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When Popular Culture Meets Grand Literary Ambition

The Case of Jonathan Franzen

James Campbell

8 When Richard Wright's first novel, Native Son, was selected for the Book of the Month Club in March 1940, both author and publisher were naturally delighted. Native Son was not an obvious choice for the Book of the Month Club. One of the selectors called it a "red-hot poker." It deals with life in a poor black Chicago slum, and death, by murder, in a wealthy white household. But the choice rocketed Wright's novel to the top of the bestseller list (displacing The Grapes of Wrath) and made him, in the words of his agent, a "fixed star" in the literary firmament.

To obtain untold wealth, it was necessary to sign a pact. The Book of the Month Club dictated the date of publication, delaying the book's release by six months. It also required the deletion of certain passages that the judges feared subscribers would find "objectionable." The main problem concerned a scene in which the hero, Bigger Thomas, and a friend masturbate in a movie theater which is showing a newsreel featuring the girl he will later murder. Wright rewrote it, omitting the raunchy details, without standing on artistic integrity. He regarded his conscription into a more prudish, populist world as part of the gilded bargain.

Book clubs are democratic institutions by their nature. The non-commercial purpose is to spread the word, and because the book-club judges recognize that the target audience is of generally middling education, it had better not be too difficult or disturbing a word. In an echo of the Book of the Month Club's dealings with Wright, the representative of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club told Jonathan Franzen, "This is a difficult book for us," when calling to introduce him, as the author of The Corrections himself put it, "to some of the responsibilities of being an Oprah author." Oprah Winfrey's televised Book Club is the modern-day equivalent of the Book of the Month Club, which operated by mail order, and it too feels entitled to exact compromises from the difficult book, the red-hot poker. The area of contention regarding Franzen's novel was not going to be sex, which is no longer forced to lurk in the darkened movie theaters of literature; nor was it anything to do with race—The Corrections, strangely for a novel talked of as a modern American epic, contains the merest shadow of a non-white presence. The compromise, as Franzen understood straight away, involved permitting his novel, and himself, to be adopted by a book club which is part of a project, a concept, that epitomizes everything in "the culture" he ought to be against. A novel by a writer like Franzen is intended as a "correction" to a television program like the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Oprah's Book Club is aware of its own value. The recommendation is worth an actual piece of the books selected. The O-shaped announcement that this novel is an "Oprah pick" comes not in the form of a sticker or wraparound label, each of which could be peeled off by the squeamish reader, but as an imprinted "O." Oprah, by way of her initial letter, shares the billing with the author. While his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, rejoicing at the prospect of massive bestsellerdom, had a further 600,000 copies of the novel printed, Franzen may well have been reflecting that he could set up a character like Oprah, and her hugely appealing effusions, as a target for satire in a future novel. No doubt he recalled his own words of six years ago, that the evanescent glamour visited on the "visible" author—"the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot"—was merely a consolation "for no longer mattering to the culture." Those phrases, part of a much-resurrected essay called "Perchance to Dream," published in Harper's in 1996, could be taken as the standard intellectual whine. Writers in America complain all the time that they are not taken seriously at home. Some believe that literature is more deeply embedded in the daily life of European countries. Others envy those whose writings provided life-support in totalitarian states. So much more pitiful the irony, then, that victory in the Cold War coincided with defeat on the literary front for the sole surviving superpower, that film, or popular music, or television, shape the culture now. The very usage, "the culture," is itself an emblem of highbrow demise. The culture is simply mass performance, involving speech, hair dye, footwear, body piercings, choice of diet. It is no longer possible, in the culture, to be uncultured.

What seems to have taken almost everyone by surprise was that Franzen took his own part in this action seriously enough to stand by his word. While the Oprah Book Club considered options for presenting this "difficult book" to its practically captive readership, Franzen complained to Terry Gross on National Public Radio that the way authors were featured on Oprah's show was "sort of a bogus thing"; that readers at signing sessions in bookstores had said, "If I hadn't heard of you I would have been put off by the fact that this is an Oprah pick." He told an interviewer in Portland, Oregon, that Oprah had chosen "enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe"; adding, by way of contrast, "I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition."

