Jonathan Franzen is a critically acclaimed author who sparked controversy in 2001 after being kicked out of Oprah’s book club after a series of ungrateful and arrogant comments. After a series of apologies, he was finally welcomed back in 2011.
Section 1: Background
In 1996, The Oprah Winfrey Show launched a book club in which every few months or so, Oprah would pick a novel and tell her millions of viewers to read it. Then a few lucky readers would be chosen to have a televised dinner with Oprah and the author. The club immediately became the most influential force in American literature for its unparalleled ability to turn obscure authors into #1 best-sellers overnight. In a daytime television landscape filled with tabloid trash and celebrity interviews, Oprah was praised for bringing literature to the masses and even won the national book award for her literary advocacy. Being picked for Oprah’s book club was widely seen as the greatest thing that could happen to an author because it meant orders of magnitude more money and readers.
For Oprah, the club was pure marketing genius. She was getting credit for making the masses more literate while at the same time, building her status as Queen of All Media, and distancing herself from her trashy daytime competitors.
Oprah had brilliantly become one of the rare people in America to achieve three major types of clout at the highest level: money, popularity, and with her book club, intellectual influence.
But not everyone was a fan of Oprah’s book club.
Section 2: Picking The Corrections
In the Fall of 2001, Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen’s critically acclaimed novel The Corrections for her book club, phoning the author to tell him the characters in the book stayed with her for months. Unlike most people who get a surprise phone call from Oprah, Franzen did not jump and scream with excitement: the first sign there would be trouble. Because one reviewer had praised The Corrections as too edgy to ever be an Oprah pick, and because Franzen’s book was already a critically acclaimed best seller, from the outset Franzen felt conflicted about being knighted by Oprah, at one point ungratefully suggesting that it does as much for her as it does for him.
Section 3: A hard book for “that audience”
But because no one in their right mind says “no” to Oprah, at least not in North America, Franzen agreed to be part of the book club and even allowed himself to be filmed for an upcoming show, though he was annoyed that Oprah’s producers wanted to film him at his Midwestern childhood home, not his adult New York environment.
When constantly baited in interviews on his book tour, Franzen expressed discomfort with becoming an Oprah author, telling David Weich of powells.com:
The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks. She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight. And she’s an easy target.
It’s somewhat perceptive of Franzen to see through Oprah’s populist persona and realize she’s “really smart”, despite cringing at some of her book choices, despite claiming to have virtually never watched her show, and despite being unaware of my obscure research on her cranial capacity. Perhaps his cynicism caused him to understand the marketing genius behind her book club, or perhaps the mere fact that she loved his book was enough to be considered “really smart”.
Because apparently Franzen felt a lot of people were not smart enough to enjoy his work, at one point stating:
First and foremost, it’s a literary book. And I think it’s an accessible literary book. It’s an open question how big the audience is to which it will be accessible, and I think beyond the limits of that audience, there’s going to be a lot of, “What was Oprah thinking?” kind of responses. They, themselves, over there at “The Oprah Show”, they have no idea how they’re going to arrange the show because they’ve never done a book like this and they’re waiting to hear from their readers.
Even more disturbing, Franzen condescendingly said in the Philadelphia Inquirer that The Corrections is a “hard book for that audience”.
Section 4: The IQ of Corrections fans
It’s interesting to ask how high an IQ one needs to enjoy The Corrections? I happen to know two big fans of the book so well I was able to test them: One has an IQ of about 110 and the other has an IQ of about 130. Assuming this tiny sample is representative, I would say the average Corrections fan has an IQ of about 120 (U.S. norms): smarter than 90% of America.
Section 5: The IQ of Oprah fans
The IQ of Oprah fans is not known, but if education level is used as a crude proxy, the average viewer of Oprah’s syndicated talk show had an IQ almost exactly at the U.S. mean of 100 and the average Oprah magazine reader has an IQ 112 (U.S. norms). The magazine readers are probably a good proxy for Oprah Book Club fans, and they’re only about half a standard deviation below Correction fans; suggesting considerable overlap between the bell curves of both populations; perhaps about 27% of Oprah book club fans are smarter than the average Corrections fan.
Section 6: Hoping for a male audience
Another reason Franzen was ungrateful to be an Oprah pick was that he feared it would alienate his target audience. Franzen told NPR’s Terry Gross:
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.
