For those who hadn’t read his books, author Jonathan Franzen was once famous for being the guy who got disinvited from the Oprah show in 2001. But then, in 2010, he became the first novelist in a decade to appear on the cover of Time. Now that Freedom, his latest novel, is the top-selling book on the planet, Oprah has invited him back. Will he behave better? By KEVIN BLOOM.
In his essay collection How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen included a piece entitled “Meet Me In St. Louis,” which described his bizarre experience of being selected for the Oprah Book Club in 2001. His third book, The Corrections – in his own words “a family novel about three East Coast urban sophisticates who alternately long for and reject the heartland suburbs where their aged parents live” – had recently been released, and was already something of a phenomenon amongst a widening circle of readers and critics. But as Franzen intimately knew, Oprah’s selection of the book for televised discussion would catapult it into a different realm. Sales would be guaranteed to soar into the millions and he would instantly join the ranks of America’s famous, becoming a figure in that country’s cultural imagination akin to a lesser god on Mt Olympus (writers, after Hemingway, ceased forever to be ruling gods in America).
So Franzen readily agreed to the appearance, and the slick wheels of production that drive every Oprah show were set in motion. The author was told that a “B-roll” of footage needed to be filmed to back up the “A-roll” – the former to run as a series of biographical inserts between the latter, which would be footage of the in-studio interview. For the B-roll, what seemed like a great idea to Oprah’s producers was to film Franzen in St Louis, the town in which he grew up, and specifically to film him talking about his late father, Earl, in front of the oak tree that was planted in Earl’s memory on a traffic island near the old family home. The problem was that Franzen, as he was told by Oprah’s underlings, ended up “failing to emote”.
This failure as an Oprah author extended to the following day, when filming for the A-roll began in Chicago. Franzen picks up the story in his essay (it’s a long quote, granted, but then he’s nothing if not a supremely gifted and readable writer):
“Beginning the next night, in Chicago, I’ll encounter two kinds of readers in signing lines and in interviews. One kind will say to me, ‘I like your book and I think it’s wonderful that Oprah picked it’; the other kind will say, ‘I like your book and I’m so sorry that Oprah picked it.’ And because I’m a person who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas, I’ll respond in kind to each kind of reader. When I talk to admirers of Winfrey, I’ll experience a glow of gratitude and good will and agree that it’s wonderful to see television expanding the audience for books. When I talk to detractors of Winfrey, I’ll experience the bodily discomfort I felt when we were turning my father’s oak tree into schmaltz, and I’ll complain about the Book Club logo. I’ll get in trouble for this. I’ll achieve unexpected sympathy for Dan Quayle when, in a moment of exhaustion in Oregon, I conflate ‘high modern’ and ‘art fiction’ and use the term ‘high art’ to describe the importance of Proust and Kafka and Faulkner to my writing. I’ll get in trouble for this too. Winfrey will disinvite me from her show because I seem ‘conflicted’. I’ll be reviled from coast to coast by outraged populists. I’ll be called a ‘motherfucker’ by an anonymous source in New York magazine, a ‘pompous prick’ in Newsweek, an ‘ego-blinded snob’ in the Boston Globe, and a ‘spoiled, whiny little brat’ in the Chicago Tribune. I’ll consider the possibility, and to some extent believe, that I am all of these things. I’ll repent and explain and qualify, to little avail. My rash will fade as mysteriously as it blossomed; my sense of dividedness will only deepen.”
The question now, as we learn that Franzen is about to appear on Oprah to discuss his fourth novel Freedom, is what’s changed? Has he become less divided in the last nine years, more at ease with himself and his place in the world? Has he reconciled himself to the fact that there really is no important distinction between popular fiction and high art, and that an appearance on Oprah is therefore not a debasement of his work? Has he just emerged from a decade-long bout of thrice-weekly therapy sessions to find that – miracle of miracles – he’s no longer a pompous, spoiled, whiny, ego-blinded prick?
It’s best, perhaps, to deal with these last questions separately; and then to come at a roundabout route back to the first question – the one about the change in the relationship between Oprah and the author.
First the issue of Franzen’s internal division, and the obvious point, made time and again through the centuries, that the best writers are those who are most at war with themselves. This axiom doesn’t necessarily mean that such writers are by default irascible, misanthropic and asocial – although they very often are – as much as it suggests that they understand, on a deeply intuitive level, that the idea of a singular and coherent self is a fallacy. We are all a multiplicity of selves, these writers know, and the sentiment is reflected in Gustav Flaubert’s statement “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” as well as in Coetzee’s assertion that all writing is autobiographical. How could the masters write the fully human characters that they do if those characters weren’t in some way a representative part of their own identities?
