“It’s like watching someone commit suicide!” one well-known agent says, referring, of course, to the most grievous literary crime since Martin Amis switched agents: Jonathan Franzen’s snubbing of Oprah Winfrey.
The book industry has always been a divided tribe, uncomfortably accommodating both those who think of it as a business and those for whom it is a near-sacred calling. Franzen’s public Hamlet act about being associated with Winfrey – and Winfrey’s subsequent decision to cancel his appearance on her show – only aggravated that tension. “Scads of us are obsessed,” the agent continues. “He’s doing it for the stupidest possible reason – ‘I’m literature and she’s not.’ “
Back in a 1996 Harper’s essay, Franzen declared his ambition to write the Great American Novel – one with the artistic reach of his hero Don DeLillo but more reader-friendly. When that novel, The Corrections, finally arrived last month, it seemed a magic bus that everyone in the media world was eager to get on. After a Scott Rudin movie option and glowing reviews, the book debuted at No. 5 on the Times best-seller list, with the print run reaching 90,000. When Oprah got onboard, the bus jumped to warp speed.
To compare: DeLillo’s Underworld, with as much magazine placement and public-radio air time as a literary novel could generate, managed to get 300,000 hardcovers in print. The last big literary book, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, arguably even more accessible than Franzen’s, got 200,000 out. After Oprah tapped The Corrections, publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux called for another 680,000 copies, 500,000 of which Jeff Seroy, FSG’s publicist, attributes directly to Oprah. For those who’re keeping score (just about everyone in the publishing world), that’s $2 million extra to Franzen.
Franzen’s squabble with the Queen of All Media hasn’t exactly earned him many new publishing friends. “Do you know how many books we pitch her?” asks an incredulous publicist for a rival house. “It’s very rare that she’ll pick a hardcover that early. You have no idea how lucky this man was. That’s why everyone is so furious!” Says a highbrow editor, “I’d like to punch the motherfucker.”
Toni Morrison – the Nobel laureate whose books The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Paradise were Oprah Book Club selections – is also puzzled by Franzen’s response: “It was clear he felt the list of books that Oprah chose was geared toward her audience, which, it seemed, he thought was a lesser audience, meaning not as male, which is to say not as smart or fastidious. Disparaging the audience seems to me to be not terribly bright. I don’t think he meant to disparage the idea of Oprah Winfrey’s enterprise, but this disdain that he expressed at the mechanics of it … She must have found it painful.”
Franzen has been apologizing, sort of. “To find myself being in the position of giving offense to someone who’s a hero – not a hero of mine per se, but a hero in general – I feel bad,” he told USA Today. His agent, Susan Golomb, has also been busy with spin: “He never said he didn’t want to do the show. He’d shot footage. But he had a very intellectual readership. He feared that some people who might not like the typical Oprah book might not pick up the book.”
Oprah, of course, is also a bookbuyer. “I think she’ll think twice before picking another FSG book,” an executive says. Still, FSG is standing firm. “The book is a huge best-seller. We’re going to keep doing things that are appropriate for that,” says Franzen’s editor, Jonathan Galassi. No doubt he’ll want Franzen to keep his opinions about the National Book Awards – which nominated him for the fiction prize – to himself.