S1: In 1992, Helen Childress, a screenwriter, was watching one of the presidential debates on TV,
S2: everyone was talking about soundbites. They they’re like this is a campaign reduced to soundbites. We can vote for anyone based off sound bites.
S1: Helen was just 22 years old, but she’d been hired to write a screenplay about her generation, Generation X, the famously ironic, skeptical, media savvy cohort that had come up in the shadow of the baby boomers. In her script, the main character, Lilianna, is working on a documentary, constantly filming all her friends with a video camera.
S2: And so off of that, I had Lelaina call her documentary Reality Bites, as if these are little kind of bites of reality.
S1: Reality Bites would become the name of the movie Helen was writing. It was released in 1994, directed by Ben Stiller and costarring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke.
S3: He stole a Snickers bar, but
S2: somehow he can rationalize it like the establishment Ozma
S1: Snickers. The movie concerns itself with a number of timeless questions how to grow up, what kind of work to do, who to love. But it is also very much a time capsule full of period specific details and situations. Entry level jobs at the Gap AIDS tests as a rite of passage. Greasy hair Aletha Lobsang. And then there’s the movie’s paramount concern, which is also a deeply dated one selling out.
S2: I don’t think the words selling out, I think they’re in the movie. I think it’s something that was kind of in a way, maybe just baked in. It was just something you didn’t want to do and you didn’t want to align your your interests with a corporations and you certainly didn’t want to commercialize. What you liked
S1: to sell out is to betray your principles, your art, your community, yourself, or some kind of financial or commercial game. And it’s a right at the heart of reality bites. In the movie. Lelaina, played by writer, has to choose between Michael, a TV executive played by Stiller and Troy, an alluring Snicker’s dealing slacker played by Hawk. Michael seems sweet and supportive until he reveals himself to be a corporate hack. He lets Liliana’s documentary get reedited into MTV style schlock. He pushes her to sell out.
S3: Not my work, Michael. That’s not what I did. That’s not what I want. Nothing. It was probably a little slow and they cut it up a little set up. They cut up everything, anything to me. I mean, I think you realize what you don’t you don’t get. You just. I do.
S1: Melina dumps him and hooks up with Troy instead. In reality, by not selling out is an actionable, tangible generation defining principle. And that was true outside of the movie to how it had worked incredibly hard on the film. She knew it was a commercial product and she wanted it to do well. She hoped it would lead to more opportunities in Hollywood, but even so, she was really uncomfortable selling it.
S2: We all had the impulse to say, like, hey, we’re not we’re not trying to sell you thing. We just made a movie. We’re not doing we’re not that we didn’t mean to, like, charge money for you to see it or anything. This is all just happened to come together. And, you know, we’re not going to promote it. Like, why would we promote it? That’s so embarrassing. To look like you’re selling something is like completely embarrassing.
S1: Sally Jessy Raphael asked her to go on her show. So did Bill Maher. She said no, she felt uneasy about the attention, about speaking for her generation. But there was one opportunity in particular, one chance to promote the film that really stood out.
S2: The Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago was doing a I was going to do an episode on Generation X and they asked me to be on it. I turned it down. I said, no, I just I mean, I’m embarrassed. I’m sorry. It felt like it would be commercializing generational aspects of the movie. I guess it’s just like she says in the movie, you know, I don’t really know if I want to commercialize it in 2021.
S1: This choice is hard to fathom. Turning down a chance to go on Oprah because you don’t want to commercialize your commercial movie. It barely makes sense to Helen.
S2: It is something that I look back on and go, wow, what was I thinking? Why didn’t they just, you know, like, I could have made Oprah.
S1: But Helen’s not the only person who has ever found this to be a tough choice. Twenty years ago, one man famously found it to be a tough choice. And it’s his choice. And what it tells us about selling out, it’s going to be the subject of this episode. This is Decoder and I’m Willa Paskin. In this episode, we’re going to be looking at the idea of selling out and how it went from the defining principle of Howland’s generation to whatever it is now. And we’re going to be doing it by looking at an inflection point in that idea’s trajectory. In 2001, Oprah Winfrey invited Jonathan Franzen to come on her show to discuss his new novel, The Corrections. A month later, amidst a media frenzy, she withdrew the invitation. Over the course of this episode, I hope to convince you that the Oprah Franzen Book Club Dust Up of 2001 was a moment when two ways of thinking about selling out smashed into each other and one of them, the one that was on its way out, already crashed and burned in public, barely to be seen again. So today on Decoder ring with an assist from Oprah and Jonathan Franzen, what happened
S4: to selling out?