The striking feature of the Franzen furor is not the author's reluctance to be pressed into the Oprah Empire, the realm of schmaltz, the bogus thing, but the anger and revulsion his remarks set off. People magazine pronounced Franzen guilty of "dissing" Oprah. In similar vein, a journalist with NYU's Washington Square News, Shazad Akhtar, wrote that Franzen was not just "a snob" and "a hypocrite," he was also "an elitist" with a "certain strain of sexism running through his beryl-blue blood"—every postmodernist's white-male nightmare. The Library Journal preferred the medical approach, perceiving a man "beset by contradictory feelings." This diagnosis was refined by the pop-therapy-alert Oprah to the now-famous judgment that Franzen was "conflicted." It was a perfect summing-up of the whole affair: the super-articulate author of The Corrections dismissed by his would-be sponsor in a non-word. By December 15, a month and a half after the story broke, an Australian newspaper, the Canberra Times, could describe Franzen as "very possibly the most talked-about writer in the world." Step aside, Salman Rushdie, who blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed and offended his representative the Ayatollah Khomeini. Step forward Jonathan Franzen, who dissed Oprah Winfrey. "Most authors are careful not to offend Ms. Winfrey," wrote David D. Kirkpatrick in The New York Times. As are most editors, publicists, and salesmen, too. Who could afford to? To deploy Franzen's words from "Perchance to Dream" once more: "The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority."

Doubtless aware that he, too, is dependent on a healthy balance-sheet at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Franzen tried to recant, disappointing his tiny band of moral supporters (Rushdie attempted to do the same). But "I didn't mean it" never saved a heretic's skin. Oprah proved herself a worthy word queen by recognizing that what has been said cannot be unsaid. What has been invited can be disinvited, however, and Franzen never appeared on Oprah's televised Book Club.

t he Corrections is an enjoyable family saga with five principal characters: Enid and Alfred, an elderly couple living in the Midwestern city of St. Jude, and their three children, Chip, Denise, and Gary. Each in his or her own way is trying to cope with personal problems, and not doing it very well. There is no such thing as a plot—just five linear lives twisting in the wind. The writing is extravagantly verbal. The Corrections demonstrates an impressive understanding of economic and scientific lexicons—Alfred, for example, an amateur metallurgist, "had clays and gels of silicate. He had silicone putties. He had slushy ferric salts succumbing to their own deliquescence. Ambivalent acetylacetonates and tetracarbonyls with low melting points"—and Franzen relishes long lists of innovative (and unappetizing) gourmet dishes (Denise is a chef). He is apt to spend thirty or forty pages on an incident to which an equally good writer might devote three. Franzen is good on both outward and inward states: the language, which is never dull, has the utmost grip on the characters' inner experience, and, additionally, the self-consciousness developing from it—the experience of experience. Here is how we are introduced to Gary, a vice president at CenTrust Bank:

Gary had been worrying a lot about his mental health, but on that particular afternoon, as he left his big schist-sheathed house on Seminole Street and crossed his big back yard and climbed the outside stairs of his big garage, the weather in his brain was as warm and bright as the weather in northwest Philadelphia….He had a spring in his step, an agreeable awareness of his above-average height and his late-summer suntan. His resentment of his wife, Caroline, was moderate and well contained.

Gary's fluctuating self-esteem and the guerrilla warfare he believes his wife is prosecuting against him are typical of the dramas that constitute The Corrections. Will Chip be hauled across the coals for sleeping with a student? Will Denise fall in love with her boss or his wife? Will Gary bring his sons to their grandparents' home for Christmas? How long will bottled-up old Alfred endure his humiliating system-collapse? Will Enid get her "corrective" drugs?

While these and similar storylines are laced with acute and often humorous observation, the reader of a long novel with upmarket literary aspirations is entitled to ask for more: that the story resonate down among those great everyday themes that touch us all: love, death, identity, fulfillment through work and family, religion or the gap left by its modern absence, and so on. The degree to which a novel is taken seriously by a cultivated readership will depend on how profoundly it does this, and it is likely to succeed in proportion to the life that the novelist has succeeded in imparting to his characters. Great fictional characters have a sensibility of their own, above and beyond their actions and their speech. It is about ten years since I read War and Peace, but I believe I know not only how Natasha would speak or act in certain situations, but how she would feel about how she is speaking and acting.

The main characters in The Corrections are rounded and distinct, but while they change they scarcely develop. At the end of the book, we feel little different about anyone from how we felt at the beginning. Chip, the failure, was a jerk on page 1, and he stays that way throughout. When I first met his successful brother Gary, he struck me as a type I would not make an effort to get to know. Four hundred pages later, no change there (which does not make him bad company in a novel, of course).

The Corrections is rather too amused by its own performance for the satire to be effective. Jokes run down into slapstick. The worst feature of Franzen's humorous repertoire is the funny-foreigner routine. Swedes are boring, while Norwegians compete to be more so; Scots say "laddie"; a British author (known only as "the Famous British Author") can achieve nothing more in conversation, during a night out with Philadelphia luminaries, than "cricket-and-darts-related wit." At this point, I wondered if Franzen had ever left America. More dubious than any of these schoolboy larks is the lengthy section of tragedy-as-farce set in present-day Lithuania. Chip, once a college lecturer with a soft spot for Foucault, has failed so badly that he is now cozying down with racketeers in the lawless Baltic republic, a land of warlords, drive-by shootings, chronic coal and electricity shortages, and a heavy dietary reliance on horsemeat.

