In his book of essays, How to be Alone, Jonathan Franzen gives the backstory to the whole Oprah affair around his first book, The Corrections. Franzen, as I’m sure you know, was widely reported to have turned down Oprah’s initial invitation to appear on his show.
In this essay, “Meet me in St. Louis,” Franzen explains that he had actually accepted the offer. It was the television crew’s insistence on filming Franzen in his childhood home in St. Louis that seems to have soured the relationship.
Franzen told the film crew that he wanted nothing to do with his old house. He offered alternatives: his old church, his high school, even his old street. But they pressed.
Franzen’s parents had died: he had only recently recovered from their loss. As he put it, “I couldn’t stand to look at my old house … I was done with it. … I didn’t want to blame an innocent house for still existing after its meaning had been emptied out.”
He didn’t explicitly explain to the film crew why he wanted nothing to do with his one-time address, but surely he didn’t have to. If it made him uneasy or uncomfortable, or simply sad, that was his business. The desire for a ‘visual’ ought not to overwhelm one’s privacy: his ‘no’ should have been enough.
But this is television. Privacy and ‘visuals’ are incompatible, as many a drunken or stoned celebrity actor or politician have discovered the next morning in the news.
“Are you sure we can’t shoot you in front of your house?” a member of the crew asked repeatedly. Franzen finally agreed to stand in front of a tree in the boulevard that his family planted after his father died. “You’re looking up at the tree,” he was coached. “You’re thinking about your father.”
I was reminded of William Hurt, crying on cue for the cameras in the 1987 movie, Broadcast News.
Franzen didn’t make the grade. “Rendering emotion,” he wrote, “is what I do as a writer and this tree is my material and I am helping to ruin it…. I am failing as an Oprah author.”
Still, I was surprised to find out that Franzen taped the unaired episode, all ninety minutes of it. And that Oprah apparently raved about an author who had poured so much of himself into the book that “he must not have a thought left in his head.” But Franzen was subsequently disinvited because of interviews he gave elsewhere that implied he was conflicted. Which he certainly was.
After reading his essay, I thought Franzen was difficult to deal with. But I also think he got trapped between not really wanting to do something, and trying to please, to go along with it, much the same way that authors who want to find an agent/get published/sell books go along with things they don’t much like either for fear of losing their agent or publisher. The way that women constantly accept varying degrees of sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs. I can’t even imagine the power dynamics involved when it comes to someone like Oprah, the fear of offending her, of losing her endorsement.
However mean-spirited he seemed to me before I read his account, I liked the idea of Jonathan Franzen blowing off Oprah directly far more than finding that the truth is, as always, more complicated.
Do I like Franzen the writer any better? Not at all. There are parts of these essays that are brilliant, and other parts that I thought tried too hard.
But it takes a certain amount of courage to tell a story about oneself in which one isn’t the hero, and doesn’t come off very well. And for that, I give Franzen his props.