S3: OK, this is one of my all time favorite moments I’m having on television right now, you are witnessing it.
S1: The Oprah bookclub began on September 17th, 1996, as a segment on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show.
S3: And what we want to do is start a book club here on the Oprah show. And I want to get the whole country reading again. Those of you who haven’t been reading, I think books are important.
S1: The book club instantly became a cultural and publishing phenomenon in the first five years of its existence. It featured dozens of authors and sold millions of books. And then in September of 2001, Oprah picked the club’s 40 fifth book, Jonathan Franzen The Corrections. She called Franzen personally to tell him the news,
S5: it was so unexpected that I was almost not surprised. It was like, Oh, hey, Oprah, thank you for calling. You know, that’s nice. And I put down the phone because
S1: that’s Franzen who declined to speak with us, talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2001 prior to the publication of the Corrections. Franzen, then 41, had written two underperforming novels and wasn’t well-known outside of the literary world. Yet the corrections had arrived as an attention grabbing, oxygen hoovering big freakin deal. It was heralded as a masterpiece, received rave reviews and even sold enough copies to make the bestseller list rare for a literary book. With the Oprah selection, it appeared to be running the Table, the biggest book in America about to get even bigger. And in fact, after Oprah’s announcement, it did get bigger, but not in the way anyone had been expecting. And what I want to show you starting now is how tangled up everything that happened is with the idea of selling out, which meant something to both of the people involved in this story. In the years leading up to the corrections selection, Jonathan Franzen had decided to go mainstream and Oprah Winfrey had resolved not to sell out. And those choices and their feelings about them had set the two of them on a collision course. But before we can get into that collision, I need to jump back in time on all of it, on Oprah, on Franzen, and most especially on the idea of selling out and OK. So I want to look at the history of the idea of selling out. And it’s a really big idea, tangled up with a lot of other really big ideas like authenticity, purity, integrity, race, gender and the entire history of art and commerce. In the second half of the 20th century, there have been so many fights about selling out over the last 60 years, and it has meant so many slightly varying things to so many people. But I’m going to forgo most of these specific set tos for the big picture. Let’s jump in. Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer who’s been in bands including the Hold Steady.
S6: The pejorative usage as in terms of a prostitution of ideals or a betrayal of principle seems to be specifically American.
S1: This usage began to become more common in the late 19th century, first during the Gilded Age and then even more so during the Great Depression. In both instances, it was primarily used on the left and it was something you’d accuse a corrupt politician of doing. By the 1940s, the term was also being used by civil rights activists also on the left. But in the context of race, a sellout is not just someone who betrays a principle or an ideal. It’s a person who betrays other black people.
S6: What classifies a person as being a sellout for black people is it’s your proximity to whiteness and white people.
S1: Wesley Morris is a critic at large at the New York Times and the co-host of Still Processing.
S6: Like How do we trust what kind of black person you are if if you are sort of bound up, if your thing is bound up in these white people or in white ness,
S1: this sense of selling out is a whole giant subject of its own. It’s going to come up a bit, but it’s not what I’m going to be focused on. I’m looking at the idea of selling out as an entanglement with commercialism, but it is via this racial usage as an accusation that black people might level against other black people, that the idea of selling out makes its way into the arts and the art form. It’s most associated with music. What happens is that black musicians, critics and audiences in the 1950s and early 60s start debating whether other black artists are keeping it real Franz Nicolay again, it
S6: appears to have been first applied to musicians by black audiences and fellow musicians criticizing black gospel and jazz performers who are perceived as tailoring their acts to appeal to white audiences.
