Previously in Politics & Prose:
Listening to America (November 7, 2001)
What we can learn from the "anguished, angry, fearful, plucky" voices of citizens talking about September 11 and its aftermath.
By Jack Beatty.
Politics as Usual (October 3, 2001)
In America, history shows, war does not override the calculus of politics. By Jack Beatty.
The Bumbling Communicator (September 6, 2001)
Television has finally found a President who speaks its language. By Jack Beatty.
The Man Behind the Movement (August 8, 2001)
Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election, but Barry Goldwater won the war. By Jack Beatty.
Truth and Consequences (July 5, 2001)
The Boston Globe's exposé of the historian Joseph Ellis was a "front-page mugging." By Jack Beatty
More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books, literature, and the arts in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: Mainstream and Meaningful (October 3, 2001)
Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring."
Atlantic Unbound | November 29, 2001
Politics & Prose |
by Scott Stossel
Auden, Trilling, Barzun... and Oprah? A consideration of two very different book clubs sheds light on the Franzen Affair
kay, so I've read The Corrections, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen that has just won the National Book Award, and I can tell you (assuming you're not sick of hearing about it) that while it's really, really good—funny, acute in its social observations, bold in its attempt to wrestle with turn-of-the-century global culture, dead-on in its dialogue, full of subordinate storylines, well-realized characters, suspenseful plot twists, and lots of other nice things that reviewers like to praise—it's not going to single-handedly save serious fiction or give Franzen a stranglehold on a future Nobel Prize or anything like that. One would be excused for thinking it might have achieved those feats: a near unanimity of critics, it seemed initially, were moved to paroxysms of approbation for the novel—and this was even after Franzen had appeared to doom himself by declaring (all but explicitly) in a 1996 essay in Harper's that his next novel would be at once so trenchant in its social commentary and so unputdownably readable that it would in fact prove to be the salvation of "literary fiction." He might as well have told the critics to sharpen their spears and then headed full-tilt right at them; surely he would be impaled, his literary career terminated.
And yet when The Corrections was published, Franzen not only avoided getting speared but he was hoisted rapidly upwards toward the literary empyrean, scoring a publishing double coup: the aforementioned favorable reviews, in many of the most rarified venues (John Leonard loved it in The New York Review of Books, for example, and even The New Republic's suffer-no-fools critic James Wood was modestly admiring) and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. And then he hit the trifecta: his novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club, assuring him additional sales of perhaps a million copies or more. Franzen would be rich. More important, this was a powerful symbolic stroke for the common reader—indeed, for reading itself—whose cause Franzen had championed in his 1996 Harper's essay: here was a work falling squarely in what the author himself called (and what the critics agreed was in) "the high-art literary tradition" being assigned to millions of Oprah viewers for their enjoyment and enlightenment. Here, it seemed, was that rare conjoining of high art and populism—the very combination that might be called upon to save not just literary fiction but fiction in general, whose sales over the summer of 2001 had for the first time in recent memory lagged behind those of nonfiction books.
Franzen should have been thrilled. But as everyone who reads the newspapers now knows, he wasn't. He was at best ambivalent and impolitic, at worst self-destructively churlish and ungrateful, expressing a snobbish distaste for the company he would be keeping as an "Oprah" author. He lamented that having spent so much time on his novel, his name would now have to share space on the cover with Oprah's, which he considered a "corporate logo." Never mind that "New York Times Bestseller" slapped across the book-jacket—a label he surely coveted—is no less a corporate logo, or that an independent filmmaker might just as well complain about getting four stars or a thumbs-up from a mainstream critic like Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert. The responses to Franzen's complaints have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, as have a few arguments in Franzen's defense, and I don't want to belabor them here. But it must be said that however "schmaltzy"—which was the charge Franzen leveled—some of Oprah selections may have been, there were also works of high literary quality; yes, fellow Oprah author Toni Morrison may on occasion be guilty of gauzy sentimentality, but she is also a Nobel Prize-winner, a fixture on English-department syllabi and, if current thinking (both in the academy and out) holds, an author for the ages. And yet Franzen's presumption seems to be that, well, Morrison is just not in his league.
o be fair to Franzen, I have always found there to be something cloying about Oprah's Book Club, though my own objection is less to the books she chooses than to the way she approaches them: there is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving, about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussion of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be a palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it. Oprah is using her book club to help her readers Get Culture, as though Culture is something that can be doled out like Prozac or pay raises, to elevate your happiness level and social status. Modernism (and postmodernism) taught us that the true rewards of art and literature are not easily gained, but must be attained only through difficulty and struggle. Getting your culture from Oprah, in this view, is like getting it from Cliffs Notes—a cheaper, cheating method, one that withholds a work of art's full rewards.
