Oprah & Franzen

I'm in the midst of reading a book Reading With Oprah by Kathleen Rooney (March 2006); she has a chapter on "Jonathan Franzen versus Oprah Winfrey." The entire book is a fascinating study of the Oprah Book Club and why it engendered such controversy (amongst certain groups).

Basically, Franzen is a literary writer who, before Oprah came along, was selling in the 50,000-100,000 range. This isn't a lot, granted, but it's more than I've ever sold so my sympathy meter regarding Franzen registers somewhere in the nil category. Like many poor but struggling writers (of literary ilk), Franzen bemoaned his lack of popularity, putting it down to a national lack of good taste (once upon a time Americans were educated and listened to their parents and had good taste).

Then, Oprah reads one of Franzen's books (Oprah's tastes don't run anything close to mine; with the exception of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' A Thousand Years of Solitude, I haven't read any of the books on her list. However, Rooney's very, very good point is that within her particular genre--realism--Oprah is fairly eclectic and her taste is no worse--and often  better--than your average high culture critic). Franzen was scheduled to be on Oprah. His book sales immediately shot up (Rooney estimates that Franzen made $1.2 million off of Oprah's decision).

But, and here's the rub, this hurts Franzen's image (or self-image) as a poor, struggling, misunderstood literary writer. Franzen proceeded to make a number of remarks critical of Oprah's Book Club in various interviews. Upon which, Oprah dis-invited him. Upon which, Franzen issued a number of sincere (and puzzled) apologies.

Rooney thinks that Franzen was being somewhat disingenuous. (Although she agrees that his apologies were sincere.) Being quite young, she evidently has a higher opinion of the savvy of literary greats than I do. Just because Franzen can write intelligently and insightfully about life, doesn't mean he has a clue how the real world works. I think Franzen really didn't see Oprah's dis-invitation coming. And I think that Franzen really didn't make the connection between "my publishers promoting me and putting me on book tours and wishing I would sell more" and "Oprah promoting me." Some kinds of advertisement are okay. Other kinds are not. It's like people who think that Natural Health Food stores aren't out to make a buck--or at least, not in the same way that, shock shock, CHAIN grocery stores are.

To put it simply, Franzen, who isn't as horrible a guy as some of the pundits painted him, was self-conscious, like a teenage boy at a dance. He was cool, now he isn't cool (according to the people he likes). How does he get his coolness back? He disses the other clique. And because he is basically a well-meaning soul, he is surprised when the other clique gets offended. So, now he isn't cool to anyone (hint to teenagers: this will inevitably happen: "No man can serve two masters," and although Jesus was talking about God, it works as a lesson in popularity as well.)

Not only does Rooney think Franzen was disingenuous in his protests of surprise, she thinks Oprah could have handled the issue better. Franzen may have been behaving in a silly way, but his attitude is not atypical amongst the kinds of authors that Oprah tended to pick. Why not, Rooney asked, have the guy on her show? Why not air his grievances and discuss them?

I could answer that. Oprah doesn't like that kind of controversy. And she's probably wise. Look what happened when she defended Million Little Pieces guy.

Rooney wishes that Oprah had addressed Franzen's self-consciousness because Rooney believes that the high brow/low brow split is an issue. Rooney has just finished her MFA. The high brow/low brow split is an issue to people who think they are arbiters of literary taste (or should be) and to the people who know the afore-mentioned "arbiters" and think they are nuts. Nobody else cares.

To do Rooney justice, I think she was willing for someone to go on Oprah and say that: Nobody cares. People read whatever they want. People don't listen to the academic world or to literary critics. But I'm not sure that Oprah would willingly take on the academic world. Like many intelligent people who are not academic, I'm betting that Oprah is a little awed by academic hoity-toityness. She doesn't need to be: it's just bluster. But, to an extent, you have to speak the language before you figure that out.

1 comment:

monster paperbag said...

"But, to an extent, you have to speak the language before you figure that out." --> i absolutely agree..