S1: But once this idea was unleashed in the musical realm, it swiftly spread beyond black artists, most famously at first to Bob Dylan. When Dylan strapped on an electric guitar and performed the rock band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, folk music purists in the audience called him a sellout. From here, the term is off to the races, boosted by music, the foregrounding of leftist politics and also money. Selling out is fundamentally an anxiety of wealth. It’s a concern that arises when there’s cash floating around and people comfortable enough to say no to it. You don’t turn down a job during the Great Depression, as the post-war economy is roaring, dropping out becomes a kind of luxury, but one that also signals integrity, a rebellion against the stultifying, dehumanizing mainstream against life as a housewife or a man in a gray flannel suit. The idea that keeping some distance from the man is a sign of personal integrity is omnipresent through the 60s and 70s. But it gets a burst of energy in the 1980s as the generation that popularized the idea of selling out starts to do it. The baby boomers get older. They want families and homes of their own. The effect is that of an entire generation selling out en masse, the counterculture embracing yuppie dumb and the young adult and teens observing this transformation. Ones who have been raised on the values of the hippie generation watched as those values get faith Wesley abandoned by the people who had created them. They construct a whole generational identity in opposition to all of this bullshit. You can see this worldview expressed exactly in reality bites,
S7: and they wonder why those of us in our 20s refuse to work an 80 hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMW. Here’s why we are interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disavow their revolution for a pair of running shoes.
S1: This perspective gets a particularly potent expression in underground DIY rock scenes that spring up across the country throughout the 1980s. These scenes are generally dominated by white men who are rebelling not only against their baby boomer forbearers but the excesses of commercial rock music and MTV superficiality. In them, selling out becomes particularly contentious. Signing to a major label, licensing your music, corporate sponsorships. God forbid doing a commercial will all give rise to accusations of selling out. Heading into the 1990s, grunge bands connected to this independent rock ethos break into the mainstream just as rap music, which is also concerned about selling out, does, too. Selling out anxieties and accusations are everywhere. Pearl Jam and M.C. Hammer are some of the more popular targets. And all of this is playing out against a related, larger backdrop of extreme sensitivity to corporate manipulation. You can see that in the success of magazines like The Baffler and Adbusters and books like Naomi Klein’s No logo that all attend in their ways to the dangers of being sold. This is also when Kurt Cobain appears on the cover of Rolling Stone in a homemade T-shirt reading corporate magazine still suck, broadcasting his discomfort with the photo shoot he’s participating in. And it’s at this point in the mid 1990s, as cultural concerns about selling out are reaching a fever pitch, that our two protagonists make a big, important decisions about their own careers, about how much they’re going to court mainstream popularity and how much they’re going to stay true to their own ideals. So we’re going to look at Oprah first and how her refusal to sell out led directly to the launch of her book club. You heard me. To explain how this could be, I got it back up again to the beginning of the Oprah Winfrey show a really to the show that preceded it. AM Chicago,
S3: welcome you all to our A.M. Chicago. It’s a historical Farrar, historical first.
S1: AM Chicago is a low rated half hour daily talk show. When Oprah took over hosting it in January of 1984, within a month of her arrival. And Chicago was the highest rated talk show in the Chicagoland area and there was an intern working at A.M. Chicago. She’d started the day after Oprah.
S2: My name is Alice McGee.
S1: Alice was a student at Chicago’s Northeastern University. On her commute to the office, she would always read a novel about three or four weeks into the job. She was heading out holding the book she was going to read in her hands because it didn’t fit in her purse. Oprah saw it. It was The Color Purple, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker about a young black woman in 1900.
S2: Georgia, what are you doing with that book? That’s for my ride home.
S1: Alice didn’t know it at the time, but Oprah loved The Color Purple. She would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of the book.
S2: And she goes, Have you ever read Toni Morrison? Well, I read some Muslimin. And then she said, Did you read Lewis die?
S1: And I said,
S2: No, I haven’t read it. How can you say you’ve read Toni Morrison without reading the Blues? I was like, Oh, God. The very next morning, the temporary desk where I had said at had the bluest eye on it. Oh, my God, I read it that night. And, you know, she said, tell me what you think about it. And it was, I guess in some ways the start of the book club, even though it was 1984,
S1: Alice kept working for Oprah, eventually becoming a producer on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
S2: During this, you know, I call her in the middle of the night if I had a good book, you know, because that’s how she was. And so we always had that, you know, we had our professional relationship, but our book relationship was even more meaningful.
