So Oprah has indeed chosen Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for her latest book club selection and it’s a Very Big Deal. Ever since some booksellers spectacularly bad at secret-keeping confirmed the choice to the Associated Press on Thursday afternoon, the internet has practically been emitting an audible buzz with the scandalous news. (Even celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, better known for pictures of Lindsay Lohan stumbling out of clubs, got in on the action; the last book he mentioned was underage popstar Justin Bieber’s “illustrated memoir.”)
But why is it such a big deal?
Because back in 2001, Jonathan Franzen did the unthinkable: he pissed Oprah off. He managed to put his own foot and the hand that was feeding him into his mouth at the same time, and bit down hard. The story goes that in October of that year – after his book The Corrections had been announced as Oprah’s next pick, Franzen had been interviewed by the Big O herself and shot some footage of his home for the show – he went and told The Portland Oregonian of his discomfort with having a corporate logo on the cover of “his creation.” (Apparently forgetting that his publishers’ corporate logo would be on there already.) If he’d shut up then he might have got away with it, but he went on to tell NPR that:
“So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking.”
And then, to stick a couple more nails in an already airtight coffin, he opined that picking The Corrections would do as much for Oprah as it would for him, and admitted he’d never actually seen an episode of the show in a tone that suggested he’d never lowered himself to the mind-numbing activity of daytime TV-watching, what with him being such Very Important Writer and all.
Oprah’s response? A clipped and pointed disinvitation.
“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. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the [discussion] and we’re moving on to the next book.”
Franzen made a few groveling apologies, but it was already too late. Oprah was hardly going to devote an hour to his book, hand him a sustained spot atop The New York Times bestseller list and encourage all of her female viewers to read it when he’d implied that they weren’t worth anywhere near as much to him as their male counterparts. You have to wonder how his publishers felt, especially since they’d already upped the planned print run from 80,00 to 800,000, and each one with that beautiful little O-shaped logo on it. (Which makes me giggle.) Although the blow couldn’t have come too hard: the pick had already been announced and so many viewers – including me – had already bought the book. And then there’s that old no such thing as bad publicity chestnut…
In the interests of delayed full disclosure, I should tell you that I love Oprah. Not just her show, but her as well. I think she’s amazing, and she’s taught me a lot. I’ve discovered over the years that the vast majority of people who don’t like Oprah don’t watch her show, and have some very skewed ideas of what it’s like, with most falling somewhere between Jerry Springer and E! News. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions (unless they’re wrong; this is my blog, after all), but I don’t understand how anyone can fault her book club, or what it’s done for writers, publishers and readers, not only in the U.S. but all over the world.
Oprah started her book club in 1996. The way it works is she personally chooses a book, personally calls up the author (I remember Maeve Binchy saying this in an interview in 1999 when Tara Road was an Oprah pick, and that she thought at first it was a wind-up), and then invites her viewers to start reading it. A month or so goes by, and then a whole episode is devoted to discussing the book, which usually involves input from viewers who felt a strong connection to it and an interview or dinner with the author. (In 2007, Oprah bagged reclusive author Cormac McCarthy’s first ever on camera interview.) According to the American Library Association, publishers touched by Oprah’s hand have donated some 500,000 books to American public libraries – this is part of the deal – and she’s been applauded by the organizers of the National Book Award for her contributions to the publishing industry.
Most importantly, she’s got people reading. Like all good uber-fans, I am in possession of the eighteen hour, 20th Anniversary DVD boxset, which enabled me to watch all the episodes I missed due to the fact that I was a kid who had to go to school and lived in Ireland where the Oprah supply was scarce and on a six month delay. There’s a special feature devoted to the Book Club and on it, a woman in her thirties stands up and admits that the latest pick is the first book she’s read since she was forced to read books in school. Watching the Book Club shows she felt she was missing out, and so sat down with a book for the first time in her adult life. (Oprah and I always tear up at that part.) I also think it’s important to remember that Oprah is not telling her viewers to gobble up the latest Cecilia Ahern. Among the authors she’s chosen over the years are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, William Faulkner and Leo Tolstoy.
I was only 14 when Oprah’s Book Club started, but I tried my best. Over the years, I’ve read a number of Oprah’s selections, and have notions of getting through the rest of them on some sandy sunny beach on some dreamy day in the future. Many of them I might never have come across otherwise, and all of them I loved. They include:
- The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard
- House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
- Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell
- White Oleander by Janet Fitch
- Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
- Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve
- I Know This Much is True and She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
- The Reader by Bernard Schlink, one of my all time favorite reads.
There was also Eat, Pray, Love – not technically a book club selection, but with the Big O’s full and enthusiastic support and no fewer than three dedicated episodes to date, it may as well have been.
And then there was A Million Little Pieces.
Ugh. Just thinking about it gives me a bad taste in my mouth.
What happened was this: In 2005, Oprah chose James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, a hard-hitting, graphic and devastating account of addiction, centered around a stay in a rehab centre. I picked it up that Christmas, and had to keep flicking to the ‘About the Author’ page at the back to check that Frey had indeed survived the horrors I was reading about. On the episode devoted to him, Frey sat and listened while Oprah viewers and former addicts told him that his book had saved their life, that his motto “Just hold on” had got them through their darkest days, and that they wouldn’t be there today if it wasn’t for his book, for his experiences, for his life.
Problem was, it was all a lie. The depths of his addiction, his girlfriend committing suicide, getting a root canal without Novocaine because his doctors feared giving him any drug at all would make him relapse – it was all Grade A BS. Oprah brought him and his editor back for a second show, and then proceeded to rip him a new one.
The controversy churned up new arguments about memoirs and fiction and which truth is true?, but all that missed the point. It wasn’t that Frey had embellished his story, it was how he’d sat there and accepted thanks for saving peoples’ lives with his lies, lies that might now send these people back in the wrong direction. (Frey had rejected AA’s 12 Step progam in favor of a kind of “Just say no.”) As for me, I felt sick, cheated and lied to. I hated the man and the New York loft (complete with an original Picasso) my money – our money – had helped buy him.
Another part of me wondered if perhaps we should have known, considering his biggest writing credit pre-Pieces was the screenplay for that enormously dull thud of a romcom, Kissing a Fool.
Here’s hoping Oprah contains her writer-related forgiveness to Freedom, eh?
And so, yes, it is a shocking choice, picking Franzen after all that hooha last time round, but this is Oprah’s last season and perhaps now is the time for big gestures. But what will happen now? An Oprah Book Club selection sticker guarantees bestseller status, but what happens when the book is already the hottest thing to hit publishing since… well, who can remember a publication like this? If I hear that Freedom sales has outsold The Bible to become the bestselling book of all time, I’m not entirely sure I’d be surprised…
Also, I’m sick with jealousy. And I’m off to buy the book.