Published January 13, 2015
Having the Oprah logo on his novel made Jonathan Franzen so uncomfortable it helped get him kicked off her show. Having a seal that states he won the National Book Award apparently makes him quite content.
"It's a great honor," a smiling Franzen said Wednesday night after receiving the fiction prize for his acclaimed best seller The Corrections.
Franzen's novel, a 500-page chronicle of the life and times of an unhappy Midwestern family, was published this fall to rave reviews and immediately became the year's most discussed work of literary fiction.
But attention soon shifted from The Corrections to Franzen himself. Five years after lamenting in an essay for Harper's magazine that authors can't get people angry any more, Franzen proved they could — just insult Oprah.
Winfrey made The Corrections her September book club pick, virtually ensuring hundreds of thousands of sales, but Franzen sounded less than grateful in subsequent interviews. He worried about his place in the "high-art literary tradition" and complained the Oprah logo on his book cover amounted to a "corporate" endorsement.
Winfrey responded by canceling the dinner she traditionally hosts for a chosen author. Fellow writers such as Andre Dubus III and Thom Jones called him an elitist, and journalists and publishing insiders speculated that his chances for winning the fiction prize had been severely diminished.
"It's been a bad couple of months here ... a terrible time," Franzen said in his acceptance speech Wednesday, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks, although making some wonder if he meant his own public trials.
The author then joked that he had served as "blood sport entertainment" to divert attention from the recent tragedy and that he welcomed other volunteers to "perform this service.''
Also on Wednesday, Andrew Solomon won in nonfiction for The Noonday Demon, Virginia Euwer Wolff received the young people's literature prize for the novel True Believer and Alan Dugan was the winner in the poetry category for Poems Seven.
Franzen received a few boos as awards host Steve Martin read down the list of finalists, and the applause was polite when fiction judge Colin Harrison announced he had won. But after Franzen had concluded his speech, in which he thanked Winfrey for her "advocacy" of reading and called books "the most lovely things human beings make," the response was warm and sustained.
In his opening monologue, Martin had teased Franzen, saying that instead of the Oprah show he would appear on Martha Stewart's Good Morning Wisconsin.
Officials had emphasized that the books, not the authors, should be evaluated. "I always say to the judges, 'Keep your eye on the ball,'" said Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards.
Franzen probably didn't need the $10,000 prize he received Wednesday night. His novel was a best seller before Oprah's citation and film rights to Hollywood producer Scott Rudin had been optioned. According to his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 780,000 copies are in print and at least 50,000 more will come out because of the prize.
All the attention helped make money for Franzen, but not for the book foundation, which gets about half of its annual budget from the awards ceremony. Attendance for the $1,000-a-plate benefit was down 20 percent from last year, to between 650 and 700, as publishers looking to cut costs in a weak economy either didn't attend or sent fewer people.
"We're going to have a look at the rest of the year and reevaluate what we were going to do," said Baldwin, whose nonprofit organization runs numerous literacy outreach programs.
Wednesday night's ceremonies were marked by repeated reminders of the destruction of the World Trade Center. A silent art auction organized by a group of children's book publishers was held to support relief efforts. Wolff confessed she had been unable to write since Sept. 11, but was inspired by a recent visit to Ground Zero. Solomon, whose book is about depression, declared the "mental health of the nation" was being challenged.