"Book Lovers' Quarrel"

By Laura Miller



Salon Staff
November 3, 2001 1:47AM (UTC)

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Oprah Winfrey has decided that she's more important than any of the people she interviews. She makes herself the cover girl of every issue of her own magazine, and the only way to approach her is on your knees. Too bad, because lots of people are far more important and valuable than she is, and one of them is Jonathan Franzen. Franzen made the mistake of being honest about Oprah, saying things many people have felt for a long time. As a result she's doing everything in her power to snub his book and hurt him. This only shows her true character in all its petty arrogance, and it's not a pretty sight. I'm sure it doesn't matter to Franzen -- one less uncomfortable dinner to sit through. And his book will be read and studied, cried and laughed over long after Oprah is forgotten, one more trivial footnote in television history. But it pisses me off because Franzen is a great writer who deserves better from the vain, pouting tyrants of daytime TV.

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-- Steven Axelrod

Franzen should know better. Instead of insulting Oprah, he should be prostrating himself before her for lining his and his publisher's pockets and generously exposing him to an audience that would never have read his meditation before. I don't know if I've ever seen a more brazen case of biting the hand that feeds you; if he genuinely feels so bad about the "corporate" nature of her endorsement perhaps he should send back the mountain of money that she essentially sent his way. There are plenty of reasons to resent corporate America's stranglehold on our culture, but this was not a good one and not very well thought out.

-- Chris Cordani

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I'm sure Jonathan Franzen's publisher has already made the magnitude of his mistake very clear: An Oprah selection means big sales, and you don't mess with sales! On the other hand, his fears were justified. I'm a male reader who saw the reviews and made a mental note to buy the book -- until I heard about the Oprah selection, that is. In general, I think Oprah makes quality selections, but I also think that most Oprah picks are the literary equivalent of the "chick flick." That made "Corrections" a big enough risk that I decided to invest my $25 on an alternate title.

-- Darrell Gorr

Laura Miller's take on the media brouhaha over Jonathan Franzen's comments regarding being chosen as an Oprah Book of the month is right on. Most especially when she discusses the snobbishness of many of the literary book reading public. It is true that many of these people enjoy feeling above the masses and enjoy lording their "superior" taste over others. The ultimate in horror for these individuals would be for the public to throw away the John Grisham and take up serious fiction. Their specialness would be lost. Unfortunately, for some, serious reading is held up like a luxury item, like a Mercedes Benz. Also important is the inherent sexism in all of this. I doubt Franzen or many of the people who share his beliefs would be upset if Oprah were a man and recommending books. Perhaps that's the secret of Ms. Winfrey's success, that she realizes that the housewife at home is not a brain-dead idiot, but wants to be challenged and given respect.

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-- Andre Foster

I listened to Franzen's interview on "Fresh Air" and was disturbed by his apparent need to distance himself from Oprah Winfrey and her show. I found it strangely inappropriate that the author went out of his way to proclaim that he had never watched one of Oprah's shows, adding that he did frequently listen to "Fresh Air." I realize that too often humans express an almost obsessive need to classify and create hierarchies. Who does not have a friend who stopped liking their favorite band once it became popular, stating dismissively "I liked them before they became popular." Book lovers, or should I say literature lovers, commonly display this same tendency. Until hearing Franzen on "Fresh Air," I had assumed that most of the people guilty of such snobbery were just frustrated would-be artists who have never produced. To hear an author try to shed a potential audience was almost surreal. Does Franzen think Toni Morrison was slumming when she allowed Oprah to use not one but two of her novels for her book club? Perhaps he thinks that Morrison's cooperation was more of a black thing. After all, Morrison must assume she is not going to get the elusive white male reader Franzen is trying to woo. I hope shunning Oprah wins Franzen the audience he so obviously desires; I will still read his book one day, but for now my disappointment in his apparent snobbery outweighs my curiosity about his novel. Still, he needn't worry; after all, I am not a white male.

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-- Hilary Lochte

Oprah has advocated some wonderful books, and I agree that she is "fighting the good fight." My problem, I sheepishly admit, is having people see the logo on the cover of a book I'm reading and assume I'm reading it because someone on TV told me to.

-- Gina Boyd

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"Alas" is right. But honestly, if Oprah really was "bold and generous," if she was in fact any kind of cool, she'd have had Franzen on the show anyway -- with or without an apology. This whole episode has made it clear that, if anything, Oprah's the snob. So Franzen doesn't want somebody else's name on his book -- isn't that a completely normal, justifiable response? In every world but Oprah's. OK, so she's the Queen of All Media -- it's a role she clearly enjoys and takes seriously. But if she really wanted to engage her viewers in a discussion about the fine art of reading, and what's at stake at the bookstore nearest you, she would have stood by her invitation, had the guy on the show and invited him to explain why it made him so uncomfortable. Now that's an Oprah show I think people would be proud to watch.

-- Siobhan Adcock

I was once one of those jackasses who dismissed Oprah Books on general principle. I worked at a Borders Books and I resented the publicity afforded the anointed, as well as the (presumably) lower middlebrow audience to which the publicity appealed. Then one of my favorite writers, Joyce Carol Oates, got added to the list and I had to do some serious soul-searching. What I found bore strong resemblance to what is described in the article here. Alas indeed. Franzen may have bolstered his snooty-snotty street cred with his regrettable stance, that is true. But the first goal of a writer should be reaching as wide an audience as he or she can -- that is why Shakespeare was performed for queens and commoners alike and that is why the oft-maligned Stephen King now publishes in the New Yorker alongside John Updike. Mr. Franzen has sadly hurt himself on that front and will suffer the not-quite -incidental loss in profit that would have gone with it.

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-- Reynald Arthur Perry

I agree totally with Franzen's reaction. Oprah would like to force open the gates that separate literature from drivel based on her own personal tastes. I'm sure she does not appreciate being lumped in with the likes of Jerry Springer. Similarly, people who see a distinction between the wheat and the chaff of the literary world don't appreciate seeing them intermingled.

-- Renata Dumitrascu

I am an educated, intelligent woman. I've read all 42 of Oprah's book selections, and was very hurt that Mr. Franzen did not consider the Oprah viewer worthy as a reader of his fine novel. To me, one should be thrilled to reach each and every viewer. I would like to request that since the "Oprah group" is so low, that Mr. Franzen return all the monies received from the Oprah viewers who purchased his book, allowing it (and every single book she selects) to be placed on the bestseller list.

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-- Kathleen Kelley

Laura Miller wants to think that literary merit has become a male vs. female debate. This is simply not true. It's not literary novels vs. romance, it's quality vs. quantity, which could be said for Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Louis L'amour, etc., not just Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts and the like. Also, being in the retail book business, I think it's about time that someone pointed out the Oprah Book Club selection for what it is, not what it should be. The truth is, there are too many titles out of the 42 selected for the show that have no business being included in book discussions much less any business becoming bestsellers. The Oprah selection is a stamp, not of quality, but of immediate and unearned success. Franzen deserves the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for this work and I hope the judges don't cow to Ms. Winfrey, because in the end, she shouldn't have as much power over publishers as she does.

-- Terrance Terich


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