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By picking Franzen, Oprah makes literature irrelevant to human existence.

September 17, 2010

Enough is enough: Oprah has to pile on?

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    September 17, 2010 12:49 pm

    I haven’t read Freedom yet, but have heard from reliable sources that it definitely lives up to all the hype. I want to read it, although I don’t need Oprah to tell me to. As it is the most-hyped book I can remember in years, I agree with you that Oprah doesn’t need to tell her minions to read it; if they are readers they will read it anyway. Still, though, if she thinks it’s a worthwhile pursuit? I don’t know, I guess I’m back and forth on this one. Should Oprah be choosing lesser-known authors/books to bring to the forefront? Or should she promote an important, timely book? Her mission is hers to define.
    Btw, I LOVED Invisible Bridge, it was illuminating and and powerful, and I encourage everyone to read it. The Widower’s Tale, while lovely, doesn’t strike me as an Oprah pick at all. Have you read Lily King’s? She is sort of my neighbor and I need to get on to her.
    Anyway, thanks for the through-provocation.

    • Amy permalink
      September 17, 2010 12:51 pm

      That should be “thought-provacation!” Oops.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 17, 2010 1:07 pm

      I agree that Oprah’s mission is hers to define, but mine is to pick nits with my betters and mock them without mercy whenever possible. I’m not even an itch on the nape of Oprah’s neck, so I think I’m free to have my fun. Besides which, I do stand by my statements here. As for Franzen, Freedom is not a masterpiece but it is a good book, and worth reading. That’s based on the first half. I’m assuming the second will not be a disappointment. I have not read Lily King — in fact, I’ve read only a few of the books I suggested would have been better for Oprah to pick than Franzen’s. My criteria was literary novels that got some praise and which would likely flourish with more public attention. I’d read them all if I had time. The only ones I’m certain I’ll read, though, are the Betancourt and the Glass, both of which I will be writing about.

      Thanks for your comments. Smart, perceptive, fun.

      • Amy permalink
        September 17, 2010 1:13 pm

        Thanks, Chauncy!
        High recommend Orringer’s Invisible Bridge. A bit of a downer, but not so much. It’s lovely.

  2. Amy permalink
    September 17, 2010 1:18 pm

    P.S. This is the best: … A it may become the kudzu of the literary world, overrunning niches it was never meant to inhabit and killing less fortunate native species.
    Love that!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 17, 2010 1:57 pm

      Thank you.

  3. Eileen permalink
    September 17, 2010 1:33 pm

    I dunno. Franzen’s protestations reminded me of something Robbie Robertson said about the punks: they sneered at the rock gods, with their fame, their adulation and women and record contracts, but anyone could see how desperately they wanted to be inside. Well, Franzen is a god now, and what’s he complaining about? How much everyone hates him. I wish he’d take his fame and his money and zip it already.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 17, 2010 1:58 pm

      Has he been complaining? I’ve not been keeping up with HIM, only with some of the media swirl around him. Really, the most boring and least important aspect of an author is, well, the author.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        September 17, 2010 2:00 pm

        Joe Strummer didn’t want inside. Mick Jones did, but not Joe — which in my world is not 100 percent admirable.

  4. September 17, 2010 2:15 pm

    But why not let literature have a brash, blockbuster-like, attention gathering moment? Soon enough we will return to discussions of the death of the novel, and we will be depressed by statistics illustrating how very few people read, and there will be more stories about bookstores going out of business. And rather quickly, Oprah will return to selecting novels that are overlooked. For now, let’s enjoy this brief period when a novel is motoring a moment when literature is a “big deal” so that we might piggy-back and build on the suddenly broader audiences and arenas considering a serious piece of fiction.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 17, 2010 3:08 pm

      Where’s the fun in that?!? Oh, wait: Why don’t we insist that every reviewer in the universe review Freedom straightaway. Let’s place it at the head of every syllabus of every college. Let’s make high school students read it, too. And why is Hollywood dragging its feet on the movie version? Julia Roberts as Patty, Richard Gere as Walter, Cllive Owen as Richard. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Eliza. Zac Efron as Joey. While we’re at it, let’s appoint Franzen librarian of Congress, puts his face on the 20 dollar bill and make his birthday a federal holiday. Let’s do a Big Read in which every literate citizen of the United States gets a tax deduction for reading Freedom by Thanksgiving. Let’s forget that any other books were written this year at all.

  5. September 20, 2010 11:34 am

    Them who gots gets. The rest can go punt.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 3:41 pm

      You speak scripture, Duff, though sounding a Hazel Motes tone:
      “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Matthew 13:12,KJV.

  6. December 16, 2010 11:17 pm

    Fascinating commentary here on the enthronement of Franzen amid the grace of Oprah. Here’s my take — as a writer, reader, and television professional:


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