Franzen's Folly

The novelist vs. high art's Dark Other.


By now, you may have already forgotten Jonathan Franzen. Only last October, however, he was the most reviled author in America. In one of the few stories that managed to break through the bio-terror fog, Franzen became The Snob Who Dissed Oprah. Poor Franzen, that's as close to the role of Judas as the culture offers. But Franzen's real sin wasn't mere personal discourtesy. His crime was quite different: In his frenzy to remain within the sociological rules of writerly success, Franzen revealed the underpinnings of the literary game itself.

Here's what you know: Oprah Winfrey encourages her immense audience to read contemporary fiction. She picks a book, and features the author on her show; they have a televised dinner together. Oprah's endorsement sticker ("Oprah's Book Club") is slapped on the dust jacket. Reportedly, this process can result in huge sales—hundreds of thousands of copies—to people who would never otherwise have heard of the book. In September, Oprah picked Franzen's well-received third novel, The Corrections (already selling well), about the travails of a Midwestern family.

Oprah's authors are usually overjoyed to get lots of readers and much bigger royalties. Not Franzen. He started giving interviews in which he sounded pretty sour about the whole thing. Franzen singled out the Oprah sticker for his dyspepsia. "I know it says Oprah's Book Club," he told one interviewer, "but it's an implied endorsement, both for me and for her. The reason I got into this business is because I'm an independent writer, and I didn't want that corporate logo on my book." He made it clear that the Oprah thing just didn't fit into his self-image as an artist working in the "high-art literary tradition." Winfrey soon cancelled the dinner taping, and the public excoriation of Franzen began.

Why would Franzen do such a thing? Is he just an intolerable snob? Maybe, but that doesn't matter. Lots of writers are snobs. What matters is that he realizes that his natural literary community—the "high-art literary" club of readers, critics, publishers, "independent" book sellers, etc.—is built on various sorts of snobbishness, especially the snobbery of "taste." This is no secret; literally everybody who pays attention to books knows it. Franzen, however, committed an unpardonable crime: He said so out loud.

Franzen's lament about the book-club sticker is the quickest point of entry into the world of taste hypocrisy. He complained that having such a "corporate logo" on his book was a threat to his role as "an independent writer." But the surest way to writerly independence is a big readership and a well-known name, which is exactly what Winfrey was offering him. What the book-club logo threatened was not Franzen's non-existent "independence"; it threatened to obscure the significance of the real corporate logo on his dust jacket, that of his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Farrar, Strauss is a "literary" imprint. Its logo is a sign to buyers, critics, sellers, and others that a book is intended for the "literary" market. Indeed, it's a major insignia of the "good taste" niche, which it shares with such imprints as Alfred A. Knopf.

But is it also a "corporate logo"? You bet it is. Farrar, Strauss is owned by the Holtzbrinck Group, which also owns Henry Holt & Co., numerous U.S. textbook publishers, magazines such as Scientific American, and many European properties including Macmillan UK, Nature magazine, Spektrum Books, S. Fischer Verlag, Droemer Verlag, Rowohlt Verlag, and the investment newspaper Handlesblatt. In other words, the imprint is part of a vastly bigger and no doubt far more dehumanized corporate structure than is Oprah's Book Club, which is more an idea than a holding company like Holtzbrinck.

But that's the problem: Oprah is the wrong idea. Oprah is about daytime TV viewers who know every soap-opera subplot but could not care less about the signification of the Farrar, Strauss logo. Those are the wrong readers. The whole point of the development of a self-aware "high art" tradition, over the past 200 years, was disdain for this very audience. The whole point of creating highbrow cultural institutions—from PBS to your local cultural center—was to enable persons of "taste" to segregate themselves from everyone else. To the "taste" class, the popular Oprah represents the Dark Other against which it defines itself. In fact, the first people to complain about the Oprah sticker were customers at the little bookstores where Franzen did readings. It threatened their "taste" status.

Franzen blew everybody's cultural cover. Naturally, he got crucified by the very gatekeepers whose whole existence is based on taste management. The New York Times (!) actually attacked him in an editorial-page essay, one that laughed at the "high-art literary tradition." But that was on a Tuesday. The next Sunday, in the Book Review, the paper resumed managing that tradition.