By picking Franzen, Oprah makes literature irrelevant to human existence.
Oprah Winfrey, the most powerful woman in the history of, well, everything, has selected Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom for her next on-air book club. To which I moan piteously: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….
How is this selection wrong? For one thing, it counters the primary purpose of Oprah’s Book Club: highlighting worthwhile books that more readers would really like if only they knew Oprah like them, too.
Freedom is not such a book. A social-realist novel about an NPR-style family coming apart in the early 21st century, it’s already been named a “masterpiece” in The New York Times Book Review–by none other than the review’s editor, Sam Tanenhaus.
Franzen has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, the first author so honored in 10 years. The last was Stephen King, in 2000. Freedom has been (over)praised by reviewers since before it came out in late August. President Obama was seen toting a copy on vacation.
Already a bestseller, Freedom is going to sell millions of copies. With Oprah’s seal of approval, it may become the kudzu of the literary world, overrunning niches it was never meant to inhabit and killing less fortunate native species.
“I think anything that gets a wonderful literary book to millions of people would make anyone in my profession happy,” said Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, where early versions of two chapters from Freedom were serialized.
Anyone? How about Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge, a much-admired literary novel. Just the kind of author an Oprah nod could put over the top. Think she’s happy Oprah’s attention falls on a writer who doesn’t really need it? Or Alex Taylor, a neo-regionalist whose first book, The Name of the Nearest River, is being compared to Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver.
Others Oprah might have picked: Joshua Ferriss, The Unnamed. Sam Lypsite, The Ask. Brando Skyhorse, The Madonnas of Echo Park. Jon Clinch, Kings of the Earth. Lily King, Father of the Rain. Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale. And many more.
For nonfiction: Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid Betancourt’s account of six years as a Columbian hostage, or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloots investigation of science and civil rights.
As for Franzen, I am mightily disappointed by reports he has agreed to appear on Oprah’s show.
Like everyone else, I thought he was a dolt in 2001, when Oprah picked his previous novel, The Corrections, and he acted as if she had spit in his eye. Oprah promptly disinvited Franzen, though it’s interesting to note that she never removed The Corrections from her official list of selections.
But I had a grudging admiration, too. Franzen seemed to be making a sort of a kind of an awkward but sincere stand for literary fiction. “He called some of her picks ‘schmaltzy,’” observes the AP’s Hillel Italie, “and worried about his place in the ‘high-end literary tradition.’”
This is a distinction worth making, and it seems to have influenced Oprah’s picks since then. Her fiction choices have tended toward very high art, in fact: Faulkner, Marquez, Tolstoy.
The story of Oprah’s second Franzen selection is being pitched as one of a Queen forgiving a miscreant subject. Frankly, I don’t see how his dignity can bear up under the weight of this honor, and all the expectations that go with it.
I mean, I do not share the view that Franzen has single-handedly rescued the realistic novel from those nasty post-modernists, but he is nonetheless a major American writer. Groveling will be unavoidable, don’t you think?
I don’t normally watch daytime TV, but I may make an exception this time, if only for the wreck-on-the-highway value.