Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

Oprah as Pedagogue-King 
Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 2 2001 11:21 AM

Jonathan Franzen: A Defense

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Jodi: Well, oftentimes the Partisan Review crowd would be at each other's throats over things far less consequential than an embossed cover seal; in just one celebrated instance, Lillian Hellman sued Mary McCarthy for libel for having said that every word Hellman uttered was a lie, including "and" and "the." I think general bumptiousness is just part of the price you pay when people get heavily invested in cultural debates. But I do agree that to the extent that any of this is either literary or a debate, it's not especially edifying.

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Except that, of course, it maps onto a host of other tedious recent cultural wars that—as Laura Miller has already noted—play as a weak mimicry of class division in American life. All cultural conflicts (and most political ones) reduce in this scheme to formless, warring camps of "populists" and "elitists," even though there are almost no social formations in our society that conform to this giddy shadow play. (Quick: Name three self-avowed "elitists" who are not related to William Buckley.) By this reasoning, Oprah's Book Club, which is an immensely (and don't mistake me, admirably) successful marketing colossus, becomes a proxy for the Popular Will. It is not Oprah who is choosing our reading for us; it is we who have chosen her, as our benevolent healing leader, and any writer, publisher, or agent who seeks a popular following dare not criticize or offend her. (This, I'd argue, is a byproduct of the persistent confusion of popular culture, which permits some byways of external public response and debate, and mass culture, which tends to close those off, but that's all another, longer story.)

A number of other interesting (though usually tacit) assumptions about the book club's following work to insulate it from criticism. One is the common claim that Oprah has introduced thousands—or as one unnamed source speculated in the New York Observer, millions—of nonreaders to the pleasures of reading. Now that is condescension, if you ask me. I certainly wouldn't presume to know whether (let alone what) Oprah's devotees were reading prior to their recruitment to the book club's rolls; where do these publishing industry types get off? (Note as well that this argument casts Oprah in the Socratic role of Pedagogue-King, which strikes me as far more "elitist" than any of Franzen's self-punishing reflections.)

Another self-insulating assumption guiding the book club is the weird abdication of any taste judgment: In one of the book club's maiden outings, Oprah did entertain a question from a viewer who hated Toni Morrison's work; to her credit, Oprah aired out the viewer's complaint and let Morrison respond. But as both Oprah and the book club have ascended to ever-greater influence, such appearances have lost any semblance of critical bite, or even simple debate.

Apropos of which: Unlike either you or Eliza, I have no problem with Franzen saying some (n.b., not all) of Oprah's selections have been schmaltzy. How would you describe She's Come Undone? I am much more puzzled by the notion that it's somehow unseemly or gauche for a writer to say such things. Imagine applying the same shut-up-and-pitch criteria to, say, Emile Zola, Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, to say nothing of scores of lesser and more disagreeable scribes. At the bottom of most of the complaints I've read over the Franzen affair is the notion that he's a bad interview. I'm half-serious when I say I wish we had more writers who were.

Such pressures to be uncritical and (above all) marketable produce, in turn, the spectacle that Eliza rightly points out is much more distressing than the angst of Franzen: Breathless, self-congratulatory writers falling over themselves to show they're down with the people because they're jaded enough to undertake whatever kind of corporate shilling it takes. (Nor, by the way, is the niche marketing of our public culture solely an Oprah enterprise—Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, et al. cultivate much the same uncritical brand allegiance for viewers and listeners pleased to think themselves more cultured.) I do agree with Eliza that the (otherwise talented) Rick Moody's remarks in the Times were especially irksome in this regard: He should have just sent his résumé directly to Oprah's publicists and left David Kirkpatrick out of it.

As for holding writers to the moral standards of their literary creations, it's an alternately entertaining and scarifying notion, as the authors who have aggressively pressed such tight identifications demonstrate. Would you really want a literary scene full of Norman Mailers? Nor do I think it's especially fair to say that Franzen's remarks are the equivalent of seeing a priest steal. He was, in effect, wondering aloud what he'd gotten himself into, which I think is an entirely reasonable (and honest) response to the maelstrom of publicity that greeted The Corrections' publication well in advance of the current contretemps. (I also don't agree the guy has a great deal of media savvy; if he had, all would have gone smoothly, Oprah-wise, and we wouldn't be having this discussion. ...)  Inured as I am to the cynicism of the media and the publishing world alike, I've been quite taken aback by the notion that cultural arbiters, TV personalities, and (most undemocratically of all) their audiences are to greet expressions of any such ambivalence as dangerously foolish or anti-American.

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