In one corner sits Jonathan Franzen, author of the most critically acclaimed novel of the year; in the other is the country’s most powerful talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, and dividing them is the age-old argument that high art and popular culture are mutually exclusive.
It all began when Oprah chose Franzen’s The Corrections, a sweeping account of a dysfunctional US family, as her book club’s October selection. A perk of being chosen is that the publisher is entitled to put her orange ‘Oprah’s Book Clubâ€ logo on the front cover — an imprimatur that guarantees a guest spot on her syndicated TV show, widespread exposure and sales in excess of 500 000 copies.
For most authors such recognition is the literary equivalent of winning the lottery, but for Franzen his selection brought only anguish and indecision. ‘I see this book as my creation and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it,â€ he told one interviewer. In another interview he suggested his book would be a success regardless of Oprah’s opinion of it. He spoke of the ‘sense of splitâ€ he felt at becoming one of ‘herâ€ authors, an eclectic list including Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as a number of less established — some might say less literary — writers.
‘She’s picked some good books,â€ said Franzen, ‘but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe … â€
Winfrey responded to these public musings by withdrawing her support for The Corrections — cancelling Franzen’s appearance on her show, a literary dinner and any discussion of his book.
A statement issued by her publicist said: ‘Jonathan Franzen will not be on the show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we’re moving on to the next book.â€
It is the first time any author has had an invitation withdrawn by Oprah and the spat has dominated conversations around the lunch tables of literary New York.
To no one’s surprise, the weight of opinion within the industry is behind the talk show host, who has been deified by publishers because of her efforts to encourage the public to read more. Franzen is accused by his peers of snobbery and hubris.
‘What an ungrateful bastard,â€ one prominent New York literary agent said. ‘Even if he did have misgivings, he should have just accepted the selection graciously and said nothing.â€
Any embarrassment will be somewhat eased by the success of The Corrections. Propelled by stunning reviews, it reached number five on the New York Times bestsellers list. More than 600 000 copies — most bearing Oprah’s stamp of approval — have been printed.