Jonathan Franzen: A Defense
I agree wholeheartedly that ending the debate was a weak move by Oprah. If she wants to play the literary game, she should engage in the discussion that goes along with it. This point of view has been entirely absent so far in the Franzen dust-up debate.
But more to blame than Oprah is the literary community and the press, who have been merciless toward Franzen. Yes, it was ungracious for him to call Oprah's picks "shmaltzy." But good for him for saying her corporate logo made him uncomfortable. It's fair for him to feel iffy about being grouped with many of her young-girl-recovering-from-bad-childhood picks. If anyone should be exempted from the current universal requirement to profess a deep love for crappy culture, it's fancy-pants literary authors.
When the press chides him as disingenuous for saying he didn't understand the way the media work, they're also being unfair. According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, he really is a hermit. He wrote The Corrections in "a spartan studio on 125th Street in East Harlem, behind soundproof walls and a window of double-paned glass. The blinds were drawn. The lights were off. And Franzen, hunched over his keyboard in a scavenged swivel chair held together with duct tape, wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold." Before that, "for five years in the 1980's, Franzen and his wife … shared cramped quarters in Somerville, Mass., in which, separated by only 20 feet, they wrote eight hours each day and then, after a dinner break, read for five more." He went out to dinner once a year. He doesn't own a television. If that doesn't qualify him as a genuine media naïf, what would?
When he said, "I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition," he probably had no idea that's a sentiment currently considered hopelessly gauche. But really, after reading his various essays in Harper's, did anyone doubt his ambition was for the stratosphere as opposed to a B&N end-cap display?
Franzen is a victim here, mainly of the publishing world's kowtowing to Oprah. Newsweek quoted a literary agent as saying, "Most of the people I hear talking about all this now refer to Franzen along the lines of 'that pompous prick.' " Another agent, quoted in the New York Observer, called him an "ungrateful bastard." What publishing person in his right mind would get on the wrong side of Oprah, when she has the power to make your career with a single phone call?
And any writer who defends Franzen in this fight does so at the risk of ruining his own chances of ever scoring that cash cow. Why else would Rick Moody and Harold Bloom tell the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick that it was hypocritical to object to Winfrey's logo? What if Franzen had been asked to sell his book on QVC? He'd have moved plenty of copies. Would that have been acceptable to turn down as too commercial?
But Franzen is also a victim of a lack of self-knowledge. His comments show he's afraid of losing his literary credibility. Though Jonathan Yardley called the Oprah blunder "a move so stupid as to defy comprehension," I'd say it was more an expression of an author in deep denial about his own book. The Corrections, which I absolutely loved, is mainly an Anne Tyler-style family drama sprinkled with Don DeLillo-ish modern cultural trappings. After throwing down the gauntlet to the literary world that there weren't enough serious social novels, what has Franzen done but written a novel in which the "important" social aspects are the parts most readers don't care for? It must be a terrible thing to face.