Thursday, May 01, 2008

How NOT To Do A Panel Discussion

NOTE TO SELF: Do not pull a Jonathan Franzen.

Yesterday's "Media Mob" in the New York Observer reported that writer Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections) spoke at Harvard on Monday. His fellow speaker was James Wood, a fellow writer at The New Yorker and a critic of Franzen.

Before discussing that Harvard face-off, let's take a walk through the annals of 2001's worst literary faux pas.

You may remember Franzen won the National Book Award for Fiction that year for The Corrections, his third book.

Mr. Franzen also made the news for dissing Oprah's Book Club. After The Corrections was chosen to be an Oprah "pick," he expressed ambivalence about the selection.

The 10/29/01 edition of Publishers Weekly reported:
The Corrections author admitted to the Oregonian that he had originally considered declining Oprah's offer . . . He also was quoted in the Oregonian as saying that he and FSG [his publisher] feel the selection "does as much for her as it does for us" and insinuated that Oprah might not help sales that much. "Well, it was already on the bestseller list and the reviews were pretty much all in," Franzen told the newspaper. (He did conclude that the selection "means a lot more money for me and my publisher.")

Oprah suffered from no such ambivalence. The New York Times reported:
. . . this week Mr. Franzen earned an even rarer distinction as the first author to be formally uninvited to appear on her television show.

Ms. Winfrey's decision stemmed from occasional public comments by Mr. Franzen that she felt disparaged her literary selections as middlebrow or unsophisticated. Her reaction quickly became the talk of the literary world because of Mr. Franzen's status as its author-of-the-moment. Yesterday, he apologized, suggesting some of his comments were taken out of context . . .

After learning of his statements, Ms. Winfrey reconsidered her selection. In a statement to Publishers Weekly that appeared in an e-mail newsletter Monday night, Ms. Winfrey said: ''Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.''

You'd a-thunk Mr. Franzen would have emerged from that baptism with a more sophisticated understanding of the paths and pitfalls of speaking in public.

You'd a-thunk.

On Monday at Harvard, Mr. Franzen dissed Michiko Kakutani, saying "the stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times.”

Apparently Mr. Franzen is still holding a grudge over Ms. Kakutani's 2006 review of his memoir, The Discomfort Zone, in the New York Times. You can read that review here. Among the things she said:
In his new memoir, “The Discomfort Zone,” Mr. Franzen turns his unforgiving eye on himself and succeeds in giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed . . . While some readers will want to give Mr. Franzen points for being so revealing about himself, there is something oddly preening about his self-inventory of sins, as though he actually reveled in being so disagreeable.

In October, about six weeks after that review, the Times took a second pass at the memoir here. Daniel Mendelsohn said:
Like the hero of some Greek play, Jonathan Franzen — apparently motivated, as so many tragic characters are, by an excessively lofty sense of himself — caused his moment of greatest triumph to disintegrate into public humiliation. The triumph, of course, was his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Corrections”. . . The public humiliation (of course) was the fracas that ensued after Franzen expressed disdain for Oprah Winfrey’s choice of his novel for her book club . . .

Unlike Oedipus or Hippolytus, however, Franzen seems to have learned nothing from his fall.

It appears that, nearly eighteen months after that book review, nothing much has changed for Mr. Franzen.

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