What’s the Beef?

Jonathan Franzen stands accused of insufficient Oprah gratitude. And since his infamous banishment from the Winfrey polis on Oct. 12, that sin, in turn, has dilated into nearly every character flaw imaginable—he’s arrogant, elitist, hypocritical, snobbish, and flat-out stupid. Such, at any rate, has been the verdict of nearly every commentator since the curiously inert affaire Oprah has exercised the literary world and its wags.

But what, exactly, has he said? He’s ambivalent, that’s all. In an interview with the Portland Oregonian, he did utter the fateful characterization of himself as a writer “solidly in the high art literary tradition.” Yet right after that damnably high-falutin’ “high art” phrase, he said, “but I like to read entertaining books, and this [i.e., his Oprah selection] helps bridge that gap, but it also heightens the feelings of being misunderstood.” Regardless of what anyone thinks about Franzen’s talent, that sentence is much too convoluted and halting to be hypocritical or disingenuous. Likewise, his other infamous pronouncement, on the Powell’s bookstore Web site, bespeaks less foppish disdain for the besotted taste of the masses than simple bewilderment. Yes, he said that Oprah has “picked enough shmaltzy one-dimensional [novels] that even I cringe.” But he also rushed to remind his interviewer that “I think she’s really smart and fighting the good fight. And she’s an easy target.”

Well, not so easy as it turns out. Not only did Oprah disinvite Franzen from his scheduled October “Book Club” appearance; she issued a self-serving pronouncement that clamored with unseemly haste to the rhetorical high ground: “It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.” The press then duly intoned the pleasing untruth that Franzen had pronounced himself too delicate and refined for the Oprah set; and the piling on of columnists and correspondents commenced.

But why is it, I wonder, that amid all the righteous posturing over Jonathan Franzen’s alleged elitism, no one has expended any critical scrutiny on Ms. Winfrey’s particular haughty outburst? Here, after all, is a leading arbiter of public taste breaking off a brewing literary debate on grounds of prospective discomfort and conflict. As a longtime bookworm (and let it be known, a good American fan of a great deal of mass culture), I had always taken conflict and discomfort—and ambivalence, for that matter—to be robust signs of a health in a cultural democracy. These chafing virtues are how literary debates (and kindred political ones) get settled. They are also how we remind ourselves that something serious is at stake in literary life—that it’s not simply a healing anodyne for souls in various states of recovery, but something on which we can risk public disapproval, feuds, fallings out, even lawsuits. Some 40 years ago, critics and novelists would routinely accuse each other of every manner of aesthetic and political betrayal, and our literary culture thrived. There were even heated debates over high, low, and mass culture, which proceeded on the unabashed assumption that all parties concerned—general readers emphatically included—could benefit from hashing out literary hierarchies, and that such hierarchies need not be dirty words. It was an atmosphere that bred a rich ferment of innovative, challenging and popular new novels, such as Catch-22, The Adventures of Augie March, and The Group. Now, everyone has the good pseudopopulist sense to deride the simple notion of “high” art—largely due to the befuddled, mistaken transposition of such terms into the register of class antagonism—and a thousand Wally Lambs bloom.

Instead of condemning the tortured Mr. Franzen into the outer darkness of NPR, the thin-skinned Ms. Winfrey should have had him go ahead and air his mixed feelings on her show, the way he had before other interviewers. They seemed able to handle it. And maybe she and her book club, who have indeed performed many good services for American readers, could then come to accept that ambivalence, conflict, and discomfort are nothing to fear.