Yesterday, nine years after Jonathan Franzen got himself disinvited from Oprah , he finally made it onto the show for an excruciatingly stilted if at times hilarious nine minutes .
But first, a refresher on the Oprah-Franzen feud of 2001 (not to be confused with the more recent Franzenfreude -a separate, though not, it turns out, entirely unrelated matter). That fall, when Oprah selected The Corrections for her book club, Franzen made a hash of things by acting embarrassed by her very female imprimatur, calling her choices “schmaltzy.” He told NPR’s Terry Gross :
I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in bookstores say, ‘You know, 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, and I never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. So I’m a little confused about the whole thing right now.’
Oprah was not so confused, and told Franzen not to bother showing up. Until, that is, this September, when she announced her book club’s penultimate selection: Franzen’s Freedom . And so there he was yesterday afternoon on her couch, looking very sober and masculine in a gray jacket and gray shirt and his big, serious glasses, across from Oprah, who looked girly as hell in a sequined peach sweater set and big, peach-colored crystal earrings.
What this wasn’t: a discussion of Freedom . What it was: an attempt at rapprochement.
Oprah kicked things off by explaining that they had “a little history together,” prompting nervous laughter from the audience and a miserable, get-me-out-here look from Franzen. Then she asked him, point blank, what had happened back in 2001. After declaring it “a long time ago,” he seemed to channel his inner Dr. Phil. “I spoke in very long sentences. And then little pieces of the sentences sounded bad. And your feelings were probably, understandably hurt,” he said slowly, speaking in short sentences this time.
But here’s the thing: He didn’t just hurt her feelings, he made her feel intellectually inadequate, and the whole nature of the book club was never quite the same again. Until The Corrections , the vast majority of Oprah book club picks were by women (think Jacquelyn Mitchard and the club’s perennial, Toni Morrison). Some of them were schmaltzy, yes, but the book club was an important, even singular, way for contemporary female novelists to find readers.
After Franzen, everything changed. Of the 20 or so writers to be featured on Oprah’s book club since then, only four have been women. The last of those was Pearl S. Buck, in 2004. Since then, she has featured 11 men.* Franzen makes 12 men in a row.
And now it will be 13. At the end of yesterday’s show, Oprah announced the reading list for her final season’s final book club: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations . Franzen, for one, appeared genuinely pumped. Dickens, he declared, is “a total page turner.”
*Correction, Dec. 7, 2010: The original version of this post misstated the number of men Oprah has featured since Pearl S. Buck.