Is it really that bad? No, apparently not. When Lithuanians objected to the fictional portrayal, a spokesman for FSG explained that the author just "picked an Eastern European country at random. He created a Lithuania that I assume was largely in his imagination." There happen to be real Lithuanians in a real Lithuania, a distant country of which we know little. But hey, they weren't expecting to shift many copies of The Corrections over there anyhow.

Franzen draws on news-clippings and stock market volatility and modern technologies to move the story along, and in this respect the novel has something in common with another great sweeping saga of "modern times," John Dos Passos's U.S.A.. The music of The Corrections is more in tune with the present day than that of the seven-decades-old trilogy, of course, but it may be that in a few years' time Franzen's novel will have come to seem the book more tied to its period. It is among the most engaging features of The Corrections that, in its tone, its characters, their dialogue, it is phenomenally up to the minute; but nothing dates as quickly.

* * *

Each episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show opens with the same clip, in which the hostess declares, "This is Big…gonna be Big." She means to spread her blessings widely. In one recent episode, she waited until the applause from the studio audience had subsided, then exhaled gratefully at the wonderfulness of it all. "Ooh. Look at you. Beautiful." Does she mean it? No. Does she believe that she means it? Probably yes. She is extending the frontiers of what Franzen called the "electronic democracy." If you're out of shape and loveless and addicted to pills and the attentions of a therapist (not to mention afternoon TV talkshows), no matter. Look at you. Beautiful. We are all invited, on condition that we play the game and say "beautiful" to each other, or act along with the "sort of a bogus thing" that is Oprah's Book Club. If your highbrow cringe is setting off a bout of nausea, just shrug and say: Well, it sells books, doesn't it?

Oprah Winfrey has the rare gift of being natural in front of the camera. The way she jokes about her dress size makes less confident people feel better about their own size. But her brand of talent and intelligence has nothing in common with that of Jonathan Franzen, or of any other "high-art" writer. His employment impels him to see through Oprah Winfrey, who is "natural" but not real—to understand that her naturalness is an act, and to explain why so many people are content to accept it, and are made happy by her anointing: the banal boosterism that persuades them they are involved in something big by being on television. The shallowness of the medium is expertly moulded by a "natural" like Oprah into an experience that makes people feel better while they are taking part in it. It's like a pill.

There is a correction to the mass of pap that confronts us every day, the diet of artificially produced pop music, celebrity-focused journalism, and cheap TV: Literature. Every decade or so, someone finds a new way to announce the death of literary culture—most recently, it was the "electronic democracy," that brought Jonathan Franzen to such a low point in "Perchance to Dream"—and yet it persists in generally decent health. The codex (a.k.a., the book) appears to have fended off its electronic competitors, the CD-ROM and the e-book, for the time being. It is certainly the book, rather than the film or the television show, that is the first port of call in the narrative-based arts (movies are made from books, not the other way round) and education. Twentieth-century literature's response to the leveling of social stratification, and the culture which feeds it, has been to become "complex" and "difficult," and eventually to demand a separate category—call it "modernism," call it "high art"—hived off from mass-market entertainment. And yet this elitism is still the culture's primary point of reference. As if understanding this and making a pre-emptive thrust, the Oprah project embraces tokens of modernist, high-art literature. The Oprah magazine, O, makes use of serious writers, in among the numerous photographs of the founder, who is usually smiling broadly (though in a recent shoot with Mayor Giuliani, overlooking Ground Zero, she was caught in a moment of "natural" grief, weeping). The writers in O are often those that Jonathan Franzen would approve of. The January edition, for example, prints poems by two Nobel Prize-winning poets, Seamus Heaney and Wis‘l‘awa Szymborska, as well as Grace Paley and Walt Whitman. No great editorial resourcefulness is called for here, as all the poems have been published before. The Oprah ingredient is to call the section "The Solace of Poetry," and to provide a preamble: "The poet speaks to us in heightened language, crystallizing an emotion….For the space of the poem, we breathe together." In another section, the magazine offers a "Truth Calender," with a quotation for selected days of the month of January from authors such as Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Vaclav Havel. Paradoxically, the Oprah project can exist, though it is not clear about this, only by subverting the insights of figures such as these. In Oprah's signed editorial for the January edition of O, we read:

I have always been a truth seeker. Not a day goes by that I don't look for it, consider how I can use it to evolve into all that the Creator intended for me—and then seek to extend that truth to others.

In the world that Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf, and Jonathan Franzen inhabit—the elitist world of difficult writing—it is thought best to keep oneself at a distance from people who make this sort of statement. They may believe themselves, but they are not to be believed. It is such things that "high-art" literature teaches us. It is how things are in Shakespeare, Burns, Balzac, Faulkner. By situating himself "solidly in the high-art literary tradition," Franzen may be understood as saying: If it comes to a choice between her and them, I'm bound to side with them.

