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.

Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey, early 2000s
On Oct. 12, Oprah put in a call to Union Square. The first thing she said was, “What is this guy’s problem?”

Photo Illustration by Slate. Photos by Keith Bedford/Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Among those New Yorkers who made ad hoc plans on Sept. 11, 2001, driven together by emergency and grief, were novelists Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. They’d been introduced a few years back by their mutual editor, Jonathan Galassi, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Franzen had an apartment on the Upper East Side. Eugenides lived in Berlin but happened to be staying in the West Village; he was marooned uptown that day, so Franzen offered to put him up. They met on the steps of the New York Public Library, tromped together through streets stunned into silence, found an anonymous Italian restaurant, and commiserated over a changed world.

“Who would have guessed that everything could end so suddenly on a pretty Tuesday morning,” Franzen wrote in the next issue of The New Yorker. “In the space of two hours, we left behind a happy era of Game Boy economics and trophy houses and entered a world of fear and vengeance.” What Franzen couldn’t foresee, but privately hoped, was that America would still need relics of that more complacent age. Few of that autumn’s artifacts would survive the leap from one era to another. There was really only one novel that did, a book that had been out for six days: The Corrections.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux was the relic of an even earlier era, one abounding with wealthy patron-operators like Roger Straus. The brash and haughty Guggenheim heir had sold FSG to a German conglomerate in 1994; seven years later, at 84, he was still its president. The Corrections helped deliver both writer and publisher into a century with a new set of rules. They had some surprising help, and more than a little grief, from a talk show hostess named Oprah Winfrey.

The Friday before Labor Day, 11 days earlier, was perhaps the year’s slowest day at FSG’s Union Square headquarters. Lynn Buckley, who’d designed the book jacket for The Corrections, happened to be among the very few people still in the office. So was Peter Miller, Franzen’s publicist. Early in the afternoon, he called out to her suddenly from his office across the hall. “Oh my god, you won’t believe it,” he shouted. “The most amazing thing that ever happened for a book just happened for The Corrections!”

“What happened?” Buckley asked, “Did it win the Pulitzer Prize?”

“No,” he said, “It’s an Oprah selection!” The Corrections was the 45th pick of Oprah’s Book Club, but it was among only a handful chosen right on publication. “I guess it helps a book sell more than a Pulitzer, right?” Buckley says now. “That just seems crazy to me.”

Franzen felt much the same way. Around lunchtime, someone called him at home and told him to expect a call from the New York Times in 45 minutes. Would he be home? Sure, he said, befuddled by the cloak-and-dagger routine from a paper he’d already written for. Actually, it was Harpo, Oprah’s company, securing the line as though it were one of Roger Straus’s ancient CIA contacts. “Everything was bogus from the start,” Franzen says. “My first encounter with Harpo Productions was being told a lie.” Here’s how he remembers the ensuing phone conversation:

“Jonathan?”

“Yes?”

“Oprah Winfrey!”

“Oh. Hi. I recognize your voice from TV.”

Awkward silence; deep breath from Oprah.

“Jonathan, I love your book, and we’re going to make it our choice for the next book club!”

“That’s really great—my publisher’s gonna be really happy,” he said in an even tone. They hung up soon after.

“I think she was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure,” Franzen says now, a decade later, even after a very public show of reconciliation. “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a best-seller of it. It was our thing. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.”

Franzen promptly went up to Tarrytown, N.Y., to play tennis with his friend, the writer David Means. Though sworn to secrecy, he told Means about Oprah and they had a few drinks to celebrate. Having only recently bought a cellphone, Franzen wasn’t yet accustomed to checking his voice mail. On the train back into the city, he discovered he had seven messages from Peter Miller.

Back at FSG, Miller had been faxed a long contract from Harpo, which covered timing, media coordination, and the important issue of where and how to display the Oprah logo on the cover. The contract had to be signed by midnight Chicago time, or 1 a.m. Eastern, in the wee hours of Labor Day weekend—a bizarrely inconvenient deadline. Roger Straus and publisher Jonathan Galassi were out of town, publicity chief Jeff Seroy in the Pyrenees. Spenser Lee, the director of sales, had left for the day but lived nearby. He came in to sign in Galassi’s place. But no one could sign for Franzen.

The author’s train rolled into the Harlem Metro-North station around 11; he and Miller and Buckley met up shortly afterward in Franzen’s rent-stabilized Upper East Side one-bedroom. With 90 minutes to spare, they sat around a kitchen table and perused the contract. Buckley had brought along a copy of what they called Oprah’s “poker chip,” and they tried placing it over different parts of Buckley’s cover. Nothing seemed right. Could they put it on the back? Franzen asked. Per the contract, they could not.

“Jonathan started talking out loud,” Miller remembers. “Saying, ‘Why should I do this?’ And of course I, being the representative of the publicity department, said, ‘This is an enormous opportunity.’ ” Franzen says he never seriously balked. “FSG had stuck with me through a book that hadn’t done well, and had been very patient, and I love what they mean to American literature. The idea that this was going to add instantly another half million to their sales—there’s no way I wasn’t gonna do it for them.” What about for him? “Having gotten there with my own steam, I felt a certain resistance to the boost that [it] would represent.”

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