A New Literary History of America
Harvard University Press, $95 hb, 1,122 pp
Cynthia Ozick’s most recent collection of criticism, The Din in the Head (2006), contains a brief but engaging essay called ‘Highbrow Blues’. It begins with her musing about a gaffe made by Jonathan Franzen following the publication of The Corrections (2002). Oprah Winfrey had selected Franzen’s novel for her televised book club, which was popular enough to turn any work she chose into a bestseller, but Franzen was uncomfortable with her program’s folksiness. He felt that the club’s reputation for featuring works of middlebrow fiction did not fit with his literary ambitions and that an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show was not likely to enhance his credibility. ‘I feel,’ he explained, ‘like I’m solidly in the high-art literary tradition.’ Brickbats flew from all directions. But why, wonders Ozick, did Franzen’s remark seem so jejune?