Few gave him credit for doing so. After all, Oprah does a great deal for the book trade. Franzen himself acknowledged her beneficence when, like a dissident forced to undergo a show trial—trial by "the culture": he's a snob, a hypocrite, a sexist, an elitist, he's conflicted—he tried to take back what he had said. There was no sympathy for him, least of all within the industry. The publishing world is so indebted to Oprah that the National Book Foundation honored her with a Gold Medal on the occasion of that body's fiftieth anniversary in 1999.

* * *

The only objection I can see to Franzen's use of the expression "high-art literary tradition" is that it is vague. Most such terms are, but we need them. Imagine: two men meet in a train carriage and discover that they are both writers. One is Dale Carnegie, author of How to Make Friends and Influence People, the other is William Faulkner, author of The Sound and the Fury. How to distinguish between the two, if not by resorting to the likes of "serious writing," "complexity," "high art"? I think it is fair to assume that in using the last phrase, Franzen had in mind something close to what many readers have when referring to "good books"—books such as Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, The Princess Casamassima, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man.

Jonathan Galassi has already ranked The Corrections among them. He called it "a masterpiece." Do we believe him? Do we believe that he believes himself? Galassi used the phrase in the publicity material that accompanied the proof-issue of The Corrections (3,500 copies sent to media outlets—more than the expected sale of many novels). He is the book's editor. He is also a poet, a translator of poetry (most recently of the Italian Nobel Prize-winner Eugenio Montale), and the former poetry editor of a distinguished journal, the Paris Review; it is reasonable to assume not only that he has a firm idea of what constitutes a literary "masterpiece," but also that he is aware that it is generally held in "high-art" literary circles that only the reading public, in its mysterious engagement with time, can reveal a classic, never mind a masterpiece. So much for elitism. There was not even time for Franzen's book to be set before the reading public before the poet, poetry editor, and translator was asserting its imperishable grandeur. Ah, but Galassi was talking in his role as a commercial publisher, and not as a writer and editor. He expected us discreetly to distinguish between the two by ourselves—as members of the "electronic democracy" on the one hand, as readers and critics of "high-art" literature on the other.

Receiving Galassi's pronouncement as the former, I'd be inclined to accept it docilely; as an independent-minded reader of "good books," I'd expect him to calm down. But I suppose he wasn't talking to that half of me. He was talking as Oprah was talking in her role as "ordinary woman," rather than as an ordinary woman, when she said, "Look at you. Beautiful." Both have made an intuitive estimate of their audience, and decided they could get away with it. The editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux turns out to be as much a servant of Franzen's "electronic democracy" as truth-seeker Oprah. The one person in the drama who has proved himself not to be thus conflicted is Jonathan Franzen.

With respect to Galassi, I suggest that he did not mean what he said when he landed The Corrections with the judgment, "a masterpiece." I believe that he recognizes the glibness of instant verdicts, which publicists and television presenters feel obliged to utter. He was probably thrilled—justifiably—at having an ambitious, well-written, self-consciously contemporary novel on his hands, and wished to promote it aggressively ("This is Big…gonna be Big"). When the Canberra Times called Franzen "the most talked-about writer in the world," it didn't really believe that either. It simply seemed to someone on the features desk a suitable way to push a big literary story. The next day the leaves of the newspaper would be wrapping Pacific fish (it turns out, though, that the electronic democracy is less permeable than assumed).

In his Harper's essay, Franzen praised Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (1970), a novel which features a character named Otto Brentwood. Brentwood is portrayed as "an unashamed elitist, an avatar of the printed word, and a genuinely solitary man"—he is reminiscent of Franzen himself, in fact, which I think was the despairing essayist's point. Franzen imagined this character, in present-day time (i.e., 1995–6), "kicking in the screen of his bedroom TV," as he resiled from "the banal ascendancy of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse…[the] media jingoism." However, Franzen believed that such an act would be in vain. As an "avatar of the printed word," Brentwood belonged "to a species so endangered as to be all but irrelevant."

Few would be prepared to argue that, in the six years since the publication of "Perchance to Dream," the banal ascendancy has been reversed. And yet, how unexpected, how unpredictable, that portrait of the rebel against the all-in performance culture seems when we look at it now. Old Brentwood, the unashamed elitist, has played a trick on us, and specifically Jonathan Franzen. For Franzen succeeded in kicking in the television screen while Oprah was showing. And taking it off. And changing the topic of conversation. Just for a few minutes. Just long enough to make him "the most talked-about writer in
world." <

James Campbell's biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, has just been reissued. His latest book, This Is the Beat Generation, was published last November.


Originally published in the April/May 2002 issue of Boston Review



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