What Are You Thinking, Oprah?

Oprah, Oprah, Oprah–what are you thinking, girl?

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is your book club selection, the first book of your last season?


Mr. “high-art literary tradition”? Remember him–he who refused to go slumming with Oprah’s readership nine years ago? Too lowbrow, too “schmaltzy.”

The man who told National Public Radio in 2001:

“I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.”

The man who told USA Today he feels bad to have been in the position to “give offense to someone who’s a hero–not a hero of mine per se, but a hero in general.”

Face it, Oprah: he’s just not that into you. He’s just not that into women readers.

For the love of God, Oprah, rescind the invitation.

You did it once. Do it again. Show some integrity. Live your best life. Tell the man who feared the Oprah Book Club sticker on his book would turn off male readers to get over himself, reflect on his egghead tantrum. You are not about promoting arrogance and male posturing.

So what if he sent you a galley and wrote you an apology. Jonathan Franzen does not need you. Just look around–it’s a Franzen fetish out there. Jumping onto this latest bandwagon of fanny-slapping brotherhood can come to no good.

Listen to Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner and thinking-women all over the world. We have had it with the ubiquitous Franzens, “white male literary darlings,” with their faces on Time and their reviews in The New York Times.

Don’t make me go all Guerilla Girls on you, Oprah. If the literary world has a feminist masked avenger, it is you. You have changed the face of reading in this country. Fifty-eight percent of the books you have chosen since 1996 have been written by women. Brava. Don’t stop now–Franzen doesn’t need and hasn’t earned your support.

You start girls’ schools in Africa and send female audiences to Australia. Use your final season to honor the readers who have remained loyal to you: women. Do what singer Jewel croons: no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from (not one for syntax, that Jewel, but nevertheless).

Free us from Franzen. Give us writers, men or women, who respect women. Give us writers who don’t mope about their books being for better readers than Oprah’s readers.

Make no mistake, Oprah, this is very much about gender and class. Oh yes it is.

I am a huge fan, Oprah. Always have been. I even get O Magazine. More than once, I have defended you against my highbrow academic colleagues who claim your book choices are not literary enough, mere beach-y schlock. I point to Toni Morrison, Pearl S. Buck, Edwidge Danticat. I print out the list, highlight it, post it on their office doors.

Quite simply, and I believe I speak for more than a few, I am a woman, like poet Adrienne Rich, whose “wild patience” has taken me this far. But no further.

Put down the pom poms, Oprah. Step away from the master’s piece. Fix this travesty. I am a literary scholar, so I know that Franzen’s book may be quite fine, the finest ever. Really. But that’s not the point, Oprah. James Frey may have fictionalized, but Jonathan Franzen has factionalized. He does not value women readers.

Before it is too late, for the love of all women, rescind this invitation.

A simple text will do: Sorry, Bubba. Too little, too late. Insult my women readers, insult me. O

Photo of Oprah by Flickr user nayrb7, under license from Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Chill Out, Donna says:

    Oh for god's sake. Sensationalizing a quote from a decade ago just to cut to the ridiculous Picoult/Weiner debate, is embarrasing. I love those women, for days when I want to sip lemonade on a balcony and read mindless novels; I love Franzen for when I actually want insight on the human condition.

    Focus on the characters and themes that Franzen is creating- they're not unlike Morrison's. As a literary scholar, you should perhaps know that master writers can often convey in print what they are unable to convey out loud. Franzen, I think, is one of those writers. His writing of women is impeccable.

  2. Oprah doesn't have much integrity. She pushes alternative medicine, woo and pseudoscience all of the time. She calls on psychiatric cranks like Dr. Phil for advice. You're surprised that she has loose standards for literary authors too?

    • So alternative medicine like acupuncture DOESN'T actually have thousands of years of successful practice behind it? Whew! Glad you cleared that up for me before I went out and got stuck with needles. The rest, you're right about – never did like Oprah.

    • donna decker says:

      Oprah's standards are, in fact, not altogether "loose." Check it out: her book lists are readily available online, and her choices are often, most often, impressive and important. That's what makes this choice particularly poor.

