When Oprah Picked The Corrections

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2013 11:21 AM

Corrections

The short and difficult marriage of Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey.

(Continued from Page 1)

The world would soon know about Franzen’s ambivalence. But for the moment, as the trio walked briskly to a nearby Kinko’s to fax the contract just ahead of the deadline, those doubts were tossed hurriedly aside. On the way, Franzen muttered, half to himself, “I just realized I’m probably a millionaire.”

On Sept. 9, The Corrections made the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Inside, David Gates raved about “Jonathan Franzen’s marvelous new novel.” It had conventional appeal, but “just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen’s street cred.” In fact, Oprah was set to assign it four days later. That announcement was postponed in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

FSG had drawn up a packed schedule for Franzen’s rollout, beginning with a Sept. 18 launch party on the roof of a SoHo hotel. Returning to work on the 13, PR head Jeff Seroy struck a defiant pose. “Fuck them,” he told Roger Straus, “we should just carry on!” Roger, soon to resign as president, responded with one of his last judgment calls: “Are you out of your mind? You want to have everyone at this party standing there staring at the wisps of smoke rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center?” The party was postponed for a month.

Advertisement

Oddly, Sept. 11 seems to have helped The Corrections. Oprah’s postponement gave FSG some extra time to print an additional 680,000 copies. By the time she did officially announce her selection, many stores had already gotten books bearing the Oprah logo, exploding her embargo but building buzz. “A work of art and sheer genius,” Oprah finally told her viewers on Sept. 24. “When critics refer to the great American novel, I think, this is it, people!

The day of the announcement, Franzen was well into a successful book tour—passing through stringent but sparse security lines, stretching out over empty airplane rows, driving to packed readings. “People were sick of staying home and watching TV,” he says. “It was a total embarrassment of riches … I think one of the main reasons that the entire world turned on me during the Oprah thing was that one person had benefited from 9/11, and that was me.”

He gave the world plenty of ammunition. In regional interviews, his ambivalence pushed its way out into the open. “That Oprah selection will probably not sit well with the writers I hang out with and the readers who have been my core audience,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He confessed to the Miami Herald that he was “muddled” about the Oprah pick—especially the logo’s “corporate branding.”

130803_BOOKS_HotHouse

Finally, a story in the Portland Oregonian foregrounded his reservations: “Oprah’s Stamp of Approval Rubs Writer in Conflicted Ways.” He’d told them the pick did as much for Oprah—hitching her to the “high-art literary tradition”—as it did for him. On Oct. 12, the day the story ran, Oprah put in a call to Union Square. Peter Miller answered. The first thing she said was, “What is this guy’s problem?” She went on to say she might cancel Franzen’s appearance.

“I felt like I was getting an ulcer,” Miller says. “I was terrified that this was going to sink the ship.” Beyond The Corrections, Oprah might blame FSG for the mess, jeopardizing their long-term relationship with the arbiter of America’s reading taste. Would she ever take another chance on the publisher that had burned her?

Miller passed Winfrey on to Seroy, who tried to explain that she’d caught Franzen on “a very steep learning curve,” having “spent 10 years in a cave writing this book.” But he didn’t quite apologize for his author. “[Franzen] was kind of clumsy, or unpracticed, or graceless in the situation,” Seroy says. “I don’t know whether I would call it a mistake.”

That evening, after his final New York reading, Franzen dined with Miller, Seroy, and his agent. “We all yelled at him,” Miller says. “’How could you sabotage it?!’” But it was Galassi’s dressing down that Franzen remembers most. “He said, ‘You’ve outgrown this,’” Franzen remembers. “He was essentially saying, There’s no need for you to be so angry anymore. You have a chance to reach lots of people. Don’t alienate them.

At FSG’s behest, Franzen wrote Oprah a personal letter of apology. In public, he offered grudging semi-apologies that, by blending false abjection with unfortunate flashes of honesty, occasionally made things worse. “To find myself being in the position of giving offense to someone who's a hero — not a hero of mine per se, but a hero in general — I feel bad in a public-spirited way,” he told USA Today.

On Oct. 23, five days after Franzen finally had his rooftop party, the news was all about anthrax in the White House mail facility. But FSG fixated only on one devastating public statement: “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.” Mercifully, the dreaded corporate “poker chip” stayed.

It’s possible that airing the show would have sent The Corrections into the stratosphere, but the controversy did boost sales by at least 150,000 copies. With more publicity to do, Seroy hired a media coach to teach Franzen to love the idiot box. “I prefer it to print interviews,” he says now. Oprah, too, was chastened. After a one-year book-club hiatus, she mostly stuck to classics. Her first new selection after The Corrections, in 2005, was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. After that didn’t go so well either, she went back to classics yet again. The first one she picked was Elie Wiesel’s Night. It happened to be on the backlist of an FSG subsidiary, setting up another great year for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

---

Boris Kachka is a contributing editor for New York magazine and the author of Hothouse. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.