S1: As much as they loved books and talking about books through the 1980s, doing an episode about fiction on The Oprah Winfrey Show just seemed like something they couldn’t do
S2: at the time. We are still reading, but never would it occur to us know to do a book club because it wasn’t a topic that people would tune in. You’d be, you know, selecting your audience, you be portering them.
S1: So books seemed like a non-starter. And then in 1994, Oprah decided that The Oprah Winfrey Show needed to change. This decision is really well captured in the podcast, making Oprah from WBC Chicago that I strongly recommend. And then I also relied upon to understand what happened. And what happened is this is until 1994, the Oprah Winfrey show still had a strong tabloid streak. It covered some serious topics, but it also did plenty of salacious episodes about cheating spouses and shopaholics. But that year, the year Oprah turned 40, she decided she just did not want to do trash TV anymore. She used that exact term in an interview. She wanted all of her episodes to have a purpose and intention, even if it meant giving her competitors the dozens of daytime talk shows. She’d inspired an advantage even if it meant ratings would dip, which in fact they did, falling from twelve to nine million viewers around this time. Much later in 2007, Oprah gave a graduation speech at Howard University that I think is germane.
S3: So do not be a slave to any form of selling out. Maintain your integrity in it.
S1: She’s talking generally about how the students need to be true to themselves and the black community. But I think she’s also referring specifically to this period in the 1990s when she had to choose between her values and her ratings, when, as you’re about to hear her say, she chose not to sell out.
S3: If I could count the number of times I have been asked to compromise and sell out myself for one reason or another, I would be a billionaire ten times over. Many times when we were told that we would lose the advertisers, we would lose the ratings, I said, I’m going to take the high road. They said, you won’t be able to survive in this business taking the high road. You won’t be able to get the numbers. The advertisers will drop out. And I said, let them, let them. We will chart our own course.
S1: And one thing Oprah decides to do as she’s charting her own course, ratings be damned, is to talk about books. Alice McGee again,
S2: I went to the Executive Producers Office to pitch the idea of a book club just as a segment. We just share what Oprah’s reading. Just you one segment at the end and then we’ll follow up in a month and maybe even talk to some people who read it. One month later, I got a phone call at home and it was else I’m reading deep into the ocean. I think this might be good for that book club idea of yours.
S3: So this is what we’re going to do, our first book. To read it is a novel written by Jacqueline Mushahid, it is called The Deep End of the Ocean. You all are going to have to buy it.
S1: Three weeks after this announcement, the deep end of the ocean was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The second novel Oprah picked was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. It sold more copies as a result of Oprah selection than it had when Morrison won the Nobel Prize. After being selected. The books will get a little emblem on them, proclaiming them to be an Oprah book club pick. And then a month later, the authors would appear on the show. Writers like Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Wally Lamb and May Binchy all came on to discuss their work with Oprah, and some members of her audience hears Morrison in 1996.
S3: I really thought, if I can’t do these two things, I will disappear from the face of the earth. And the two were one mother, my children to write books that is powerful and not so powerful.
S1: Oprah tended to pick novels by or about women. Some were more prestigious than others, some better than others. Alice jokes. They had a soft spot for stories about miserable little girls, but they were all readable page turners that can make you cry. In my experience. Anyway, I wrote a lot of these books in my life and the Oprah effect reliably turned these books into bestsellers. The club is credited with selling over 55 million books and is also one of the most memorable concrete parts of the Oprah Winfrey show gloop. It was never exactly a ratings bonanza for the show. In fact, audience numbers would dip with each book club episode.
S2: It was more of an off rating success because you got to know the real Oprah and it was like unexplored territory. I don’t have to be ashamed watching daytime TV because there was a stigma attached to it.