Whether or not Franzen is a master on the level of Flaubert or Coetzee is debatable, but, since the release of Freedom, there have been very few critics willing to argue that he’s not a master. One of the benefits of having written two previous articles for The Daily Maverick on this subject is that Jonathan Ball Publishers, the local distributors, sent me an advanced copy of Freedom – and while I should probably be more subtle about it, I can’t stop myself from calling the book mindblowing. I’m 300 pages in, and the characters are so complex and flawed, their struggles so uncannily reflective of contemporary experience, that there’s no other conversation I’d rather be having right now (in the sense that good books, like good relationships, are about the quality of the conversation). I’m clearly not the only one consumed by the Berglunds, the archetypal dysfunctional family at the novel’s core – as of this writing, Freedom is the number-one selling book on the planet. And there’s probably no better reason for that than the reason Sam Tanenhaus provides in the New York Times: “The Berglunds, introduced as caricatures, gradually assume the gravity of fully formed people, not ‘rounded characters,’ in the awful phrase, but misshapen and lopsided, like actual humans.”
Is it then possible that Franzen, an actual human himself, is less divided than he was in 2001? Could he have written Freedom, universally praised as “more authentic” than The Corrections, if he was less divided? Not likely. Which brings us to questions two and three – the concerns around Franzen’s elitism and his inability to get along with his fellow man.
The elitism issue, instigated in 2001 by Franzen’s distinction between literary fiction (worthy) and popular fiction (less worthy), has been something the author appears to have remained quiet about over the last nine years. Prior to the release of Freedom, when the book was garnering more pre-publicity than any other novel of the decade, a group of American female authors reinvigorated the debate by pointing out that when men write about families it’s called “high art” but when women do so it’s called “chick-lit”. Along with a host of local writers (see BookSA link below) The Daily Maverick got involved in the debate too (see “Freedom’s reign begins: In defence of Franzen and ‘high art’”), and yet amidst all the transcontinental name-calling Franzen again remained mostly silent. About the most he said on the matter was to National Public Radio on 9 September: “The little bit that has trickled back to me hasn’t sounded particularly ad hominem. It seems like there’s… a feminist critique, and it’s about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have over the years.”
Whatever his private feelings on the subject of high and low art, this is not the stance of a man who still wants to run the risk of stirring heated debate outside the confines of his novels; apparently, like Coetzee, he’d now much rather let his fiction do the talking. But if he won’t talk much about his elitism he will talk about himself, and here he can be extremely candid. Asked by NPR about his recent bouts with depression, he revealed that he has been in therapy of a sort since Oprah disinvited him from her show.
“I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy,” he said. “But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.
“And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways…. So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis.”
The ego-blinded prick Franzen admitted he may once have been is not present in these words, and so there’s now arguably a lot less about his personality that could give offense to Oprah fans. Winfrey herself can’t be unaware of the fact that Franzen has mellowed, and yet, while it makes the job of picking him for the Book Club a lot easier, it’s not the primary reason she’s done it. She’s picked him because, in 2010, Franzen appears to be in a position to do a lot more for her than she can for him.
As mentioned, Freedom is currently the number-one selling book on Earth. It arrived in that position on the day it was released, instantly overtaking all other books on Amazon.com – not just those in the fiction or literature category. Although it fell off the top spot for a while and was returned there by the Book Club announcement, Franzen doesn’t necessarily need the publicity that an appearance on Oprah will bring. But Oprah, who’s selling a lot less books than she used to, stands to benefit hugely. Macy Halford, writing for the New Yorker, explains why: “This is a great, savvy move for Oprah, both because she gets a sure-fire hit for her club, and because it’s the best book of the year (at least) – one that deserves to get national attention and one that Oprah’s book clubbers will really enjoy reading. The fact that she appears benevolent and humble is very Oprah and very nice; it enhances her brand and her power and sets the tone for her final season and her legacy.”
Ultimately, if there’s anything that can be said for Franzen’s seeming personality shift, it’s that its changed his mind more than Oprah’s – after the experience of the last nine years, it could be that he’s now more inclined to accept an invitation he once had reservations about. Which is a good thing, because the concerns addressed in Freedom are common concerns, and the book deserves as many readers as it can get. DM