When Jonathan Franzen's novel, The Corrections, was published in the United States last autumn, the good reviews came snowing down. So did the insults. He enumerates a couple of the most memorable: "Pompous prick. Whiny spoilt brat with a full diaper." (He's omitted "ungrateful bastard", pitched his way by an influential New York literary agent.) "And I could have lived with that," he claims. "But it was the constant reproduction of an exceptionally unflattering photograph, taken by an 86-year-old photographer, that pained me. I kept repeating to myself, there's no such thing as bad publicity. But there is such a thing as a bad photo." And this, apparently, is what happens, if you decline to snuggle up with Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey selected The Corrections for her Book Club, a national reading group that has, in recent years, done wonders for American literacy and publishers' profit margins, and effected Oprah's transformation from the trailer parks' chief bear-baiter to empress of self-improvement. When Franzen expressed his discomfort with the endorsement, he was widely regarded to have smacked a gift horse in the mouth: "I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition," and, "I see this book as my creation and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it," are the millstone quotes.
"I was particularly dismayed," he tells me, "by the ridiculous media image of me as some raging ivory tower elitist. You had to quote very, very selectively to make me into that. In fact, The Corrections was a good Oprah choice because I have low taste myself, to use terminology in which we're stuck..."
Despite such pronouncements, Franzen is not the figure portrayed in the hatchet-job profile-pieces and snickering gossip-column paragraphs: the snitty sensitive who leapt on his desk-chair and shrieked, "oh, la!" when a chat-show hostess urged his masterpiece on the dazed masses. Meeting him, however, at the ostentatiously discreet Gore Hotel, Kensington, you can see how he might have inadvertently generated a negative impression. His voice, flattish, ironical, is pitched somewhere between Tom Lehrer and Sam the Eagle. His dress is grad-student sober. He leaves long, stern interludes between clauses when he feels that his sentences are meandering into areas of carelessness. He chews his words carefully. Under the gaze of a sentimental portrait of Dame Nelly Melba, he smiles, he jokes, he sips his double espresso, and he slithers cheerfully on the polished flanks of his armchair. But I think that the tape recorder spooling away on the table in front of us makes him want to scream: anything he says into the machine might appear on this page and form the basis of another diplomatic incident.
"I had never anticipated having anything to do with Oprah Winfrey, and that would probably have been the best outcome of all. But having been approached I was being obedient to the extent that I could manage it. I'd spent two days filming with them already, so I would have been happier just to go ahead and do it. Not that I would have enjoyed it..."
He scowls, slides about on the leather upholstery, and feels his way through an immense silence. "It's complicated. I don't have anything against her. She, from her side of the great gulf created by television between kinds of reading audiences in the US, was reaching out towards me, and I wish I'd reached out more towards her. But I was having to accustom myself to success, after 20 years of reconciling myself never to having it. There was a delay of some weeks while I was still imprisoned in old attitudes of resentment and doubt."
The Franzen biography may offer clues to how those attitudes were formed. He was born, 42 years ago, in a cosy suburb of Louisiana, and professes to have felt "extremely isolated" during his childhood. He met his former wife, Valerie Cornell, at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, in 1981. They married a year later, and moved into a tiny apartment near the Harvard campus, to begin writing novels. They both tapped away for eight hours a day, broke for dinner, then read for five hours more in the evening. Franzen supported them both by doing research work for the university's seismology department. By 1994, he had published two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), Cornell had failed to find a publisher for her own fiction, and their marriage had collapsed.
Reports of his use of sensory deprivation as a writing aid have made another ambivalent addition to his public image. He likes window blinds, ear-plugs, blindfolds. And he doesn't own a TV. (The talking glob of faecal matter that haunts the hallucinations of Alfred, one of his central characters, has nothing, therefore, to do with South Park's similarly illusory Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo.)
I wonder if there's a Wordsworthian element to this technique: he goes out and observes the world and the people in it, then retires to a tranquil space in order to recollect and reconstruct the experience, and turn it into prose. Apparently not. He likes window blinds and earplugs because he likes peace and quiet, and states that he used a blindfold "no more than 12 times in the entire process of writing the book" – for a sequence in which Alfred, his body unsteady with Parkinson's, his mind undone by Alzheimer's, fantasises about slicing off his hands. I mention Iris Murdoch's description of her Alzheimer's as being like "entering a darkened room". Franzen begins to reflect upon this, then breaks off. "Somehow I feel we haven't gotten our terms straight from the outset of this particular exchange."
The Corrections is an unusual novel, in that the breathless claims to greatness printed on the jacket are actually borne out by the experience of reading it. Its central characters, the Lamberts, are realised so sharply that you begin to speculate about their actions and motivations as you would with members of your own family. Should Enid put her husband Alfred, tottering under the weight of Alzheimer's, into a home? Why doesn't their son Chip, a former academic with a humiliating predilection for leather pants, give up on that terrible screenplay he's writing? Why doesn't his sister Denise admit to herself that she's not heterosexual? And how does her brother Gary cope with that vacuous, selfish wife, and the awful son whose latest hobby is wiring the house for surveillance? (Since finishing the book last week, I've dreamt about these people twice.)
Its larger achievement, perhaps, is an act of literary diplomacy. The Corrections combines cultural commentary with sound character-work. It's like a bridge across the gender gap that exists in American fiction between the domestic dramas of Anne Tyler and Annie Proulx, and the grand historical visions of Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe.
That alone should have guaranteed Franzen his public, but the Oprah affair ensured that coverage of the book splurged from the books sections to the comment pages: and all this as the US, reeling from terrorist attack, prepared to invade Afghanistan. "The intensity of vituperation and rage directed at me in October was determined by the state of the national psyche. We had op-ed pages in the New York Times where it was Anthrax, Anthrax, Afghanistan, Afghanistan, and the Villain Franzen."
"In the big scheme of things, it all turned out great, to such an extent that people suspect that it was all planned for the beginning. I calculatedly accepted the show. I calculatedly had myself kicked off it. And now I'm getting the best of both worlds. Well, I am getting the best of both worlds, but it's not calculated. It was pure stupidity on my part."
Beyond America, however, there are people who dislike Franzen for different reasons. In a loopy section of his novel that forms a kind of fantasy-ballet diversion from the main events, Chip, failed academic and failing screenwriter, becomes involved with an internet-based financial scam based in Vilnius. The Vilnius of The Corrections is a gangster's paradise of teenage prostitutes, fraud, corruption and armed robbery. Although very funny, it is an account unburdened by research. Recently, looking up his own book on Amazon.com, he noticed that Lithuanian readers have begun posting snarly e-mails, in protest at his depiction of their homeland.
"I've not been to Lithuania," he says, "although the ambassador has now invited me to come and see for myself that they don't eat horse meat. The horse meat has really touched a nerve." Will he go? "Maybe at the end of October. I couldn't imagine going when the weather's nice. That would just take all the fun out of it. Little countries interest me, and they interest me because there's something comic to me about them." Let's hope that hated photograph is as unflattering as he suggests: the trip will probably go much better if nobody recognises him.
'The Corrections' is published by Fourth Estate, £17.99Reuse content