S1: So that’s Oprah became the most influential person in the book industry by ignoring the ratings and issuing trash and making the TV show she wanted to make by refusing to sell out, even if it cost her some of her advertising revenue. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen was starting to think he’d like to reach a bigger audience. In 1996, the year Oprah launched her book club, Jonathan Franzen, it was 37, he published two novels, but he was probably best known for an essay that appeared that year in Harper’s magazine called Perchance to Dream. It lamented the dwindling position of literary fiction in American culture. Here Franzen is on Charlie Rose. Also in 1996,
S5: people who read books, who seriously read books, read a lot of books. Nowadays it’s like apriori, not above the mainstream.
S1: In the Harper’s piece, he wrote that when he was a kid, his dad, who wasn’t some great reader, at least knew who James Baldwin and John Cheever were because they’d been on the cover of Time magazine. But Time didn’t put serious writers on the cover anymore. Franzen worried that literary writers had lost touch with the mass public, but they just didn’t matter. And he set out to change that.
S5: I wanted to write a book that would be for everybody.
S1: That’s Franzen speaking with Charlie Rose this time in 2001 about the result of this ambition. The corrections, the corrections was a big honking American novel, written and ambitious but accessible prose about a Midwestern nuclear family and the way we live now. It had a sequence with a hallucinated talking turd, but it was also about a family gathering for one last Christmas. Boris Kachka is the author of Hothouse A History of Franzen publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
S6: It was a big family story and it had a lot of heart in it. And FSG, Farrar, Straus and Giroux knew that it had the opportunity to connect with a large audience.
S1: All of this makes the corrections a great example of a paradigm shift about selling out that was already well underway. By 2001, mainstream and commercial culture didn’t seem like the urgent threat they once had, what a decade earlier had been. The defining issue of a generation was losing its potency and fast. Gen Xers were facing the same dilemma that had once troubled the boomers. They wanted an adult life. Children, houses, health insurance. Grunge was over, punk had receded back to the underground, and hip hop was full of artists capable of modeling and authenticity that could coexist with brand names and sponsorship deals. In 1999, Moby famously licensed every song on his album play, Turning It Into a Smash. Other musicians followed an article in The New York Times advised that if you want to hear interesting, ambitious, challenging pop music these days, the place to turn is not mainstream radio, but commercials and indie rock are quoted in that same article said Having to work another job that takes all your energy from your music is even more selling out. And this was all before file sharing services really began to cut in DVD sales revenues.
S2: Artists didn’t have as many options anymore.
S1: Bethany Klein is a professor at the University of Leeds in England and the author of Selling Out Culture, Commerce and Popular Music,
S2: asking for artists to maintain their integrity in that same way when there were no roots to make a living. Seems quite cruel, doesn’t it? I think actually lots of people were really sympathetic and sensitive to what musicians were going through in terms of their limited choices.
S1: Like I said earlier, selling out is an anxiety of wealth and his middle tier artists had less access to it. Their skepticism about mainstream popularity and corporate money was fading, and this sentiment was spreading to people who weren’t hard up. In 1988, when Nike ran a commercial for sneakers, scored the Beatles revolution, it was a scandal. In 2004, Bob Dylan just appeared in a Victoria’s Secret ad. Selling out was rapidly transforming from a defining generational concern into the parochial preoccupation of closed minded old heads. And the corrections seemed in step with this sea change. With it, Franzen had made a concerted effort to write a novel that could reach more people than his previous books had. He wanted his book to matter. He wanted to break out of a small literary readership. The result was an immediate bestseller and, according to critics, a masterpiece. One glowing review ran on the cover of the New York Times book section. The reviewer acknowledged that the corrections was in some ways a conventional family saga. But he wrote it had just enough novel of paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen street cred. But of course, though it wasn’t public knowledge yet, Oprah had already assigned it. So now we’re back where we started, Oprah has selected Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as the 47th fifth pick of the Oprah Book Club, but she hasn’t announced it publicly yet. And given everything we now know, it seems like it should have been a good fit. Jonathan Franzen wanted literature, the kind of literature that he writes to occupy a larger place in American culture. Oprah wanted to enrich her viewers lives by introducing them to books she loved. They both wanted people to read. They both loved the corrections. When Oprah makes the announcement just a few weeks after September 11th, she gushes. She tells the audience the book is a work of art and sheer genius. She says when critics refer to the great American novel, I think this is it, people Farrar, Straus and Giroux had printed an additional 680000 copies of the novel, and after the announcement, it moved to the top of the bestseller list. But something else happened after the announcement to Franzen suddenly seems very prickly. Here he is on Terry Gross.