But a recently published book from the Free Press has compelled me to rethink that view, causing me somewhat to acknowledge my own inner snoot—and casting Franzen in an even more unflattering light. A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling from The Readers' Subscription and Mid-Century Book Clubs collects 51 of the 173 essays written for the book clubs for which the three men mentioned in the title served as editors between 1951 and 1963. (The Reader's Subscription morphed into the Mid-Century Club in 1959, when it got a new financial backer)
There is much to recommend A Company of Readers, and had I the space and time for it, I would pursue two of the ideas it raises: first, the difference between "book reviewing" and "cultural criticism"; and second, the value of non-theoretical, non-academic, non-systematic criticism, which is what Barzun and Auden (and Trilling to a lesser degree) sought to practice. Despite the uneven quality and questionable contemporary relevance of some of the essays, there are jewels embedded in them: Barzun describing how Montaigne "embodies in [his] Essays the extravagance of man thinking"; Auden writing that "No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than [J.R.R. Tolkien's] Fellowship of the Ring"; Trilling writing in his essay on the children's classic The Wind in the Willows that "all the sacred books of childhood were written in, or close to, the nineteenth century. They cannot possibly be written now because no one is permitted to believe that fear or sadness should be presented to a child's consciousness"; Auden's peculiar definition, in a review of Edmund Wilson's Apologies to the Iroquois, of the "intellectual dandy"; Barzun writing that "As a man grows older it is likely that the new books to which he forms a permanent attachment are reference books"; Trilling, in his essay on Lord of the Flies, writing both that "the modern world dislikes Original Sin and got rid of it long ago, before it ever thought to eradicate typhoid and tuberculosis" and that "One has the impression that among those who do admire [JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye]—I am not one of them—it has achieved the status of a holy book, that it is almost as rude and unfeeling to question its merit in the presence of one of its devotees as it is to mock the religious attachments of some gentle, inoffensive person"; and many others. I'll just have to leave it to the interested reader to seek out other such nuggets and the ideas the essays raise on his or her own, because right now I don't want to focus on the book, but on how it relates to the L'Affaire Franzen.
In 1950s America, as today, the underlying purpose of a book club like the Reader's Subscription was profit-making: the idea was to allow publishers to sell more books. Booksellers had since the late eighteenth century been middlemen between publisher and consumer, and the book industry wanted to contrive some way of reconnecting directly with individual readers. The result was book clubs, which offered subscribers a varied selection of books at discount prices. The Literary Guild, founded in 1926, was the first such club in this country, and was followed later the same year by the Book-of-the-Month Club, which offered (at the time) more intellectual fare. The trick was not just to entice readers actively to buy, but to make monthly buying an almost automatic event. As Jacques Barzun writes in the foreword to A Company of Readers, "If a club member did not return the card enclosed in the [club] bulletin by a certain date, he received the main selection automatically. Consent and absentmindedness were on a par." This is still the book clubs' practice; a shelf-full of mostly unwanted volumes from my experiment with membership in the BOTMC a decade ago attests to it.
But the Readers' Subscription, though also profit-driven, had higher aspirations: as Barzun writes, "to create an audience for books that the other clubs considered to be too far above the public taste." In 1951, Lionel Trilling was a senior member of the New York Intellectuals, and was well on his way to establishing himself as the pre-eminent literary critic of his generation. As an English professor at Columbia University (and incidentally the first Jew in the department) he co-taught a seminar on Great Books with Barzun, a French-born historian and a noted critic in his own right. Inspired by a conversation Trilling had with a business-minded former student named Gilman Kraft, Barzun and Trilling decided to create a club that would supply readers with "books of solid intellectual merit." Together with Kraft, Barzun and Trilling launched the Readers' Subscription in September, 1951. Each month the club published a bulletin called The Griffin, which featured mini review essays on the month's featured books by The Griffin's editors—Barzun, Trilling, and the poet W. H. Auden, who had been recruited to be a tie-breaking vote on any disagreements that arose between the two Columbia professors on what to recommend.
Though in many ways the editors of the Readers' Subscription could not be farther from Oprah on the culture-status hierarchy—while Trilling, Barzun, and Auden were all high-culture mavens, two Ivy League literature professors and a learned poet, Oprah is a TV pop-culture celebrity (and while the former three were all white men, the latter is a black woman)—their respective goals are similar: to enlighten and to instruct and, importantly, to somehow elevate their audience in so doing. In his foreword, Barzun describes "cultural criticism" (a term coined by Trilling) as a means for carrying out the work defined by the nineteenth-century poet and essayist Matthew Arnold—for "diffusing," in Arnold's words, "for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best ideas of their time." The 1950s, Barzun writes, witnessed "a many-sided effort to carry out the Arnoldian mandate. The hope of a collective enjoyment of the best in thought and art was strong. It was manifest in the drive to send the young to college, in the foundations for the advancement of one or another cultural good and in the free public libraries, in the many series of classics in cheap, well-edited forms, and not least, in the book clubs." What is Oprah doing with her book club, if not seeking to carry out the "Arnoldian mandate" in the twenty-first century?
