True Confessions

Okay, time to come clean. I’m in (what I most sincerely hope to be) the end stages of writing a book that focuses on this question of obsolescence, particularly the anxieties that literary culture seems to exude any time it considers its relationship to newer media. In this book — and believe me, the ironies of considering the obsolescence of the book in a book are not lost on me — I focus primarily on the novel’s relationship to television, though (as this site may suggest) my interests are slipping toward the relationship between traditional fiction and the new forms of writing developing on the net.

The thing I’m writing about right now, though, in the book’s conclusion, is the Franzen/Oprah dust-up. It seems to me everyone’s got an opinion on this — Franzen’s burdened by an overdeveloped sense of his own talent; Oprah’s similarly guilty of overvaluing her culture-making power; Franzen’s a boor; Oprah’s a vacuum — but few seem to have paid much attention to the fundamental conflict at the heart of the matter. Are the novel and television genuinely incompatible forms? Is it impossible to consider oneself simultaneously a literary intellectual and a fan of the weekly set-em-up and knock-em-down sitcom?

I’ll confess: I love television. And I don’t just mean the highbrow Sopranos / Six Feet Under / {insert other self-consciously experimental program here} stuff, though those programs seem to wind up my favorites.

I mourned the passing of Homicide much as I would if I knew that David Foster Wallace had stopped writing and instead taken up bond sales. Are those two loves so very incompatible?

One last note, while I’m on the subject: While I’m infinitely grateful to HBO for rescuing Sunday evening from the pit of end-of-weekend depression, I beg that someone, similarly, somewhere, find a way to make Friday nights worthwhile again, for losers like me who are too often home with the machine for company.


  1. Maybe Oprah’s Book Club is not so much about television as it is editing. After all, she speaks to people through her magazine, her website, and most cunning way, through her brand. That little “Oprah-approved” sticker tells potential readers: okay, here’s a nice middle-weight book that you’re going to enjoy and maybe think about, but it won’t leave you completely mystified.

    Vast square footages of retail space in big box bookstores are given over to the oprah sticker. Entire bookracks at the library. It’s what the Booker Prize or the Nobel Prize stickers mean to me when I’m looking around for a good book to start.

    Franzen has claimed that his objection to being Oprahized was not, ultimately, because of her cultural endoresment (whether high or low); it was, he said, because of the logo on the book. Even if we only take him at face value, it seems beyond television – it’s almost as if the book cover itself becomes an ad, or mimics television. And it’s pretty funny to think about the logo as a correction.

    Basta! i’m rambling. Intersteing post, tho – have fun on your new blog!

  2. Hey, thanks, both for the comment and the encouragement.

    I’m with you on the issue of Oprah’s mass-branding of cultural objects; her name on a book is the equivalent, on a certain level, of Martha Stewart’s name on a can of paint at K-mart. But: whatever the corporate goals of such licensing, I’m not sure I can automatically label its influence as wholly negative. Any campaign that gets such a significant percentage of otherwise sheltered Americans reading the bulk of Toni Morrison’s work can’t be all bad. And while yes, the Oprah machine has tyrannized a number of bookstores into fronting her choices and ignoring the unselected preterite, it has, on the other hand, gotten people to actually go into bookstores and buy books.

    As to Franzen’s resistance: don’t get me wrong — I’m not sure I’d be entirely comfortable with the Oprah seal of approval either. But it strikes me as a teeny bit hypocritical to be okay with the big FSG logo on the spine but not the Oprah logo on the front.

  3. Gosh, I didn’t realize that there had been a spine vs. cover compromise – my copy (actually the NY Public Library’s) has a quite tasteful and nicely-integrated graphic on the front. Aha! This changes everything!

  4. See, here’s what I get for mouthing off about Franzen when my copy of his book is 3000 miles away. Your copy is undoubtedly right, and my memory is undoubtedly, undoubtedly wrong.

    Like the poor guy hasn’t been beaten up on enough, without my using misinformation to do it.

  5. My feelings about The Franzen Kerfuffle are, as is natural with me, confused and incoherent, and subject to change based on the last person I’ve talked to.

    However, I will say that it may be, KF, that it’s not your memory which is to blame — there were throughout last year both Oprah-logo and non-logo editions of the hardcover in circulation, with a perceived demand for the latter by the Culturati apparently prompting a revision to the customary strategy of only producing Oprah-endorsement-bearing covers once the decision was made.

    Another tangentially related tidbit: the whole snowballing “morning show book club” thing has now gotten going, with Today picking Stephen L. Carter, big-time “public intellectual”-turned-novelist; and Anne Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier getting Good Morning America’s nod — both departing from Oprah’s somewhat personal (if ultimately predictable) selection methods to back, instead, favorites of the publishing houses and institutions like the Times book review (Franzen was, it’s true, in that category as well).

    Of course, Kelly Ripa — Kathi Lee’s replacement — is picking books too. She’s smart enough not to pretend to be sophisticated, though, as her most recent pick indicates:

    Make of this what you will…

  6. so i read your frey post and it linked back to this one, which is “before my time.” I have fallen in love with TV now that I’m in grad school for psycholinguistics. How weird. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the sort of therapeutic discourse (I’ve heard it called) people (icons?) like Oprah provide. So Oprah and some celeb sit on a sofa and talk a little and “get” each other, and validate each other, and the audience applauds and validates them, and Oprah gives the audience gifts to validate THEM, and everyone goes away feeling happy and hopeful and cleansed. My Russian officemate thinks it’s just a horrible way to placate the viewer. I think there’s more to it than that. It’s really fascinating linguistically. Do you know anyone who writes about this? I’d love to know where I could read about this.

  7. Hey, incline. There’s a book I’m kinda curious about, called The Gospel According To Oprah, which seems to be making the argument that Oprah’s show functions in a kind of churchy way, in which she brings her audience the good news and they walk away cleansed. I’m sure there’s loads of other stuff out there as well, particularly on more general talk-show culture…

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