S5: It literally had never once crossed my mind that this might be an Oprah pick, probably because she seldom chooses hardcovers, partly because she does choose a lot of female authors. And partly because, as as you know, the reviewer in The New York Times said, you know, this is this feels too edgy to ever be an Oprah Paskin. So it never occurred to me.
S1: He starts giving deeply ambivalent interview after deeply ambivalent interview. In one, he said the selection would probably not sit well with the writers I hang out with and the readers who have been my core audience. In another, he asserted that the corrections came out of a high art literary tradition. In another, he said that while he liked some of the books Oprah had chosen in the past, others were schmaltzy and one dimensional. In that interview with Terry Gross, he fretted that Oprah’s imprimatur would signal that his book was aimed at women driving away male readers.
S5: And now I’m actually at the point with this book where I worry. I’m sorry that it’s I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience.
S1: These are the kind of things that people who remember this incident tend to remember. They’re the kind of thing I remembered, frankly, the kind of thing that still hangs over Franzen reputation, the snobbishness, the sexism, the needless mess. But in the mass of ambivalent comments Franzen was making at this time, there’s also plenty about selling out. You can hear it in Franzen reaction to the Oprah Book Club icon going on the corrections cover about what she said. I’m an independent writer and I didn’t want that corporate logo on my book. And you can hear it. In his exchange with an interviewer who told Franzen a friend of his had become hesitant to read the corrections after learning it was an Oprah pick. Franzen replied to this by gesturing at those underground rock scenes I mentioned earlier, saying, Now I’ve signed a big label deal and I’m playing stadiums. How good can I be? He then went on to disparage himself as someone who had long since sold out and been co-opted Wesley Morris again.
S6: He was reacting against like he was he was pavement, he was Sonic Youth. And here comes like Dick Clark trying to put him on American Bandstand.
S1: But Franzen had wanted American Bandstand or mainstream success anyway. What was his problem? So what I see in Franzen ambivalence is a guy wondering if he’s gone too far. He wanted to be a famous literary novelist, a serious writer who was also at the center of the culture. He wanted to be on the cover of Time magazine. Oprah was the modern day equivalent of Time magazine, except she was also on daytime TV, had he somewhere along the way without quite noticing it sold out. It’s like after moving past it, selling out had jumped up on his shoulders and started whispering in his ears and in one ear, it was whispering about artistic integrity and then the other ear, it was whispering about status anxiety. These two things have always been the two sides of selling out the desire to maintain one’s authenticity and autonomy and an impulse to do so by gatekeeping, by pushing people away, by sneering at the popular because of who likes things that are popular. When you’re protecting something, you’re trying to keep it safe, often by keeping people out. So let’s look a little more closely at each of these sites. I’m going to start with the one that’s basically sympathetic to Franzen and to the idea of selling out itself, the side having to do with artistic integrity and authenticity. Before the Book Club announcement, while he was on tour to promote the corrections Franz that had met up with the Oprah Winfrey Show crew in St. Louis, his hometown, they filmed the segment about the book and his childhood and his family that was meant to air at a later date. Here he is describing it a few weeks later, again on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
S5: I’ve done the sort of bogus thing where they follow you around with a camera and and you try to look natural, and I’ve done it.
S1: He later wrote about the experience for The New Yorker. Less dismissively, he explained how uncomfortable he found it, because he was bad at it, because it seemed so phony, because the producers wanted him to talk about his late parents here. He was an awkward writer whose life’s work was to create something authentic and truthful, trying to perform on camera to feign sincerity and spontaneity over multiple takes. At one point, he yells at the producer, This is so fundamentally bogus. He acknowledges in the essay that this was an adolescent thing to say. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t sincere. So that’s the first way of looking at Franzen response he had set out to reach a bigger audience, but now it seemed like reaching that audience would require him to compromise on things that mattered to him in a format TV he found discomforting. But the second way of looking at it is that he came down with a really bad case of status anxiety. Laura Miller is Slate’s book critic.