Section 7: Logo of corporate ownership
Perhaps what bothered Franzen most was the Oprah logo that his publishers were placing on the book’s cover, as Franzen explained:
I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it. It’s not a sticker, it’s part of the cover. They redo the whole cover. You can’t take it off. I know it says Oprah’s Book Club but it’s an implied endorsement, both for me and for her. The reason I got in this business is because I’m an independent writer, and I didn’t want a corporate logo on my book.
Section 8: The backlash
Little did Franzen know, that Oprah herself was informed of these comments, and she wasn’t amused. In October 2001, Oprah released a statement saying:
Jonathan Franzen will not be on the 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. We have decided to skip the dinner and we’re moving on to the next book.
The sheer POWER of Oprah was such that with one brief statement, public opinion turned immediately against Franzen, as he went from America’s greatest author to America’s biggest snob, overnight.
“What an ungrateful bastard,” said one major New York literary agent. “Even if he did have misgivings, he should have just accepted the selection graciously and said nothing. After all, no one in America has helped sell more books than Oprah.”
Author Andre Dubus III stated:
It is so elitist it offends me deeply. The assumption that high art is not for the masses, that they won’t understand it and they don’t deserve it — I find that reprehensible. Is that a judgment on the audience? Or on the books in whose company his would be?
Critic Dennis Loy Johnson wrote:
Well, let’s see, how many different people does that offend? Men are too stupid to read but Franzen prefers them to women readers, especially, apparently, those that watch Oprah. Is it misogyny, do you think, or class prejudice, or worse?
It was the “or worse?” that dangled so hauntingly from the end of the sentence.
Prominent publications would slam Franzen for being a “motherfucker”, an “ego-blinded snob” and a “spoiled, whiny little brat”.
In the publishing industry he was commonly referred to behind his back as that “pompous prick”.
Franzen would write a letter apologizing to Oprah, but would not hear back.
For ten long years, Oprah didn’t even bother to comment. Was she angry, hurt, or simply didn’t care? No one knew, because for an entire decade, the richest and most worshipped self-made woman on the planet stood in dignified decisive silence.
Perhaps Franzen had hoped that by dissing Oprah, he would be a hero to the cultural elites that so resented her power, but by evicting Franzen from her book club, the cunning Queen of All Media gained sympathy for being the victim of snobbery, and cheers for kicking an ungrateful elitist off her show. Despite the fact that Billionaire Oprah is roughly a thousand times richer than Millionaire Franzen, she was the populist hero while Franzen was the elite villain.
One might argue that this shows Franzen’s lack of intelligence, or at least social intelligence, but such a view would be short-sighted. For the controversy increased book sales and exposed him to a much larger audience, and as the years passed, and Oprah became seen as more of an elite herself, the whole ugly episode would serve to cement Franzen’s status as a literary rebel, too sophisticated for mass market consumption. And while he continues to be seen in some circles as a pretentious sexist snob, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was invited to meet Obama, and even Oprah finally had him on her show to formally burry the hatchet.
Section 9: When geek is sheek, Franzen’s high IQ fashion statement and the rise of the hipsters
Franzen’s IQ is interesting because rarely do you see someone so self-consciously intellectual. And although Franzen claims to hate hipsters, he pretty much was one. As one critic observed:
Right down to the wardrobe–thick-rimmed geek glasses and tweed jackets abound–Franzen really wants to be one of these guys, among them someday read by bluestockings and PhD candidates. And he seems, like DeLillo and Pynchon, to want to comment on society, to try to capture its ethos in print, but otherwise keep his hands clean of pop culture.
Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich observed:
Maybe you’ve even run across Franzen’s official photo during his burst of fame. He’s a handsome guy. He looks like he might show up in one of those high-art fashion ads that wants you to believe that the brooding, cleft-chinned model is a Harvard grad student because who else would wear such earnest glasses and not have time to shave?
Franzen’s hipster image further symbolizes his conflict with Oprah. You see a lot of hipsters who look like Franzen working at Chapters book store or working as baristas in the affiliated Starbucks where Chapters customers order coffee. These used to role their eyes at the army of unhip middle aged housewives marching into the store demanding the latest Oprah selection. Freud might say Franzen’s trapped in permanent adolescence, still rebelling against his Midwestern mother who might have resembled the typical Oprah fan.
