Books: Errors And 'Corrections'

The one thing that Jonathan Franzen and everyone else agree on is that Jonathan Franzen should have kept his big mouth shut. Franzen's new novel, "The Corrections," had gotten an extraordinary parade of glowing reviews, though NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones begged to differ. It had topped The New York Times best-seller list, been nominated for a National Book Award and chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Wait a minute. Oprah's Book Club? Franzen wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. He told interviewers that he felt uncomfortable having her "logo of corporate ownership" on his book. That being chosen for her Book Club made him feel "misunderstood" ("I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition"). And that he knew there were people who boycotted books simply because Winfrey had endorsed them ("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"). Last week Winfrey canceled Franzen's appearance on the show, making him the first Book Club author to be disinvited. It's unclear how badly the scuffle will affect sales of Franzen's novel--his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, printed 500,000 copies just for Oprah's clubgoers--but it's obvious that his reputation has taken a hit. Says one literary agent, "Most of the people I hear talking about all this now refer to Franzen along the lines of 'that pompous prick'."

Last week FSG said Franzen was not available for comment, possibly because there wasn't a phone service at the bottom of the enormous hole that he'd dug for himself. It turned out that the author was touring in Canada and, after being tracked down at a hotel in Toronto, he agreed to an interview. Franzen sounded contrite, if slightly defensive, attributing his remarks to his naivete about talking to the media, as well as to the fact that he doesn't own a television. " 'The Oprah Show,' like almost everything on TV, is not really quite real to me because I don't see it," he said. "I think if it had been more real to me I would have realized, 'Hey, watch what you're saying.'... I feel as if I'm not the first writer to have experienced some minor discomfort over the selection. I'm just the first one who was unwise and insensitive enough to mention some of that discomfort in public."

Franzen's controversial remarks were certainly impolitic, but, to make matters worse, many believed he was dissing not just Oprah's taste but her fans. "It reeks of snobbery," says Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose novel "The Deep End of the Ocean" was Winfrey's first Book Club pick. "It confirms everything that people already believe about serious writers, which is that they're pinch-nosed and ivory-towered. And that's terrible for writing and terrible for quote-unquote serious books. If you have disdain for any reader, then to heck with ya." Franzen insists that people are reading far too much into his remarks. "I don't have any preconceptions about what kind of reader makes a good reader for my work," he told NEWSWEEK. "Anybody who enjoys the book is a friend of mine, and that specifically includes Oprah Winfrey." Franzen added, "The last thing the literary community in America needs is some divisive little battle about this." When it was pointed out to him that, whether accidentally or not, he had fired the first shot himself, he sounded genuinely sorry. "It's a disaster," he said, "and I can't tell you how bad I feel about it."

The flap will likely abate shortly, and "The Corrections" will no doubt gather a great many awards in its arms. Franzen still wishes he could clear the air with Winfrey and take part in a Book Club discussion. But on her show last Friday the talk-show host not only confirmed that Franzen would not be appearing on her show, but seemed to imply that her viewers might as well stop reading "The Corrections." Winfrey's guest, Maria Shriver, gleefully pointed to her own book and said, "You can read mine instead!" It was a funny moment and, somewhere in a hotel room in Canada, no doubt, Jonathan Franzen wasn't laughing.