S8: So Jonathan Franzen was doing this thing that was like definitely a little more commercial as family novels are, but also trying to be part of this sort of highbrow literary scene that that was rightly perceived as sort of dominated by men. These big fat novels by Men
S1: Franzen was famously close friends with David Foster Wallace and a number of other writers of big books that were slightly more difficult than the corrections.
S8: What happened when Oprah? Selected corrections is that he had an anxiety about how that novel was going to be positioned, like it might sell a lot of copies, but would this sort of seal of approval kind of tip the scale too much in the direction of like commercial domestic fiction?
S1: If Franzen’s high highbrow book could be promoted alongside middlebrow fiction on a low brow TV show? What did it say about that book? Franzen wasn’t the only person in the literary world to look down on the book club to roll their eyes about it and resent that a daytime TV person was setting the reading agenda for America. There was a bookstore in DC where the staff wore T-shirts that said not an Oprah book, but most publishing people knew enough to see these things behind closed doors. Franzen wasn’t doing that. One thing you can see in all of his awkward interviews, the status anxiety got wedded to the authenticity. The only way for Franzen to be himself, to be authentic was to talk about how confused and uncomfortable he was. But it was for a host of unappealing reasons, often having to do with his status anxiety. This is how he ends up giving voice to things like his concern about the book, not getting any male readers a concern that implied the women who presumably were his readers or about to become his readers just did not matter.
S5: I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in bookstores say, you know, if if if it if I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it an Oprah. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch another male reader speaking.
S1: This sort of concern has always been a subtext of selling out the dark side of it, the fear that your work might be enjoyed by the wrong people. Bethany Klein.
S2: We say that we’re concerned that subject to commercialism, the words will be overly influenced and we’ll get a different and not as good and not as important and that as political product out of it. But maybe what it’s really about is I don’t want to be associated with people who are into mainstream stuff.
S1: Inevitably, Oprah heard about Franzen remarks. She ignored them for a while. Then she reportedly called FSG and asked what’s his problem? The publisher desperately tried to get Franzen to make nice, but it was too late. Oprah withdrew her invitation. She was not unselected the corrections as a book club pick, but she was disinviting Franzen from appearing on the show. The chill was palpable. He is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection, she said in a statement. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause any one conflict. That’s when the whole thing became a national news story. And the public did not see Franzen as an earnest, if fumbling author, hoping to protect his artistic integrity or like some rocker resisting corporate culture, they saw him as a pompous snob who didn’t appreciate his rare good fortune. They saw him as someone who didn’t want to be associated with the people, most of them women who watched the Oprah Winfrey show who don’t want to be associated with the people who read the books they learned about on that show and who didn’t want to be associated with the black woman who selected and introduced those books fretting about selling out no longer played as noble or principled. It came off as entitled elitist or worse. Part of the problem for Franzen was who he’d chosen as a foil Oprah as a TV star and mega producer, a brand who can sell things better than almost anyone else in history. But people don’t see her as a corporate suit. She’s Oprah singular, the one and only people like and admire her. And moreover, her version of not selling out earnestly striving to maintain her personal integrity in a fully corporate context, that’s the one more and more people felt committed to. The old idea of selling out had run into the new one, and it got trounced. The incident has dogged Franzen reputation ever since. His work has been lauded, praised, awarded. But for 20 years, he’s also been known as a slightly toxic great white male. His history with Oprah and extra textual comments much more fundamental to public perception of him than his actual work, which continues to be extremely good. As for the book club, soon after the fiasco with the Corrections, Oprah announced she would be picking fewer books a year. Instead of new titles, she started picking more classics by dead authors who are presumably less of a hassle to deal with. She went back to living writers occasionally, including to Franzen himself. In 2010, Oprah and Franzen made up on TV when she picked freedom. The follow up to the corrections for the Book Club.
S3: I gave that author a call to ask permission for it to be our next selection because we have a little history, the author and I, and after careful consideration, the author said yes and our newest book club pick is read on.
S1: That same year, Franzen finally appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
S3: Now, you haven’t heard me say this word often, but.
S1: In the wake of the Oprah Franzen incident, the idea of selling out continued to wither away, eventually getting to the point it is today.