Indeed Franzen has stated that as a teenager, when his father would go away, he would then become the man of the house, eating dinner with his mother in place of his father: the substitute husband. This made the young Franzen very uncomfortable.
Section 10: Subjective impressions of Franzen’s IQ
In a review of Franzen’s latest book Purity, Sean Kinch writes:
Critics who find Franzen’s work too cerebral will bridle at the long passages in Purity concerning the Internet, art, economics, and so forth. Reviewing The Corrections, Norman Mailer said that Franzen “may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today” but, “like a polymath, he lives much of the time in Wonkville Hollow.” Franzen does indeed stuff his novels with arcane information, often reeled off at rates of speed that prohibit first-reading comprehension, but Mailer’s criticism misses what makes works like Purity engaging. Franzen enthusiasts appreciate a writer who depicts educated, professional adults in all their complexity, which includes their intellectual conflicts and the pressures of their white-collar occupations. Purity will reinforce the author’s reputation for tackling esoteric topics, but he never loses sight of the messy, fleshy humans who bring them to life.
The average creative writer at the elite Iowa Writers’ Workshop has an IQ of 120, so if we assume working novelists also average 120 with a standard deviation of say 14 (Compared to the U.S. mean and SD of 100 and 15 respectively), and if Franzen has the highest IQ of the some 19,000 working novelists in America (as Mailer implied), that would put his IQ at an astonishing 174! (one in 2.4 million level)
While Franzen is definitely very bright, this figure sounds ludicrously high.
Section 11: Statistically expected IQ of a literary Genius
Franzen is probably considered one of the five most accomplished writers in America, out of some 200 million American adults. If there were a perfect correlation between IQ and writing skill, this would imply an IQ of 182 (82 points above the U.S. mean), but according to a study reported in the WAIS-IV (intelligence test) technical manual, the written expression subtest of the WIAT-II (achievement test) correlates 0.6 with WAIS-IV Full-Scale IQ. However because the written expression subtest is just one brief subtest, correcting for its unreliability would raise the correlation to 0.7. Given this 0.7 correlation between IQ and writing talent, we should regress to Franzen’s likely IQ to only 70% as far above the mean and thus 157.
However great achievement requires more than just raw talent. It also helps to have 10,000 hours of practice, among other things. Raw talent seems to explain 66% to 70% of the variance in expert level performance, suggesting talent correlates 0.82 with performance. Thus we need to regress Franzen again to only 82% as far above the mean, which brings his expected IQ to 147 (U.S. norms).
But this is just a crude statistical prediction with a sizeable standard of error. Is there any evidence to support it?
Section 12: No more guessing games, actual psychometric data
The closest thing we have to an actual IQ test for Franzen is his appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy. Although Franzen lost to cable commenter S.E. Cupp, that was only because he bet too much on Final Jeopardy. Before the final bet, Franzen had $14,800, Cupp had $13,200 and TV journalist Chuck Todd had $12,200. Thus, the three of them had a mean pre-final score of $13,400, with a standard deviation of $1,300 (adjusted for degrees of freedom given the small sample). So Franzen was 1.08 standard deviations above the mean Jeopardy ability of Celebrity Jeopardy power players . However in order to convert this to an IQ equivalent, we need to know the IQ distribution of said players.
Given that all the power players that night were either talking heads (average IQ 127) or novelists (average IQ 120), a rough guess is that they have a mean IQ around 125 with a standard deviation of 15 (same as the U.S. SD since they come from a range of occupations).
Thus, Franzen being 1.08 SD above this mean equates to an IQ of:
1.08(15) + 127 = 143
This is very close to the IQ 147 that we’d statistically expect from a literary Genius (see section 11). Both are in the mid 140s.
Of course this score should be treated with great caution because it is based on only one fairly luck dependent measure of cognition (Jeopardy performance), the sample size against which Franzen was compared was tiny (three people and was skewed by the fact that Franzen himself was one of the three!)
Nonetheless an IQ of 143 (U.S. norms)(142 U.S. white norms) is very believable. Only one in several hundred Americans is this smart. Incredibly high enough to explain his literary genius and hyper-intellectualism, yet low enough to explain why he was forced to change his major in college from Physics to German because, as he told CBC Radio, he didn’t have either “the talent or patience for high level math”.