Oprah’s Brilliant Book Club Pick: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Even after their very public row, Oprah in a PR coup picked Jonathan Franzen’s new novel for her book club. Sarah Weinman on what it means for her ratings, and his sales. Plus 15 other Oprah spats.

Oprah Winfrey won’t make it official until Friday morning, but the literary world’s worst-kept secret is out: Her 64th Book Club pick is Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nine years and the most talked-about new book of recent weeks. On face value, it’s a selection that might catch many off guard, since Oprah famously discouraged Franzen from appearing on her show nine years ago this month after he expressed serious discomfort with the idea of her selecting The Corrections on the grounds that it might inhibit the book from reaching a wider male audience. Scratch that surface ever so slightly and it’s all too clear that Freedom was the smart and obvious move on Oprah’s part—especially if you’re a sucker for an epic narrative of the kind that Franzen writes.

Gallery: Oprah’s Famous Feuds

This time, Franzen will not flub his move. This time, he’ll appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show some days or weeks from now, ready to be grilled (à la James Frey) or, more likely, ready for Oprah to declare why she felt Freedom deserved her special attention. The hatchet, real or perceived, will be buried once and for all, and a key karmic blip in the feel-good narrative that is Oprah’s daytime talk show will be sanded over, with big ratings to boot for what’s certain to be a performance that will keep both parties in the headlines for weeks to come.

Oprah’s choice is all the more dramatic because it’s widely believed to be her last. After more than 25 years as a daytime network staple, her show will be going off the air in September 2011. She’s just moving to pay-TV, as half-owner (with Discovery Communications) of The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which launches in January and will eventually feature a new prime-time show from the current “queen of daytime.” This season is a farewell tour to the sort of mass audience Oprah cultivated during her years of timeslot and format dominance.

Oprah’s ratings have eroded along with the frequency of Oprah’s book picks, which trickled down from one a month during the club’s heyday to a few per year when she was telling her audience to read classic novels (like Anna Karenina) to just one—Uwem Akpan’s moving but grim short story collection Say You’re One of Them—in 2009. While Akpan’s collection has sold steadily since Oprah’s anointment, it was nowhere near the huge sales of the early days or even David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which sold more than half a million copies post-Oprah. Its subject matter, too, was more in keeping with Oprah’s sensibility for Book Club 2.0: dark, depressing titles by men (18 of her last 20 picks) instead of issue-driven books by women.

But Oprah’s pick this time is a return to form—and, most likely, sales, too. “Now Oprah will be remembered for both supporting popular fiction and championing literature, all in the same book club pick,” said Jason Boog, publishing editor for mediabistro.com. And no matter what the publishing world might hope can happen when Oprah moves on to her so-called Next Chapter on pay TV, all that counts is what’s on the minds of Americans right now—a canny and calculated rearrangement of Oprah’s brand-new network.

With ratings down and literary taste-making abilities curtailed, why not jump on the very crowded Jonathan Franzen bandwagon? Freedom, after all, helped Franzen get anointed by Time as our current “Great American Novelist.” Weeks of controversy ensued thanks to the “Franzenfreude” Twitter hashtag launched by Jennifer Weiner and parallel criticism by Jodi Picoult about how The New York Times devotes more space and energy to novels by men while neglecting similar fare by women. The book has generally received rapturous reviews and its chief detractor—B.R. Meyers in The Atlantic—sounded as convincing in his arguments as one trolling the Internet for amusement.

In choosing Freedom, she’s both dared Franzen to try to reject her again and opened her arms, however cynically, to his finally appearing on her show.

In other words, Freedom is not just a throwback to the once mighty post-World War II-esque social novel in terms of content and style, it is also a reminder of how the book world used to operate and still pretends to: a top-down approach, where publishers and critics decide what the masses should read, instead of the niche-driven bottom-up approach spurred by what trusted friends recommend on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and other social media. There’s more than a whiff of fin-de-siècle about Freedom, and so it makes perfect sense that Oprah, experiencing her own extended goodbye to traditional mainstream media, would reach out and add the proverbial cherry on top to what may be the last literary bestseller decided the old-fashioned way.

“Neither of these people has anything to prove, or all that much to gain,” said Kathleen Rooney, author of Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America. It’s less an opportunity for them to bury the hatchet—no doubt that happened years ago—than to clear up some unfinished business, and to have the public conversation they should have had back in 2002.”

For a No. 1 bestselling novel, that would be one thing. But picking Freedom comes with that tortured backstory of discomfort and controversy. Franzen, with his comments, essentially rejected Oprah, a woman wholly unused to public rebuffing. But what she is used to, and traffics in expertly, is redemption and forgiveness. In choosing Freedom, she’s both dared Franzen to try to reject her again and opened her arms, however cynically, to his finally appearing on her show.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

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Sarah Weinman contributes to the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post and many other print and online publications, and blogs about books and the publishing industry at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.