Talk Show Host
Some Notes on the Oprah-Franzen Debacle
I. The Book (The Corrections)
II. The Author (Franzen)
III. The Talk Show Host (Oprah)
Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was a novel that arrived, in the fall of 2001, with a great deal of "hype". We at the complete review were pleasantly surprised to find that, while it didn't exactly live up to the hype, it proved to be a fine read. Broadly appealing, with some good stories and some good writing, here was a book that could -- and, we felt, should -- reach a large audience. And, given the hype, it was that rare potential bestseller that offered fairly serious and fairly literary fiction and that could be enjoyed by everyman. (There is a great deal of serious and literary fiction that can (and should) appeal to everyman -- but most of it apparently never comes to the attention of the masses, who thus instead wind up numbing their minds with the second- and third-rate blockbusters that dominate the bestseller charts.)
Most books don't get nearly as much attention as they deserve, and here was one that looked like it might -- and most of it for pretty much the right reasons. Little did we realize how much -- and what kind of -- attention it (and its author) would wind up receiving.
The Corrections was well and widely reviewed. The complete review's review appeared 12 September 2001, just one in a steady flow that began in late-August and continued through the end of the year. From the beginning we planned to eventually present a survey of critical reactions to the novel in the complete review Quarterly (much like our piece on Borges under Review). It seemed possible that we might publish the survey in the February 2002 issue of the cr Quarterly, but May seemed a more likely target: we wanted to wait for the book to settle in -- and we also wanted to wait for the UK publication (and critical reaction there), scheduled for early 2002.
Of particular interest to us was the question of how the book would be considered, given the burden of the high expectations resulting from the pre-publication hype that weighed on it. Franzen's two previous books, The Twenty-Seventh City (see our review) and Strong Motion (see our review) were similarly massive tomes, and though their publication was not preceded by quite the same amount of hype they did receive a great deal of media attention and review coverage. Reviews of both books were also quite good, but neither was much of a popular success (i.e. they didn't sell well -- and certainly far below expectations). Given this pattern -- and the general lack of interest in serious fiction in the United States -- The Corrections promised to be an interesting subject for a case study. (We were also very interested in British reaction: Franzen's earlier books had barely even registered there, and -- with only a few exceptions -- most supposedly serious American fiction is politely ignored there. The Corrections could not be entirely ignored, but we wondered how British critics, as well as the reading public, would react to it and the wave of hype it rode in on.)
In the meantime, events that are now well-known unfolded: The Corrections was chosen for Oprah's Book Club, Franzen expressed some qualms about appearing on the popular TV show, and Oprah Winfrey disinvited him (and did not devote an episode of her talk show to the book). A few weeks later, The Corrections won a National Book Award, and its British publisher rushed it into print before Christmas.
The resulting to-do, specifically regarding Franzen's Oprah-appearance, made for one of the more interesting literary debates of recent years. Media coverage was extensive -- even, astonishingly, in non-print media. Countless columns, editorials, and letters to the editor were penned on the subject. (See links, below, for just a smattering of the articles devoted to it.)
The complete review Quarterly's original ambition -- to consider the critical reaction to The Corrections -- still seems a worthwhile one, but the size of the undertaking has become overwhelming. No longer can the reception of the book be summarized in a few pages, in a few thousand words. It requires book-length treatment, more than we can provide here.
(Given the show of interest in all things Franzen, a companion volume to the book, chronicling and documenting the whole Corrections-affair, would likely appeal to a large audience. The complete review is considering putting one together. Interested editors or publishers (or, grudgingly, even literary agents) can contact us via e-mail.)
So: the grand, sweeping analysis of the reception of The Corrections and of Franzen v. Oprah (and of all the other issues raised by the very public debate around the book) will have to wait. The complete review nevertheless feels obliged to make its opinion known -- especially regarding the Franzen-Oprah debacle. That is what is presented here.
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The Oprah-website (Oprah.com) devoted a few pages to The Corrections when it was announced as the latest selection for Oprah's Book Club in September 2001. One of the pages offers an introduction to and description of the book, with a final sentence that sums up:Richly realistic, darkly hilarious and deeply humane, it confirms that Jonathan Franzen as one of our most brilliant interpreters of American society and American soul.The typographical slip (or grammatical mistake, whichever you prefer) -- as rather than is, or a superfluous that -- is their mistake. It still reads that way in late January 2002, some four months after this page was first posted. No one has cared to correct the mistake -- indeed, no one seems to care at all.
