Book lovers' quarrel

Jonathan Franzen's dustup with Oprah exposes the deep rift between devotees of the "literary" and fans of the "popular."

Published October 26, 2001 8:16PM (EDT)

Alas. That's the first word that came to mind when I heard that Oprah Winfrey had withdrawn her invitation to Jonathan Franzen, who was to have been the 42nd novelist to participate in her televised monthly book club.

Franzen, who had been traveling across country on a tour to promote "The Corrections," had left behind a trail of remarks made to members of the press asking how he felt to have his new novel chosen by the talk show host. Taken all together, those remarks suggest pretty strongly that Franzen considered selection for the Oprah book club to be a kind of stigma. He told the Oregonian that he had considered turning down the show. "She's picked some good books," Franzen said in an interview posted on, "but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself ..." Although the rest of the quote read "even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight," damage was done.

Franzen has apologized and clarified, blamed his own inexperience in handling the media and attributed his reservations to not wanting to see a "corporate logo" on the cover of his book -- but it will be difficult for him to erase the impression that snobbishness caused him to diss Winfrey. And so, alas. Alas because "The Corrections" is a very fine book, one of the best I've read in several years, and Franzen is a well-intentioned, hardworking, serious and very talented writer whose work I've long admired (full disclosure: I know Franzen socially). "Oprah Winfrey is bent on demonstrating that estimates of the size of the audience for good books is too small," Franzen told the New York Times Wednesday, "and that is why it is so unfortunate that this is being cast as arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey."

Fixing that bit of typecasting will be as hard as any of the "corrections" attempted by Franzen's characters, partly because there are so many people who are primed to believe the worst of him. His lapse hasn't occurred in a vacuum. America's book culture too often seems composed of two resentful camps, hunkered down in their foxholes, lobbing the occasional grenade at each other and nursing their grievances. One side sees itself as scorned by a snooty self-styled elite and the other sees itself as keepers of the literary flame, neglected by a vulgarian mainstream that would rather wallow in mediocrity and dreck. Each side remains exquisitely sensitive to perceived rejection from the other, and the fact that one is often characterized as female and the other as male resonates with the edgy relations between the sexes of late.

This divide in the reading public is also a place where the submerged class anxieties of American life flare up. Conversations about books are often rife with silly agendas, each speaker intent on indicating just how high (or, in the case of contrarians, low) his or her brow can go. It's astonishing sometimes how dismissive and venomous readers can be when talking about authors they don't like, or think they don't like. Even if you do loathe the novels of, say, William Gass or Anne Tyler, unless you're a student you can hardly claim with any credibility that they're being thrust down your throat. Such nastiness is stupid and pointless. Film buffs got over this stuff years ago; thanks to critics like Pauline Kael, it's possible to like Bergman without having to badmouth the Farrelly brothers. In fact, it's entirely possible to enjoy both.

Furthermore, when a particular novel, like "The Corrections," comes out to almost universally positive reviews (the New Republic -- which pursues a formulaic policy of waiting to see which novels everyone else likes so that it can run an essay about how all other critics are sadly misguided dupes -- doesn't count), it and its author are regarded with not just suspicion but a kind of reflexive antipathy. Everyone's had the experience of disliking a book -- or a movie, or a record -- that some critic raved about; that's not what I mean. The more enthusiastic reviews a novel gets, the less convinced certain book people are that it has any merit.

You hear complaints about "hype," despite the fact that no mere novel (with the possible exception of "Hannibal") gets the kind of publicity and advertising accorded the average Hollywood movie (like, say, "Bandits"). This very invisibility is something, incidentally, that literary people always grouse about. A week after "The Corrections" debuted, a friend who works in publishing and admires the book explained, "People are sick of hearing about Franzen and will just be glad to read about something else for a change." Would those be the same people who perpetually bemoan the fact that American culture doesn't give enough weight and attention to novels? No doubt a goodly portion of the people who carped about the enthusiastic press for "The Corrections" will jump at the chance to knock Franzen for not wanting to seem too popular.

The sad and petty truth is that far too many book lovers don't really want a good book to reach a large audience because that would tarnish the aura of specialness they enjoy as connoisseurs of literary merit. I'm not just talking about egghead critics here, since there are just as many people who stand ready to condemn "hip and trendy" or "too clever" books they've never taken the trouble to read. Behind what a friend calls the "get him! syndrome" -- that reflexive impulse to take pot shots at any author enjoying "too much" attention -- lies the deeply unattractive tendency for book people to act like stingy trolls sitting atop a mound of treasure they don't want to share. If they did, it would be a lot harder to use their reading habits as a way of feeling better than other people.

What makes Franzen's gaffe so unfortunate is that "The Corrections" is the kind of book that bridges the gap between high- and middlebrow readers, between people who like brainiac puzzle novels and those who want stories of family and emotional life. Enid Lambert, the mother character in the novel, is the book's great achievement, a portrait of a sentimental Middle American woman that's smart and unflinching but ultimately sympathetic. Oprah trusted that the readers she sent to "The Corrections" would connect with that sympathy and at the same time be able to handle Franzen's sometimes savage take on contemporary life.

Franzen, by contrast, told Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" that he worried because some people at book signings (men, to be specific) had told him that they are "put off" by "Oprah books." I can't blame anyone who's heard the kind of withering jibes sometimes directed at "Oprah books" for wincing at the idea that his book might be subjected to the same. (Here's a suggestion: Only people who have never made such cracks are allowed to fulminate about Franzen's blunder.) But the truth is that you can't transcend the literary caste system while trying to cater discreetly to one faction.

Oprah's selection of "The Corrections" was a bold, generous choice for a book that is also bold and generous. If the author has on this occasion lacked the nerve and imagination of his creation, well, writers are human beings, too, and sometimes they screw up. The books are what matter, if we could just manage to remember that.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Jonathan Franzen Oprah Winfrey