Jonathan Franzen, Oprah Winfrey, and the Future of the Social Novel

  • Jeremy Green

Abstract

During the autumn of 2001, when the news was dominated by the horrors of terrorism and war, the falling out of Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen offered a distracting spectacle of loose talk and public embarrassment. In September, heralded by a blaze of publicity, Franzen published his third novel, The Corrections. Early reviews were wildly enthusiastic, lavishing particular praise on the book’s treatment of character and its sheer readability. Later in the same month, Oprah Winfrey announced her selection of The Corrections for her television book club, thereby guaranteeing that commercial success would accompany critical esteem.1 Trouble began, however, on Franzen’s nationwide promotional tour. He expressed ambivalence about his Oprah selection, acknowledging his discomfort with the appearance of the Book Club logo on the cover of his novel, and admitting to unease over past selections: “The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks. She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.”2 When Franzen’s comments reached Winfrey, she took the unprecedented step of canceling the scheduled show devoted to The Corrections. Subsequent press commentary chastised Franzen for his “elitism” and “snobbery.”3 His apologies and qualifications seemed only to make matters worse, drawing further criticism of his perceived disingenuousness or, at best, his naivety.

Keywords

Depression Dementia Marketing Beach Dine 

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Notes

  1. 3.
    See, e.g., Jonathan Yardley, “The Story of O,” Washington Post (October 28, 2001): C.02;Google Scholar
  2. John Marshall, “Franzen’s Attitude Needs Some Corrections of Its Own, Authors Say,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (November 2, 2001): 26.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Jonathan Franzen, “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels,” Harper’s Magazine (April 1996): 35–54.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    “In the book industry, where profits are narrow, Oprah’s endorsement of any title meant a minimum of 500,000 additional sales, says Jim Milliot, the business editor at Publisher’s Weekly. For the publisher, that translates to at least an additional $5 million in revenue.” Richard Lacayo, “Oprah Turns the Page,” Time (April 15, 2002 ): 63.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    See D.T. Max, “The Oprah Effect,” New York Times Magazine (December 26, 1999 ): 36–41 (p. 37 ).Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    For a useful early assessment of the pros and cons of the Book Club, see Laura Lippman, “The Oprah Canon,” Baltimore Morning Sun (June 18, 1997): 1E.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Estimates put the number of reading groups in the United States as high as 500,000; see Jenny Hartley, Reading Groups (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. vii. See Max, “The Oprah Effect,” p. 41, for an account of book clubs devoted to the Oprah canon.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog ( New York: Norton, 1999 ).Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    For discussion of Winfrey’s construction as a celebrity, see P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997 ), pp. 131–149;Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Berg, Open House: A Novel ( New York: Random House, 2000 ).Google Scholar
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    See Jane Shattuc, The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women ( New York: Routledge, 1997 ), pp. 85–109;Google Scholar
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  20. 41.
    See Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon, 1975), p. 76. Habermas argues that the political theories of civic republicanism depend on the ethos of the great bourgeois revolutionary movements of the Enlightenment; the political culture of capitalist societies, however, diffuses such participatory potential, and tends in fact to foster traditional structures, particularly those of the family, as a means to inculcate passivity.Google Scholar
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    Emily Eakin, “Jonathan Franzen’s Big Book,” New York Times Magazine (September 2, 2001): 20.Google Scholar
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    Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), was a long, intricate examination of city politics, race, and violence; Strong Motion (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992) was an upscale eco-thriller in which corporate malfeasance leads to earthquakes and environmental catastrophe in the greater Boston area. Both books have a clear political intent, a panoramic ambition, and a mastery of recondite information.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Green 2005

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  • Jeremy Green

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