As a follow-up to my last post I was planning to talk a little more about the images I posted there. But before I get to that, I need to digest the latest wrinkle in this canon conflict–Franzen’s Freedom has been named the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick! (Of course I learned of this from a Barnes and Noble email.) This is a bit shocking because of the awkward kerfuffle that happened last time Oprah picked a Franzen novel, when the author said some disparaging things about the whole idea and got himself uninvited.
According to Reuters: “This time, Winfrey said she sent Franzen a note asking for his permission to feature his latest novel ‘because we have a little history.'” I wonder if that means Franzen will appear on the show? If so, it’s interesting to speculate what’s changed in the literary world since 2001. My off-the-cuff guess would be that we’re seeing a kind of flattening of the literary universe as professional critics thin their ranks and the publishing industry struggles to adapt to new realities. But on the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Franzen won’t go on the show, and that Oprah’s taking the high road (as in both moral and -brow) on her own.
All of this circles back to the ‘Franzenfreude’ debate. The same things that presumably attracted Oprah to the book: its themes of American families, love and the struggle for a new domesticity (or so I hear, not having read it yet) are the same things that make the novel appealing to more than just the ‘male readers’ Franzen was so worried about losing during his previous Oprah spat. And of course these themes would (so critics argue) condemn Franzen to chick-lit middlebrow status if he happened to be a woman.
What we can glean from the images I posted previously is that Franzen really is successful at breaking out of the ‘challenging young novelist’ box. Unlike, say, David Foster Wallace (whom I’m working on right now), Franzen’s books are avenues of exchange for readers of Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, and a host of other writers of both sexes (though, it must be said, more men than women). Oprah’s latest pick proves what we see in the images below: Franzen has managed to snag the ring of elite literary prestige while still appealing to diverse audiences. His books lead readers to varied literary clusters, not just to more Franzen. And his links to the canon-spanning roster of previous Oprah selections will only proliferate in the coming months.