The Corrections by Jonathan
Oprah v. Franzen by
(What Would Nabokov Do?)
The author Jonathan Franzen's recent standoff with literary televangelist Oprah
Winfrey has brought the nation's literati out in force. Franzen's earlier remarks,
particularly those on National Public Radio, earned him the distinction of being
the first writer uninvited to Ms. Winfrey's wildly popular daytime show. Having
gone on record as considering a few of Oprah's book club choices "schmaltzy,"
and having expressed certain misgivings about seeing his acclaimed novel festooned
with Oprah's Book Club coat-of-arms, Franzen found himself unceremoniously dumped
from the show's upcoming roster.
effusive apologies for what the New York Times referred to as his "Oprah
Gaffe" were apparently deemed too little too late by Ms. Winfrey and her
defenders. Laura Miller in a piece on the debacle for Salon echoes the most
prominent anti-Franzen charge -- elitism. "Film buffs got over this stuff
years ago; thanks to critics like Pauline Kael, it's possible to like Bergman
without having to badmouth the Farrelly Brothers. In fact, it's entirely possible
to enjoy both."
further disparages Franzen for "lacking nerve" -- not the nerve to
stick to his own literary opinions, mind you, but the nerve to make his peace
with the status quo -- the nerve to trust, above all else, the infallible intuition
of the market.
were far more aggressive in their attack. An October 30th Times editorial
by Verlyn Klinkenborg insists "lurking behind Mr. Franzen's rejection of
Ms. Winfrey is an elemental distrust of readers, except for the ones he designates."
Dubos III concurs: "It is so elitist it offends me deeply. The assumption
that high art is not for the masses, that they won't understand it and they
don't deserve it -- I find that reprehensible. Is that a judgment on the audience?
Or on the books in whose company he would be?"
letters to the editor brought others onboard to assault Franzen for unpardonable
brattiness. G.K. Darby, president of Garrett County Press writes: "If Mr.
Franzen wants to be the gadfly he thinks he is, he is welcome to join the underground
publishing community and write profane, true and experimental stories that have
no chance of making a dime." It seems the coveting of rockstar popularity
has become as basic to what it is to write as spell checking and editing drafts.
conclusions may we draw regarding a culture in which the most celebrated new
author in America is publicly chastised for failing to be appropriately deferential
to a pant-suited media icon?
is no reason why prose should continue to be judged good prose purely because
it trails along somewhat like the line left by a caterpillar. Why should an
author spend a year or more on a single book, and end up by talking as he would
talk on the spur of the moment?" Thus wrote Kenneth Burke back in 1931.
Perhaps the dismal sales of Burke's complex masterpiece Towards a Better
Life and the indifference of all the well-meaning book clubs of the world
provided the answer. Perhaps not. Burke's singular novel continues as it has
since then, to hide in a corner, like a gifted, misanthropic child.
Burke was able to remain cautiously upbeat: "I must be content simply to
offer the present volume as practical evidence of my faith in the forthcoming
turn, away from the impromptu towards the studied, while we leave the impromptu
to our barroom discussion and our accidental bumping of shins, where it most
turn, if one has indeed occurred in the ensuing 70 years, seems to have been
in quite the opposite direction. If it's easy to lose the mass readership promised
by Oprah's endorsement with the sort of audacious enterprise Burke had in mind,
the reverse -- writing that is beneath an audience's intelligence -- is seen
almost as a practical impossibility nowadays. Indeed, the quotation adorning
the opening page of Oprah's Web site brings the term reader-friendly to its
more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn,
the more places you'll go." -- Dr. Seuss
of Ms. Winfrey's book selections, most especially in the self-help category,
amount to scarcely more than this, though their authors, lacking the good doctor's
condensed style, often require several hundred pages to get there.
from the all too obvious dangers of offending someone with more money and influence,
there is the ready-made and seemingly unassailable defense of the Oprah tribe:
"I'm encouraging people to read -- what are you doing?" But devoted
readers have always gone to the most extravagant lengths to seek out writing
that matters -- in some cases at the risk of their lives, as with samizdat
literature in the former Soviet Union. Only in America, home office of blithe
ignorance, where the creation of a Debussy or Niels Bohr is not only impossible
but unthinkable, must readers be provided with outlandish incentives to do what
they supposedly love. Imagine stylish celebrities having to encourage people
to fish or attend hockey scrimmages.
lively, often hilarious and notoriously difficult writings of Nietzsche, the
claustrophobic novels of Thomas Bernhard, Kafka's thorny parables or the deceptively
simple enchantments of Robert Walser, the labyrinths of Borges and W.G. Sebald,
and the aggressive misanthropy of Beckett's Molloy are simply not for
everyone, and never through any act of will, sleight-of-hand or marketing gimmick
will they be. Orphaned children, homeless cranks full of bitterness, ecstasy
and an outsized sense of self -- such works arise like apparitions along the
-- once the limit case of solitary activities -- has become a spectator sport,
a communal event like a picnic or a seance, and woe to the elitist who suggests
otherwise. Franzen insisted (by way of appeasement) that Oprah is "fighting
the good fight." Just what is the nature of this good fight -- to drag
the typical American kicking and screaming from the sports arena or sitcom to
the bookstore or library? Difficult, ungainly or simply overly subtle books
that alienate an already distracted and wayward public are to be seen as counter-productive
to this enterprise -- enemies destructive not only to the author's own ambitions
but indeed to fellow writers, trolling for dwindling readers in a eutrophied
lake. Difficult books give reading a bad name. When authors themselves become
difficult, questioning the personal touch offered by literary middlemen and
handlers like Oprah, scores must be settled -- an example must be set.
easy to forget, given the current atmosphere, that it wasn't always so. Nabokov,
a phenomenally popular writer, never succumbed to Oprah-style populism. He was
in fact, unapologetically elitist and demanding of his readers. He accepted
as truism what has lately become a gravely unpopular notion--good readers (like
good writers) aspire to a higher order, as do any people of practiced ability,
prideful of something they have learned to do well. Few writers of our age can
hope to be canonized like Nabokov has, yet he treasured his autonomy more than
fame or any amount of uninformed adulation.
the easy rhetoric of writer-reader communion, Nabokov insists that the relations
between writer and reader in fiction of the highest order may well be adversarial.
An author, he tells us, "clashes with readerdom because he is his own ideal
reader and those other readers are so very often mere lip-moving ghosts and
species suffering habitat loss and threatened with extinction, great books today
subsist on the margins of modern life, their survival occasionally encouraged
by zoos, game preserves and captive breeding programs. The suggestion that aesthetic
considerations rather than pure economic exchange ought to drive our efforts
at conservation of these exotic hybrids -- night-dwelling residents of literature's
upper canopy -- is often viewed as hopelessly quaint at best.
isn't much point in having the arts at all," Denis Donoghue tells us in
The Arts Without Mystery, "unless we have them with all their interrogative
power. They are not cozy or ornamental. Critics have collaborated in making
them seem cozy, assuring us that they won't hurt a bit. If the arts don't hurt,
why have them?"
of the greatest works, we should remind ourselves, were not meant for everyone.
And yet these unlikely creations seem willing to bide their time -- often well
beyond the lifespan of their parent, waiting for the exact moment to find, strike
and transform us. "I don't think that an artist should bother about his
audience," writes Nabokov. "His best audience is the person he sees
in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines,
when he imagines that kind of thing, is a room full of people wearing his own