Did Jonathan Franzen Cut a Censorship Deal with Terry Gross?

On October 26, 2001, Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the Franzen fiasco:


Three days later in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” he told host Terry Gross that he was still conflicted about Oprah because — well, “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — 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.”

Thus does class meet boorish elitism. Franzen, through his publisher, issued an immediate sort–of apology: “I try to explore complicated emotions and circumstances as honestly and fully as I can. This approach can be productive on the page, but clearly hasn’t been helpful in talking to the media, many members of which used the occasion of my book tour to raise questions about Oprah’s Book Club and the supposed divisions among American readers. The conflict is preexisting in the culture, and it landed in my lap because of my good fortune. I’m sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely.”

So, as it turns out, it was Terry Gross’ fault; even though she started off the interview by gushing, “I read your book and I loved it!” and did not press him in the least or follow up on his blatantly chauvanistic take of Oprah’s audience, she was, apparently, out to get Jonathan Franzen . . . a poor, “inexperienced” lad with only two previous books and hundreds of previous interviews and public appearances under his belt.

And here is the quote reported by the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Review.

I remember hearing Franzen’s remarks. But if you go through the Fresh Air archive, you’ll find no trace of the full record, much less any indication that the broadcast was modified. There is, of course, this repeat of the October 15, 2001 interview in question, broadcast on September 6, 2002. But listen to the RealMedia file for this show and you’ll find only this excerpt at the 3:34 mark:

I mean, so much of reading is sustained, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV. Or, um, you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever.

After this, we hear Terry Gross ask her next question. The other part of the quote, as reported by Johnson, “I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — 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,” is missing.

If Terry Gross is a journalist, then she has the responsibility to maintain the full record of this conversation, or at least apprise her listeners that the interview was modified. I do not yet know Ms. Gross’s motivations, but if she is willfully allowing her program to be pressured by authors and/or publishers, then it seems to me that the Literarian Award, which purports to “recogniz[e] the important contribution she has made to the world of books — and to our understanding of literature and the writing process — through her probing and intelligent interviews with authors” does not appear to recognize an interviewer who thoroughly probes her subjects. Indeed, the National Book Foundation has honored an ostensible “journalist” who has failed to preserve the historical record.

At the very least, Gross should have observed — both on the September 6, 2002 repeat broadcast and on the NPR page representing the broadcast — that the interview was edited or tampered with.

I have sent an email to Terry Gross asking for clarification on this matter. I will update this story if I learn any additional details.

[UPDATE: It would appear that Gross has a history of pulling punches. An interview with Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman was recorded on January 27, 1993, but Fresh Air never aired the interview, because they were looking for a “moderate” voice.]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Gross has responded to my questions.]


  1. Self-censorship issues aside: If Franzen’s anecdote is authentic, it does make me wonder about the relationship between reading and its “social status” in different societies…

    The idea that reading (specifically) novels is a “feminine” or “unmanly” activity — how pervasive is it really?

  2. Good stuff — and it’s great to see actual investigative reporting taking place on this (or any) literary blog.

    I’d also add that Franzen’s explanation that his insulting comments about the Oprah audience were based on concerns about gender appear to be an artful feint. The obvious subtext of his disdain for the Oprah audience has more to do with class and socioecomonic background than gender.

  3. Okay, serious, non-ironic question.

    We know more women read fiction than men. It’s also true that Oprah’s audience is primarily female, and that things connected with her are often perceived as being feminine, or targeted specifically at women. Oprah is also pretty clearly associated with a solidly middle-class audience. This is not news, right? We can agree on these things? Okay.

    So my question is this: what is sexist/classist about a person saying their work was targeted at a specific audience, and was disappointed that circumstances beyond his control had associated his book with things that are often unappealing to that audience, especially since members of his target audience who *did* connect with his book told him that association was unappealing to them?

    Honest question.

  4. Well, Steve, I think your question is actually “what’s wrong with being sexist/classist”, rather than “what is sexist/classist” — since, prima facie, it is sexist and classist to be selective about the gender and class of your desired audience, wouldn’t you agree?

    If the question is then “what’s wrong with being sexist/classist about your audience?” In my opinion it’s not shockingly wrong but it does reflect rather unattractively. Obviously it’s not wrong enough to damage a writer’s career, since Jonathan Franzen seems to be doing fine. But I would personally prefer to invest my time reading writers with more expansive and more generous attitudes about class and gender, and I bet many other readers feel the same way.