      Oprah bashing is a popular sport, one I refuse to play. My aim here is to call Oprah out on a poor decision, to ask her to make amends.

  3. I hope Oprah takes your advice…and invites you on her show to talk about it

  4. Caitlin Reck says:

    Great piece about how important role models that make choices that support other women are! Oprah is such an influential women, she has the responsibility to promote only those who respect women!

  5. Cathy Nicastro says:

    I hope she listens and at least addresses the controversy. Maybe she should invite Ms Decker on the program to duke it out. She has a handle on the outrage and the double-standard.

  6. I couldn't agree more with your article, Donna. This smacks of publishing nepotism — I am sure any apology sent to Oprah for his thoughtless comments was actually the work of a savvy publicist/marketing crew. Hopefully her next pick is genuine.

  7. If Oprah is a "feminist masked avenger," then I'm a caped crusader…and that would be very, very bad for society. What saddens me is that people actually look up to this woman who throws her money around just to make herself look good. If you need Oprah's Book Club to help you pick "good" literature, you're not much of a reader.

    • Hillz0rz says:

      So what you’re saying is that you’re completely opposed to promoting reading entirely? Pardon me but, “If you need Oprah’s Book Club to help you pick “good” literature, you’re not much of a reader,” suggests that you feel people who don’t read much…shouldn’t read? I feel as though that comment makes little sense. The whole point is to encourage literature.

  8. SmallPonderings says:

    This comment by Ms. Decker and Ms. Dean's comment on August 27th speak well for the writers and readers of Ms. Magazine. Thoughtful and not distracted by a gushing infatuated media and willing to call them on it. This is the type of influence that will outlast Mr. Franzen and Ms. Winfrey.

  9. I actually love Oprah and have tremendous respect for her, but this choice was really disappointing to me. I suppose on the hand, it's in the spirit of shalom, but beyond Franzen insulting Oprah and women readers nine years ago is the way that his fiction insults women now! His portrayal of women as doormats, less than men in every way, willing — if not eager — to be treated like crap. Frankly, the men in his books aren't all that great either, but no one is even talking about the fact that…the emperor has no clothes. And while he has a lot of literary hair on his chest…what's underneath is sadly lacking. Check out Ron Charles' hilarious video review of Freedom here: http://www.boxocto.com/2010/09/for-files-oprah-ch

  10. Trish Moore says:

    Perhaps Franzen is just educated beyond his intelligence.
    "O may I join the choir invisible
    Of those immortal dead who live again
    In minds made better by their presence:"
    -George Eliot
    Franzen? Not.

  11. Wow! You nailed it!
    With all the GREAT women writers why promote another white boy?
    Beware: Sexism dawns new clothing!

  12. This is a totally absurd article. Jon has absolutely nothing against woman readers, he is one of the most kind and compassionate men I've ever known. He taught my boyfriend about feminism. I mean, come on! The whole uproar about The Corrections being in Oprah's book club was a big case of quotations taken out of context. If anyone has read any of Jon's books they'd see what long sentences he writes in (and speaks in,) his language is circuitous and layered. He's not stuffy, he's just bright. A man totally down to earth, totally committed to women (check out his partner Kathy Chetkovitch's plays, by the way, they're incredible), totally, also, in his own head- a head which happens to create incredible works of literature.

    Stop bullying him!

  13. donna decker says:

    Yesterday, driving into work, I tuned into Diane Rehm show — the guests were in the middle of a book discussion — they never mentioned the title or author of the book. They did say, however, that the book was published in 2001 and the writer was male. I had a very long driveway wait to get to know WHAT THE HECK WAS THE BOOK THEY WERE DISCUSSING???? When it became inevitable that they would not say, and when I had to get to my class, I went inside, googled Rehm's show streaming — and, as you have guessed by now — Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS — maybe resurrected from years ago, maybe fresh. Not sure. But hot damn if the man is not everywhere.
    I have still not read this book…

  14. Amen. Thanks for saying it, and saying it so well.

  15. why won't she feature new authors trying to make it. Has she even thought about looking at authors who write poetry; other than the famous one out there already. Why not help some of the new african american poets who want their chance of success too. Come on Oprah, why don't you support more african american writers in any field of choice that they write about.

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