Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

Naturally, Franzen found himself stuck with the unfortunate reputation of a highbrow snob, a characterization that seems utterly bizarre if you’ve read his work and are aware that he’s a straightforward, accessible, and completely absorbing entertainer with an immaculate ear for everyday turn-of-the-millennium speech. Winfrey named Freedom to her Book Club in 2010 and Franzen accepted, finally appearing on the show (footage here), but that hasn’t stopped the flap over The Corrections from dogging him everywhere he goes. Read some of the grumbly backlash to the Kenyon College address and you don’t have to scroll very far down to find a jab at the incident.

The Kenyon speech got me thinking, anyway. In light of Franzen’s output, particularly as an essayist, he really does seem at odds with the value system of The Oprah Winfrey Show. This is the same programme that was peddling buy-me-to-be-happy crap like The Secret, yes? Isn’t the pre-cooked panacea of “positive thinking” the very emblem of everything Franzen writes against? There’s a deep contradiction embedded in the Oprah enterprise: Winfrey’s brand is a front for packaged, sterilized inspiration designed to sedate a passive audience of the already powerless, but through the Book Club she makes an effort to cultivate her audience, and not merely in the sense of growing its ranks. (Daniel Kaszor puts it well: “I think my biggest issue with Oprah is that she strikes me as the kind of person who would be ashamed to watch Oprah,” he says.)

Ms Winfrey is undoubtedly clever enough to be in on her own game. One doesn’t blindly invite guests like Jonathan Franzen or bizarrely, Cormac McCarthy, whose Oprah interview is only rivalled in the annals of shattered reclusion by Thomas Pynchon’s Simpsons cameo. Yet these are precisely the writers for whom literature is a refuge from the cacophony of mass-cultural unreality, and who know better than most that embracing the depths of human misery rather than buying or drugging them away is the key to preserving our sense of self.

Despite our privileged first-world comforts, we need to reassert our right to be miserable, lonely saps. That’s the Franzen paradox: through solitude, we can recover empathy. In the long conversation about whether there is a place for literature in a culture saturated with disposable entertainment and projected façades of human contact—an anxiety we can trace back to Franzen’s Harper’s essay from 1996, David Foster Wallace’s meditation on television at its zenith in “E Unibus Pluram”, or most presciently in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—the printed page is a conduit for recovering humanity, not for retreating away from it.

This is a major concern for Richard Powers, too. Compared to Franzen, Powers is more of a technological optimist (we’re talking about the fellow who dictates his novels into a tablet computer, remember), but he also considers the social effects with the warranted ambivalence. Russell Stone, the protagonist of Generosity, forms preconceptions of someone he hasn’t met based on her profile picture and upends a psychiatric diagnosis with a term he picked up on Wikipedia—and he’s far from the only one in the book to behave in accordance with how he’s wired. The novel centres on Russell’s incomprehension of someone who has every reason on paper to feel worse than he does, but doesn’t. Powers’ earlier novel Galatea 2.2 tackles the problem of humanity-via-fiction head-on, reimagining Alan Turing’s imitation game as an exercise in understanding literature.

Where the notion of the literary refuge runs into trouble is when we consider market dynamics—the production and promotion of books. The trick to understanding how literary values mesh with Oprah values may lie at this junction, I think: long-form reading provides an outlet from the commodified morass, but it’s sold and distributed as a commodity itself. It may be strange to think of a big cerebral novel as falling into the fiscal category of an entertainment product, but where accounting is concerned, publishing is publishing and books are merely books. In the end, everything gets the covers stripped and pulped.

This isn’t to say that Oprah’s Book Club is all about the money: the books have more to benefit from it than the show, and Winfrey’s taste is honestly not too shabby. But its project is to direct consumer behaviour, and the objects held up to the audience, as complex as they may be inside, are promoted as consumable remedies like anything else. Better literature than quack medicine, I’d say.

More worrisome is how market conditions may transform or limit, going forward, the kind of literature we see produced. We’ve all witnessed in the past x years (five, ten, thirty, pick your frame) how a market-driven, consumer-dictated approach to cultural production has driven popular cinema and music into the ground, while a good chunk of television has never gotten off the ground. If good books of richness, depth, and intelligence are sold on shallow terms, do we really get any closer to developing a culture of interpretive independence and nuanced thought? Or by selling the novel as a typical entertainment medium, are we just asking for it to be replaced?

