Careful, John. Looking dangerously like a dandy.
I'm baaack. And I should be back on a regular basis too. Lucky, lucky you. Monday I have a Front List/Back List going up and should be able to do one on a regular basis from here on out. So that little piece of bookkeeping aside, let's get on with this long delayed show.
I've been hanging out with the folks at Melville House Publishing the last couple of weeks. Reading slush, updating their social media and generally trying to be useful every now and then. As I said in my last post I was given the opportunity to intern with them and see the book business from a new vantage. So far so good.
I was also on the ground floor to witness the enthusiastic reception of the MobyLives story breaking the news that Oprah's first book of her new book club (the last on-air release) was none other than Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. You know, the guy who essentially force-fed both himself and Oprah a healthy portion of humble pie back in 2001.
People have been fascinated by the story and rightly so. The fiasco involving The Corrections and Oprah's book club may very well have been the biggest literary scandal of the 2000's.
In one corner you found media giant Oprah and her super successful book club, replete with its legion of readers, mostly women, who could turn a book into a off-the-charts bestseller within an hour of a episode's ending. The Oprah slug on the cover of a book instantly meant millions of dollars for the publisher and large retail chains. In the early 2000's it was as good as gold. Sure, small stores might suddenly find themselves unable to obtain copies of a Oprah selection because of the massive buying practices of the chains at the time, but hey, who cares. I mean why would the industry look a gift horse in the mouth.
But that's exactly what happened. Jonathan Franzen, whose book had already made him a master even before it had sold a single copy, was not on board the Oprah express. Sure, Oprah's selection of his title multiplied the print runs of his already successful book by a factor of ten and provided for him a much larger audience of readers less likely to go-in for the supposedly high brow lit that Franzen and the papers were purporting The Corrections to be. Franzen didn't want it. Had written something about not liking such phenomena in the past and, woeful to his weary soul, the book club selection interrupted his carefully laid plans to save modern man.
Women you see, or at least as Franzen sees it, read more than man. Waiving away any statistical evidence, Franzen goes on to describe... Oh, hell. Let's just put his words up with this handy quote box.
"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."
That's Franzen circa 2001. Football. Flight simulators. It's a shotgun blast approach to offending men, women and in some smaller way, blue collar America. It's actually maybe all the more offensive to men, ironic too, for we of the XY are the endangered species which Jonathan Franzen had hoped to save with The Corrections. But it's Oprah mind you, with her feminine book club that would forever turn us off to the rugged masculinity that is Jonathan Franzen.
Franzen wears his disdain on his sleeve. He is reactionary and cynical when it comes to the state of "culture" in America. Men (read anyone not reading his books) are in fact intellectually still boys, capable only of filling their free time with video games and sports. Manhood comes when you read a few books, learn to have a passive aggressive view of women and enjoy a well-written blow job. I mean, I read The Corrections and the man can describe oral. Not to mention a tasteful lesbian scene or two. I'm surprised he didn't include a subtitle, "For Gents" for the book's title page.
So here we are again. Oprah is picking Franzen to headline her new book club. No doubt his previous reasoning that such book clubs thin-out readership and form a less than ideal canon (something completely wrong of course - how many of Oprah's selections have entered into the academy? - which in turn brings up the real thing irking Franzen, namely that Oprah put writers he believed were lesser into a spotlight that writers like himself deserve more - irony abounding). Everyone is braced for Tyson vs. Holyfield and instead they'll witness a soppy yet dignified peace treaty. Oprah will allow Jon-Boy a 180 and even help him cloth it in grandeur.
The interest Dennis Johnson and MobyLives created as a result of the story (the SOS leak heard around the world) and eventual photographic evidence is a whole other issue. The real story (other than the media treatment of the MobyLives scoop), as Dennis has been suggesting since 2001, is one of cynicism and strategic maneuvering. Franzen was already a millionaire twice over before Oprah selected his book back in ought-one. His advances and movie contracts saw to that. What he saw to on the other had (with the scandal he manufactured) was his installation into the ranks of the very serious. He was no longer a guy whose third book had won a National Book Award and had received rave reviews. That stuff might not stick. No. He took on the conventional world and won. He was a literary lion, capable of raging against the dying of the light, as it were.
The thing is though, that it wasn't sincere. Evident of course, in the forthcoming hug fest I predict on Oprah episodes yet to be filmed. He will now soften his outlook, endear himself to American values, and allow the world to make the comparisons with Steinbeck, Dickens and Lewis Sinclair. He's a talented writer and though I may wait a while to read Freedom I do not doubt that it is at least a good book. The back story is less than charming however and something that certainly leaves a bad taste.
So with that in mind I will be thinking of Fred Exley and not Jonathan Franzen when I walk into a bar on Sunday to watch some football. Go Dolphins!