Literati: The Oprah Wars

No sooner had American culture bid its sober
official farewell to irony than
the literary world veered headlong yet again into the gruesome (yet ever
comforting) ironies of cultural warfare. The occasion was novelist Jonathan
Franzen's widely publicized affront to Oprah Winfrey, who had made his novel The
the choice of her book club for the month of October. Among Franzen's
trespasses was the observation that as a writer "solidly in the high-art literary
tradition" he felt a bit squeamish about the Oprah's Book Club imprimatur;
indeed, the embossed book-club seal of approval struck him as a unwelcome
corporate logo, slapped carelessly onto the cover of a work he still regarded as
"my creation." He was also intemperate enough to say that he found some Oprah
picks "shmaltzy" and "one-dimensional."

Never mind that all these remarks were followed promptly by appreciations of
Oprah as "really smart" and someone "fighting the good fight." Or that they were
delivered nearly in the same breath with self-deflating asides: It's "a perverse,
not to say fetishistic response" to the familiar bedlam of American consumer
culture, Franzen told his interviewer at the Powell's bookstore Web site, "to say
'I don't buy the popular stuff, I buy the small label stuff,' as if that makes
you any less of a consumer... . I'm somewhat guilty of it myself, and it follows
a pattern," Franzen said. "As far as being popular, yeah, I think Dave Barry is
really funny. And [The] Silence of the Lambs is a really smart book. But of
course everybody who's sold out and been co-opted, as I obviously have, says the
same thing, and it makes for a pathetic spectacle."

Yet Franzen had no inkling of the far more pathetic spectacle that lay in
store. News of these remarks (or at least the risible parts about Franzen's
"high-art literary" self-image) reached Dame Winfrey, and Franzen soon found
himself, on October 22, officially disinvited from his special book-club segment
of the show. "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he
is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club
selection," Oprah rather primly announced. "It is never my intention to make
anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict." This, mind you, is a woman who,
in the course of her day job as a talk-show host, routinely prompts suffering
guests to weep before a mass audience and then places them into the creepy public
solicitude of her therapeutic aide-de-camp, "Dr. Phil" McGraw, a man all too easy
to picture presiding over a show trial.

Yet such ironies make for bad copy when a culture war rages. Commentators
instead trained themselves with laserlike fury on the realization that here was a
writer who not only believed in a high-art literary tradition but--oh, the
perfidy!--placed himself "solidly" within it. With numbing regularity, media wags
enclosed Franzen in a perfect, closed circle of ritual denunciation: His seeming
self-regard indicted him as an elitist or a snob; for not rejecting the Oprah
selection outright, he was a hypocrite; for not joyfully swooning into the book
club's mass readership and uttering dutiful gratitude, he was simply stupid.

Once again, in other words, a newly apprehensive, war-torn nation was
repairing to the bracing, morale-boosting tonic of culture warfare. This meant,
first and foremost, that the somewhat complicated response to his Oprahfication
that Franzen tried to voice was not a permissible attitude; never mind that this
very sort of ambivalent self-questioning is among the signal qualities that
define good literature (popular, "high art," and anything in between). One is, in
American Kulturkampfs, either with "the people" or their "elitist" enemy (even
though, in the actual American social order, one is about as likely to encounter
a genuine self-professed "elitist" as, say, a practicing Owenite). This is the
plodding script by which all manner of controversies over public taste and
aesthetic standards have played out for decades--from the near-identical
Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Brooklyn Art Museum dustups to clashes over
"political correctness" in the American university. In all such set-pieces, the
right claims heroically to defend--even as the left, in populist ardor, claims to
"subvert" or "appropriate"--the products of mass culture from the precious
disdain of the shifty elitists lording over their nasty taste hierarchies.

One of the more painful ironies here is that the ambivalence Franzen voiced
over the book club actually meshed quite clearly with the subject of The
Corrections itself. The novel traces the ultimately somewhat redemptive emotional
struggle of a midwestern family to reckon with all sorts of impersonal market
forces; the title itself puns on the increasingly interchangeable notions of
market reversals and lifestyle-cum-family "corrections" that await all striving
American selves. Why, then, should it be so unthinkable to bring up the book club
itself--surely the most powerful market force in American publishing--for the
same kind of discussion? Why not have Franzen appear on the show and air his
views about the book club with its members? Why not, in other words, use this as
a near-unprecedented opportunity to give a mass public a direct stake in a
literary dispute?

But that, of course, would be to mistake a mock-plebiscite on marketing power
for a literary debate. Amid all the posturing over the holy writ of cultural
populism and the sinister cunning of its elitist betrayers, the premier rule of
engagement in America's culture wars remains unchanged: The market is always