Of course, it is almost a truism that our culture has fallen far, overcome—as the critic Dwight Macdonald famously warned it would be in his controversial 1960 essay "Masscult and Midcult"—by a debased popular culture. And in that light it is interesting to compare the books that Oprah chooses with the ones chosen by Barzun, Trilling, and Auden. While Oprah has dealt with works that are challenging in their way (including Toni Morrison's), they are a far cry from most of the works selected by the Readers' Subscription. To select just a few more or less at random: The Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot; Sigmund Freud's Letters; C. S. Lewis's English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama; H. S. Bennet's Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Verse and Prose; Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition; Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther; William Faulkner's The Mansion; George Bernard Shaw's Selected Prose; David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd; Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West; Saul Bellows's The Adventures of Augie March; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita; James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
It's a long, long way from Finnegans Wake to Jacqueline Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean—Oprah's treacly first selection, in 1996. This tells us something both about the different audiences the two clubs were seeking—the Readers' Subscription was clearly aiming higher, even relative to the culture at the time—and about changes in the culture (its "dumbing down," as some have described it) more generally. But to make an analogy to the oft-lamented system of American public education, when you aim wider you inevitably must also dip lower. The much-criticized gap in academic test-score results between the U.S. and other countries is largely attributable to America's seeking to educate all of its youth at least through high school; in most other countries, weaker students are filtered out during high school or even before. Similarly, though the Readers' Subscription had an impressive 40,000 subscribers at its peak, it cannot compare to the colossus Oprah, who has tens of millions of viewers; every one of her book-club selections is guaranteed to sell at least 750,000 copies.
Oprah's Book Club, to locate it in the cultural hierarchy, is middlebrow—and perhaps low-middlebrow at that. And Franzen, placing himself, as he says, in the "high-art literary"—that is "highbrow"—tradition, likely worries that his novel cannot survive an association with such down-brow company; he is afraid, I guess, of losing his highbrow bona fides. Oprah, in other words, is bourgeois, and artists and intellectuals have always mocked and pilloried the bourgeois. (Actually, The Corrections is very much about bourgeois family life, and simultaneously mocks and celebrates it.) Worse, from the high-art perspective, she is part of the corporate "culture industry," decried by radical critics since Dwight Macdonald and the Marxism-influenced intellectuals of the Frankfurt School as "an instrument of domination" by which the middle class is anesthetized, numbed to its soul-deadening fate. But what Franzen and like-minded critics seem to have forgotten is that the novel's very form has resolutely middlebrow origins; the early novels of the eighteenth century were the Sopranos and ER of their day. Moreover, middlebrow culture—as opposed to truly lowbrow culture, like teen movies or trash TV—has always been the route by which the educated middle-class (and sometimes, this being America, the uneducated underclass) travels to high culture. I read Stephen King before I read Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll before I read Joyce.
Franzen's fear about losing his officially recognized place in the highbrow firmament is not limited to the artist. Several people I know refuse to read an Oprah-selected book—or if they do read it, they decline to read it in public—not out of principled objection to what Oprah is doing or what she represents (in fact, each of these people say, as Franzen did, that they admire and support what she does), but because they feel embarrassed to be publicly associated with an Oprah-selected book. "People will think I choose what to read based on the book club," one of them said to me; "I just feel stupid carrying around a book with that Oprah sticker on it," another one said.
This sort of culture-status anxiety is not new. Indeed, these examples call to mind a riff from Trilling that is included in A Company of Readers, in his 1961 essay on the "The Arden Shakespeare." It is socially acceptable, Trilling says, to have read Shakespeare, or even to teach Shakespeare, but to admit to actually be reading Shakespeare is an act of cultural arrogance. Culture-status anxiety, in other words, is not limited to fear of falling too low, but it also includes fear of appearing to aspire too high. And it's evidently okay to be elitist, as long as you're not self-consciously so.
With this in mind, one has to grant Franzen a certain moxie—he is unafraid to admit his elitism. But it is one thing to be elitist in your aesthetic taste, and another to want to exclude the uninitiated from reading your work—from breaching the high-culture barricades, as it were. Yet this is the message Franzen is sending with his anti-Oprah comments. To which the middlebrow should respond: If you want to be a true elitist, Mr. Franzen, go back to writing obscure books, and we'll easily ignore you. But if you want to raise the level of literary culture, as you claim, and restore the role of fiction as deliverer of the news, as you said in 1996, then don't be afraid of the middlebrow mantle; you may even find that readers rise to meet you.
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