Here’s what Katherine Pratt Ewing has to say in her review of Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon:

The association of Oprahfication with lack of depth is clearest in critiques of Oprah’s effects on the reading public. Lofton, like others, is skeptical of the interpretive approach to reading that Oprah encourages in her book club: she stresses that Oprah’s interpretations, which encourage readers to react emotionally to a book and relate its characters to their own lives, lack depth and reduce books to their ability to “return women to an Oprah way of life,” reiterating the core theme of Oprah-as-icon. […] One could also draw a comparison with Sesame Street, which uses the idiom of commodities to “sell” reading to kids. Both Oprah and Sesame Street effectively reach and shape a self who always already inhabits a commodified world.

By integrating quality fiction into her audience’s existing way of life, the argument goes, Winfrey strips away the class-boundary stigma that isolates literature as a highbrow domain, cut off from everyday consumer society. Admirable enough, to be sure, but I think there’s a catch: some novels simply want to be apart. (Glenn Beck, who prefers to champion military thrillers for boys, doesn’t have this problem.) Ignoring for a moment the ocean of work-to-order books that are written to fill market needs and meet bottom lines, which entertain readers suitably enough and exist to be liked, not loved, it’s in the nature of the novel to resist its own commodity packaging.

I’m aware that I am cribbing from Franzen here:

The striking thing about all consumer products—and none more so than electronic devices and applications—is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

The double nature of a book like The Corrections is that it functions equally well as a serious novel and as salable commodity entertainment—maybe even with a tilt towards the latter. In any case, this sheds some light on how we’ve since ended up with Jonathan Franzen, Ironic Celebrity.

It’s not just Oprah, either. Consider this: Lev Grossman, the former tech-gadget journalist who has somehow remained employed as the senior book critic at Time in spite of the trendspotting, early-adopter triteness that infects his cliché-ridden drivel—got Franzen on the cover of the magazine last August, making him the first novelist to sit inside the big red box since Stephen King in 2000 (for a story about King’s online strategy, not his books). The literary cover gallery tells a vivid story of the decline of novelists in American popular consciousness, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that for all the welcome benefits of mass exposure, Time wasn’t doing Franzen’s reputation any services with its insipid, off-the-shelf, the-way-we-live-now hype.

The attitudes to literature on display could not be less compatible. Take a look at Grossman’s screed in The Wall Street Journal, “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard Work”—still one of the most heinous acts of attempted criticism to grace a major publication in recent memory, in which the sentence “This is the future of fiction” is actually, earnestly said. Now compare it to Franzen’s post-Oprah essay on the subject of accessibility, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books”. Grossman opts for snap judgments, populist scapegoating, and bad history; Franzen makes a serious effort to sketch ideologies of the author-reader relationship. Yet look who’s connecting with the wider public.

It’s reassuring, at least, that some reluctant celebrities weather their own promotion and manage to keep their secret integrity intact. Don’t ask me how. Just ask DC Comics superhero Green Lantern, who spoke to Oprah Winfrey in 1988:

He does resemble Franzen, doesn’t he? I have this theory…

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4 rejoinders to “Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude”

  1. This entry took several hours of my life, since I invariably clicked on and read any of the linked documents that I hadn’t yet (I’d already read Grossman’s contemptible essay and knew enough to give it a wide berth, however), and so on and so forth down the rabbit hole.

    I find Franzen’s friendship with D.F. Wallace to be very interesting indeed, since the two seem to indicate two apposite entries in the same series. Wallace seemed always to take a formal position against abstrusity and overly-complicated language, and yet wrote abstruse and overly-complicated books (admittedly some of the best work of our time); meanwhile, Franzen, despite his confession of mixed feelings in “Gaddis”, seems to enjoy the notion that good novels can/should be suitably difficult, and somehow writes novels that are deceptively accessible.

    It’s an old conversation, I suppose, but it comes down to Grossman’s notion of “Good”, which stupid prats use interchangeably with “successful”.

    Saturday, 4 June 2011 at 3:14pm

  2. As some relevant context, it’s worth noting the venue’s special resonance: Wallace also made a commencement address at Kenyon College several years ago. After reading it, Franzen’s speech feels very platitudinous in comparison, which goes to show that even writers of his calibre look tame next to Wallace’s sheer exuberance.

    Saturday, 4 June 2011 at 3:42pm

  3. “This is Water” was DFW at his most brilliantly accessible.

    In fairness, graduation speeches are not the sort of thing I would expect Franzen to be good at, anyway. I can only imagine the reason he agreed to do it is for that very resonance.

    Saturday, 4 June 2011 at 4:32pm

  4. In general, when an artist or group of artists put forth a manifesto, the principles announced are the exact opposite of their actual practice. Thus the Imagistes talked a lot about concrete imagery while being as vague as possible in their poetry.

    Tuesday, 7 June 2011 at 5:11am

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