S2: Not so long ago at dinner, I said the words selling out and both of my daughters were like, What is that?
S1: That’s Helen Childress, the writer of Reality Bites Again. She’s still a screenwriter and a producer.
S2: And I was like, Oh, selling out when you commercialize something unique about you for the benefit of a corporation or, you know, profit for money, basically. And they were like, what do you what do you mean? Like we like when someone has a sponsored post and they’re like, yeah, but what’s what’s wrong with that? It’s so antiquated. It’s almost funny.
S1: To be fair. The idea is very much alive in the context of race and representation where it’s potent in personal conversations. And you can also hear it swirling around celebrities, companies and individuals that have expressed or failed to express verbal or material support for social justice causes like Black Lives Matter. It makes sense that being called a sellout is still powerful in this context, the charge that one is betraying the interests of people of color stings the charge that you’re trying to commercialize yourself. Not so much. Because, of course, who among us can afford not to commercialise themselves on a personal level, we still grapple with integrity, with living a life of value, but we try to do these things while maintaining our brands, our hustle’s our influence, even putting aside all the moral high octane ways there are to sell yourself these days, it’s nearly impossible to do anything, make a living, live a life without the Internet or your phone. And that means without immediately being tangled up with some giant business that mediates monitors and profits from everything you do there. Wesley Morris. Again, I think
S6: there is just this acceptance, not unlike global warming, that this thing is happening and you just have to learn how to live with it in whatever way you can.
S1: At the top of the episode, I asked what happened to selling out and the answer is it died. And one of the reasons why is right there in the Oprah Franzen incident, in it, you can see that selling out had mostly become close minded, defensive, anxious, all about keeping your stuff from people or making sure that only the right people were enjoying it. And as we began to more successfully question who the right people were and move on to a more expansive answer, the old version of selling out started to look to us primarily like status anxiety, like gatekeeping, like snobbery and good riddance to that. But well, what had been close minded about selling out became more odious. What was compelling about it became more difficult not selling out. It basically became impossible.
S6: We are talking about individual autonomy and we are talking about freedom of personal choice. And at what point I mean, we’re kind of past the point of us being unplugged from. The thing that is basically taken over everybody’s lives, we’re past that point like we have, I mean, so the idea of selling out, I mean, what can you do? We have been bought.
S1: Franzen and Oprah took place at a time when maintaining any kind of meaningful autonomy from corporate commercial culture was becoming much more difficult, and that’s only become more true in the 20 years since it happened, as the financial circumstances that enabled a middle class existence for Americans began to dry up. People had to get day jobs to get on social media to promote themselves, to sell themselves, to commercialize themselves. And it’s made us see selling out differently. Selling out really is a time capsule. And I think that’s part of the reason we look at the Oprah Franzen incident. Selling out can be hard to see there. For better and worse, we’re way past the. This is Decoder and I’m Willa Paskin you could find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin and you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode? You can email us at Decoder at Slate Dotcom. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe and read our Feed and Apple podcast wherever you get your podcast. Even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin Fresh and Gabriel Roth. Decoder is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Fresh. Khelil Levin is our research assistant. I want to mention a few books and articles that were really helpful in reporting this piece. Kathleen Rooney is reading with Oprah, the book club that changed America. Boris Kachka Hothouse The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House. Farrar, Straus and Giroux Bethany Clines selling out culture, commerce and popular music. The Baffler Compendium Commodify Your Descent and Franz Nicolay Slate article about the history of calling artists sellout, thanks to C.J. Farley, Kathleen Rooney, Aisha Harris and Charity Hughley. Mark Anthony Neal, Christian Lawrenson, Sadie Pseudobulbar, Stephen Bachao, Dan Zanes, Jody Rosen, Lynn Buckley, Darte Adams, Keith Brammer, Danielle Hewett and everyone else who gave us help and feedback on the way. This is the last episode of our current season. If you’re a member of Slate plus you’ll be able to listen to a bonus episode in which Ben and I chat about how he made it. If you’re not a member, you can sign up at Slate Dotcom Slash plus, otherwise we will be back in November. Thank you for listening. Well.