Friday, September 17, 2010

Oprah No Longer Does "Schmaltzy"

On Wednesday, I went to Powell's City of Books to attend a book reading and signing by Jonathan Franzen. It was one of the more crowded book signings I've attended, which did not surprise me at all. I went early to ensure that I would have a seat. He is considered to be "the novelist" of the moment.

His latest book is called Freedom, which has gotten critical praise and major publicity. Its his first novel since The Corrections, which won a major literary award in 2001 and is considered to be one of the best novels of the past ten years (I have not read it, though it has been on my reading list for a long time).

During the Q & A portion of the book reading, one lady asked Franzen if Oprah would be selecting his book for her first Book Club selection of the final season of her 25 year long talk show. The audience laughed at that question. Franzen said that he did not think she would, as Nelson Mandela has a book out that is probably much more interesting. He either knows how to keep a secret or he really was kept in the dark, but by Thursday, news reports were speculating that Oprah was indeed planning to reveal on Friday (today's show) that Freedom is her first book club selection of the final season.

For those who are not literary and don't know about the controversy, Oprah had selected The Corrections as one of her book club selections in 2001 or 2002. Her choices pretty much guarantee best seller status for the lucky novelist. She mostly picked unknown novels, which I thought was a good thing because she was using her fame to bring much needed recognition to writers who rarely receive such attention. Franzen's novel was already a best seller without Oprah's endorsement, though. Her choice seemed almost like an afterthought or jumping on the bandwagon of people who praised this work as "a great American novel."

Franzen, displaying the traits of a literary snob (which I admit that I also have such a trait, as I prefer literary novels over commercial fiction; trade paperback instead of mass market paperback), said that he felt embarrassed that his novel would display the Oprah Book Club logo because some of the previous selections tended to be "schmaltzy" (I find that word hilarious). This created an uproar, with hurt feelings and Oprah deciding to end her book club. Even more baffling, Oprah had said that the reason why she was ending her book club was because of the LACK of good books out there. I was stunned! There are more books that I want to read than I am capable of doing because of time. To make a statement like this was disingenuous.

Critics seemed to view Franzen as a curmudgeon and an ingrate who could not appreciate an honour that many authors covet. As one who reads books, however, I was never really impressed by most of Oprah's selections. But that's a matter of taste. Oprah's main audience is predominately middle aged women, the same demographic that make the bulk of novelist Nicholas Sparks' devoted fans. I did want to read Breathe, Eyes, Memory, written by a Haitian writer, but I never got around to it. The other choices, though, seem rather bland (I tried to read The Reader, but found it boring and gave up after the first chapter).

Pictured above is the "infamous" Oprah's Book Club logo that Franzen was so troubled by. This simple logo had the power to move books off the shelves at retail outfits like Target and Walmart (where I heard that most of her books were sold). I have to hand it to Oprah, though, she really revived the idea of a book club. Many have cropped up in the years since she began hers. I've always wanted to participate in one, but have not found one that shares my literary tastes. A co-worker who participated in one said that its more like a woman's group. It would be strange to be the only guy in one. There's even a beer commercial that pokes fun at the female book club.

Despite the fall-out from the Franzen controversy, the book-loving Oprah could not stay away from making book club selections. In 2005, she re-started her book club with a statement that she would pick better quality books. Her first choice in the newly reconfigurated book club was a John Steinbeck classic, East of Eden (which I bought but still have not read). Other choices in the years since included Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Sidney Poitier's spiritual memoirs (I believe its called Measure of a Man) and Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth (which I actually read BEFORE she made it her selection). I liked her new choices. It revealed that she really took Franzen's criticism to heart. It was bad news for unknown authors, though. She selected books that were pretty well known.

Still, she did make one controversial selection that caused her some grief: James Frey's "memoirs" about his drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces. However, despite the grief she got for that selection, one could ask, would his lies have been exposed if he hadn't received such a high profile in the aftermath of her book club selection? The book had been recommended in Barnes and Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" program (several times a year, this bookstore has a booklet highlighting some of the more interesting books by new writers). With Oprah's endorsement, people who knew James Frey came out of the woodwork to refute some of the more outlandish claims he made in his "memoirs." This resulted in a good debate about the rules of the "memoir genre" and how much embellishment is allowed before it becomes "fiction." Apparently, Frey wrote the book as a novel, based on his experiences, but his agent or publisher thought it would sell better as a memoir. Oprah called him on the carpet and had him explain himself on her show.

Franzen's new novel sounds interesting. He read a lengthy passage for 30 minutes, focusing on a character who was a college student raised in a liberal family but interested in Republican ideas. There are references to 9/11 and the genesis of this novel was that Franzen wanted to write on many aspects of freedom, such as, how much freedom is too much freedom?

The booksigning line was too long for me to wait. If I still lived downtown, it would not have been a problem to wait, as I could catch the streetcar or even walk back to my apartment. Now that I live in outer Portland, I have to be conscious of the bus schedule. The later it gets, the less frequent my bus line runs. I really wanted to buy a copy of The Corrections and have him autograph it. I also wanted to tell Franzen that I agree with him that Oprah's selections had a tendency to be "schmaltzy". That's such a great word! Instead, I went to catch the bus so I could return to the townhouse I live in at a decent hour.

Most of the audience questions were on the writing process. I sense quite a few aspiring novelists in the room. Time magazine endorsed him as a "great American novelist". I've read some critiques online that the literary establishment seems to have a preference for white male writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Lenthem, Norman Mailer, etc.). These critiques are pretty valid, I think. I'm interested in what novels get the buzz and often wonder the true motives behind the praise. For example, the latest sensation that's unescapable is the "Millennium Trilogy" by a now-deceased Swedish novelist: The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. A literary friend of mine asked if I read it. A co-worker is reading it. Will I read it? Well, the subject matter does not appeal to me and the movie versions are out (not that I was interested in the movies either). I have a long list of books that I actually WANT to read and I'm a notoriously slow reader (I'm lucky to read two books a month, usually around 300 pages each, rarely a 500-page novel).

Though I have a novel to sell to an agent and publisher, I don't harbour any delusions that my story appeals to the readers who select the books that Oprah recommends. It's all about personal taste. It will be interesting to see which books Oprah selects over the course of the next 8 months. Hopefully, she'll maintain the high standards that her second version of the Book Club has demonstrated in the past five years.

Speaking of announcements, I have one of my own. In two weeks begins what I call "Operation Voltaire." More on this later. It involves my plans to bring to public awareness what I think about the organization I've worked in for nine years now. I believe the timing is right and its likely to get media attention. My background and experience makes me the best person to do such a thing. For now, though, I'm off to the Puget Sound for yet another young adult retreat with my church. This place has such spiritual meaning for me (as well as being the site of one of the worst decisions I've ever made in life, three years ago) and I hope to have more clarity about my career goals. See you on Monday (no posts this weekend).

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