  5. Ed,

    I was amused by your description of Terry Gross as a journalist. She most definitely is not. There are lots of times during her interviews when she asks a question and backs off if the subject does not want to answer. I have heard her talk about her desire to create conversation, not confrontation. However, she does use awkward moments for publicity, like the time Gene Simmons walked off her set and refused to talk to her anymore.

    That said, I still think her show does more for authors than any other show out there.

  6. Well, to begin with, it was me and not Steve who asked the question, but to be honest every single product on earth is aimed at a target audience. To be unselective is to have a failed product. And can any of us kid ourselves into thinking that books aren’t products?

    “The Rock” was a film aimed pretty clearly at men of a certain age. Is that sexist? Never mind the quality of the product, if it is sexist, but not “shockingly so”, does it “reflect unattractively” on the studio and the director that they made a film with a male audience in mind? And if so, *why*? Nobody, and I mean *nobody* gives a damn when the target audience of a thing explicitly excludes males, why should it suddenly be this horrible thing when males are moved to the centre?

    Or does this quality of unattractive reflection apply only to books?

  7. “…it is sexist and classist to be selective about the gender and class of your desired audience, wouldn’t you agree?”

    Despite the fact that I *wasn’t* the one who asked August’s pertinent question, I’ll have to disagree with you here, Levi. Demographic target groups are divided by age, income, race and gender all the time…it’s only “racist” or “sexist” if the intent/result is a race-or-sex-based (non-bottom line) value judgment. We don’t honestly think that some products *aren’t* aimed at certain groups, do we…or was “The Horse Whisperer” expected to do well with black males between 15 and 25? (to borrow August’s trope and dose it with steroids). Are polls that break down by gender and race…racist and sexist by default?

    Do you suppose that Terry McMillan writes with “white males” in mind? Does anyone worry that she doesn’t?

    Let’s not use “racist” and “sexist” with such profligate zest that both terms lose all meaning. Let’s *save them up* until they really sting with inarguable justice when we wield them against the genuine nasties. Last time I checked, Franzen was merely dorky.

  8. It’s not writing for a particular audience that’s the problem. It’s the implication that one audience is less desirable than another because of who they are – that their money and readership are no good. Hey, he was being honest, but it really did come off badly. F. gave the distinct impression that he thought the Oprah association would give his books a down-rent, housewifey taint that would put off a more desirable audience. As a housewife, I felt rather insulted.

    I think the core of F’s sin is that he thought that being honest about his snobbery would be charming. He was clearly taken aback by the negative fall-out.

    I don’t buy the excuse that men actually wouldn’t read his book because of the Oprah sticker. That guy in the bookstore wouldn’t have read his book *sticker or not* if he hadn’t been to the reading. It’s not audience F was worried about — it was his Reputation.

    It was obvious that Oprah was widening her selections to include books by more men and more literary books — she was being open-minded, respecting the intelligence of her audience, only to be smacked by Franzen.

  9. Well, damn me to hell along with Franzen, but I’d have to think long and hard before giving a home to any book with either a movie still for cover art or an Oprah sticker on it. Or “book of the month club!” in a blazing font. Or any sticker referring to the “Reader’s Digest”. Or a blurb from Chuck Palahniuk. I’d have to read three chapters right there in the book store before being persuaded, possibly. (Okay, unless Zero Mostel were featured in the movie still on the cover).

    I don’t care if good old middlebrow Oprah has widened her scope to take in “literary” efforts, now, too: she was once James Frey’s biggest champion. Liar or not, Frey, as anyone infected with a microbe of readerly talent knew, was pre-literate. Oprah’s wide-eyed quest for uplift is just one of her strikingly anti-literary qualities. I can see where Franzen was coming from, despite the fact that, after reading “The Corrections” , I thought the book would have been a perfect fit to Oprah’s…erm…Weltanschauung.

  10. Any publicity is good. I’m listening to a rebroadast of a 2010 Fresh Air w Franzen on his book Freedom. All the ‘controversy’ aside about book clubs….I have to wonder if Franzen has children…I’d guess not…since he says he didn’t really feel grown up until he was 51 and he lost a friend. His take on parent/child relationships is common sense, especially to parents these days. Still uncomfortable to read about…hits close to home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *