Stubborn Oprah won’t stop magnificent Franzen
Jonathan Franzen’s first book since The Corrections is getting fantastic reviews - but not from Oprah Winfrey
When Oprah Winfrey bears a grudge, it's serious. Nine years ago the queen of talk TV cancelled an appearance on her show of the literary lion Jonathan Franzen after he made it clear he was unhappy that his new novel The Corrections had been chosen by the Oprah Book Club.
Never mind the guaranteed extra sales. Franzen told interviewers he was concerned that Oprah's endorsement would send the wrong message to his hardcore fans. He later tried to apologise, but it was no good: Oprah booted him off the show.
Cut to today. Franzen's new novel, Freedom, is about to be published and the advance reviews are fantastic. Time magazine put him on the cover of their latest issue - the first living novelist to be given the accolade in a decade - and titled its profile 'Great American Novelist'.
And what has Oprah done? She's completely ignored it. The September issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, has pointedly left Freedom off its 'Ten Titles to Pick Up Now'. O's literary editor, Sara Nelson, has declined to comment on the omission.
One hates to take issue with the great lady - look what happened to Franzen! - but I have to say that whatever edict was presumably handed down at Oprah Towers in order to keep Freedom out of the O list will one day look like a terrible mistake.
I have just read an advance copy of Freedom and it is clearly destined to join the ranks of the very finest American novels.
Set squarely in the George Bush years, Freedom tells the story of Patty Berglund, a college basketball star turned suburban mum who appears to have it all until her teenage son Joey leaves home one day and moves in with the right-wing family next door.
Freedom addresses the big issues of the time - the rise of the neocons, the war in Iraq, the desecration of the environment - but there's nothing didactic about the novel.
Franzen is a story-teller and it is the disintegration of Patty's life, and her relationships with her beloved Joey, her awkward husband and his old rock star friend from college, that is gripping and beautifully told. One publisher who's just read Freedom told me he considered it flawless.
Of course, Franzen was an idiot when he made an enemy of Oprah nine years ago, and a pompous one at that, telling the Oregonian that he saw himself "solidly in the high-art literary tradition".
But Oprah Winfrey's refusal to back down is surely the bigger error. She's effectively 'blanked' what might prove to be one of the half-dozen finest American novels written in her lifetime. Given the reviews, and the word of mouth that is bound to come in the coming days, even Oprah's not big enough to stop Freedom.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Sam Anderson, New York magazine: "A work of total genius: a reminder both of why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place and of the undeniable magic even today, in our digital end-times of the old-timey literary novel".
Megan O'Grady, Vogue magazine: "As with The Corrections, which emerged the week before September 11 and effectively book-ended the decade reflected in its pages, Freedom holds an acutely angled mirror to our uncertain, post-patriarchal, post-feminist, self-obsessed times through the story of - what else? - a Midwestern family that loses its idealism."
William Skidelsky, the Observer: "Whether or not the novel will do much to affect the standing of the literary novel within our culture remains, for the moment, uncertain. But what does seem a safe bet is that Freedom is going to be a massive hit."
Lev Grossman, Time magazine: "Franzen isn't the richest or most famous living American novelist, but you could argue - I would argue - that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best... The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialisation: the close-up, the miniature, the microcosm... Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel."
'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen is published in the US next week by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It will be published in the UK on September 30 by Fourth Estate.
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