This small mistake -- and the failure to make any correction -- seems indicative of this whole bizarre affair, where so little attention is paid to detail, where words really don't matter. All that matters is: Oprah !. All that matters is: Franzen. All that matters is: books sales. All that matters is: the triumph of personality over substance (because personality sells and substance doesn't).
A book was selected for Oprah's Book Club -- The Corrections. This book is what should be the center of attention. Instead, attention is focussed on two personalities and on what they say and what they represent. There are accusations and labels: elitism, snobbery, the "high art literary tradition", populism, implied (and actual) endorsements, and much more.
The books benefits: people hear about it, people buy it (though some react by also making a point of not buying it). Maybe people actually read it. But the argument -- the many confused arguments -- swirl elsewhere.
Jonathan Franzen walks around with his foot apparently firmly lodged in his mouth. Oprah Winfrey doesn't deign to comment.
The book continues to sell; perhaps that is all that matters. It seems there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Intentionally or not, Franzen hit the mother lode.
But there are costs and consequences. Not for Franzen: despite the stink around him he can laugh all the way to the bank. He never has to write a word again, never has to worry about money. And if he does want to write another novel, every major publisher would want a chance to publish it. Unassailable Oprah, too, isn't much affected by these events; indeed, there has hardly even been a word of criticism regarding her actions.
The losers ? Books. Readers. Literature -- if there still is such a thing -- and literary culture.
It's a bad thing that happened here, and people don't seem to realize how bad.
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I. The Book (The Corrections):
Jonathan Franzen's book, The Corrections was published in the the early fall of 2001. It came with a lot of "buzz" and a lot of "hype", already optioned as a movie, foreign rights sales strong. It was touted as that season's "Great American Novel". Critical acclaim quickly followed: it was widely reviewed and most of the reviews were very favorable. Many were raves. (Among the few early dissenters: The Economist, Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, and Lee Siegel in The Los Angeles Times.)
The Corrections also sold well, and began to appear on some best-seller lists within a few weeks of its publication.
On 24 September came the announcement of the ultimate stamp of approval: television personality Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club -- a segment on her popular syndicated talk show. Books that are featured as Oprah's Book Club selections routinely see increases of sales in the hundreds of thousands. New York magazine reported (5 November 2001) that the initial print run of The Corrections had been 90,000, and that after the Oprah-announcement "publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux called for another 680,000 copies, 500,000 of which Jeff Seroy, FSG's publicist, attributes directly to Oprah." (Other sources give slightly different numbers regarding the initial/early print runs.)
Franzen was on his Corrections-book-tour in late September, and, when he had a day off in St. Louis, arrangements were made to film some of the background material that would be shown on Oprah. Later he flew to Chicago and taped "ninety minutes of interview for Oprah". (Franzen recounts some of this in "Meet me in St. Louis", published in The New Yorker 24/31 December 2001.)
On 12 October The Oregonian published some of Franzen's statements. Franzen is quoted as saying:
Franzen apparently also expressed reservations and ambivalence about his book being chosen for Oprah's Book Club elsewhere.
- About his book being chosen for Oprah's Book Club: "The first weekend after I heard, I considered turning it down"
- About the Oprah's Book Club-sticker that would appear on the book (irremovably printed on a redone cover, in fact): "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it." (In fact, Franzen repeats this statement: "I didn't want that corporate logo on my book.")
- And again about his book being chosen: "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."
On 22 October Oprah Winfrey apparently disinvited Franzen from her show. The statement posted on her website reads: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. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book.Many, many articles, editorials, and letters to the editor were published on the topic -- most chiding Franzen for his impolitic remarks and approving of Oprah's actions. A minority of commentators argued that it was better that he escape the taint of Oprah. Sales of the book continued to be strong, and the book remained on the bestseller lists (as it would through at least the end of the year).
On 14 November The Corrections won the National Book Award for Fiction. There was no appreciable increase (or decrease) of sales of this title following the award (unlike, for example, the poetry winner, which got a nice sales boost).
British publication of The Corrections had only been planned for early spring 2002, but was moved up and the book was made available by November 2001. Reviews were generally good, if less enthusiastic than the American ones. The Oprah-debacle found mention in practically every review; and in some the book was mainly considered in that context.
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