Nkosi Ife Bandele

The Price of Freedom – Essay

I was aware of the history between the two, how Jonathan Franzen dissed Oprah Winfrey and her book club regarding his 2001 novel,The Corrections, and how in the end she rescinded her offer. Personally, I liked what Franzen said at the time: “I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it.” I thought of this position when I purchased a Toni Morrison novel (which I’d previously read) after Oprah placed hands on it, and noticed Oprah’s signature branded, in the form of a cover sticker, next to Morrison’s.   What can I say? I didn’t like having to be reminded of Oprah every time I continued my reading, and that’s the point of a logo, a brand, isn’t it?   I mean, that’s point of advertising your brand: you want the people to be always thinking of it.   And certainly “O” is brand, no doubt about that, as she puts her name on everything she’s selling: publishing, TV, film, lifestyle!

At the time, I wondered what Morrison made of her, and moreover I considered how Morrison, in general, thought of herself in relation to O.   Of course, both are African American women of a certain age, and of incomparable achievement, but are they about the same endeavor, I mean, are they about the same thing? It would be hard to argue that the Nobel Laureate Morrison isn’t within the “high art literary tradition” within which Franzen locates himself. Dubious lit-crit Stanley Crouch notwithstanding, Morrison’s serious ambition and sheer intelligence stand firmly beyond reproach.

As for O, what does she represent in her field as mainstream talk show host?   Is her success due to her elevation of the talk show?   Is that her goal? Where is she exactly since tumbling standard-bearer Phil Donahue? (Is she as high-minded as him, even?) To that end, one questions if she provides genuine enlightenment for millions, as held by her supporters, or if she’s, indeed, a shameless-peddler-of-crass-commercialism-via-pop-psychology?   That it? Ah, but these are not intended rhetorically, as I’m not really seeking answers here, but merely pointing out the debatability of the essential question, that is: Is O high art or crass commercialism? It’s debatable.

Now, here, I am not considering O, the philanthropist, who ironically-enough that same rather desperate-to-court-her-favor Crouch refers to as “The All-American Queen of Goodwill” (ha, ha, that’s a good one!), but rather“Brand O,” and goodwill or not, whether an artist should, or need, accept branding, anyone’s? Even the branding of persons whom we like?   Nice people? Benevolent masters?

Hmm-mm? You might argue that writers are branded every single time by Norton, Simon and Schuster, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (usually on the spine of their books), but if a reader is being honest, he or she rarely checks-in with the publishing brand; in fact, you might say the writer promotes, or validates, the publisher rather than vice-versa, so I don’t know about that argument.   And certainly there’s the matter of the multinational conglomerate masquerading as (“pop&pop”) bookseller, furthermore adopting the annoying habit of continually placing its name next to the Shakespeare’s of the world. And, yes, of course, the film adaptations brand the books with star faces (so much so that your reading imagination is never quite the same), and then, yeah, there’s the awards, which you might hold serve a similar purpose: Pulitzer, National Book, even the Nobel (as mentioned)…yadda, yadda, yadda, I get it.

Brands, brands, brands, that’s the USA way.   We like our brands.   We ‘trust’ our brands. Get over it, dude!

I’m over it, and still I question to what extent we should accept branding. On everything? Think about it: Why the hell should the company, the brand, the promoter, fucking O!, share the cover with the artist? Is promoting art on par with creating it?   Should we, then, also place the agent on the cover?   Why not the publicist?

Franzen held that “when a book is first published in hardcover in America the tradition is no advertising on the front of the dust jacket—that is the one moment to have your name and the title of your book on the cover,” and then went onto state, along another line, that though some of O’s book choices were good, that “she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe…,” and further after insisting upon her bad taste, he rather condescendingly offered that “she’s really smart” as if referring to a precocious child, or, perhaps more precisely, a person of limited intellect.   Even sycophant Stanley admits to her “mistakes, lapses of taste,” and “vulnerability to self-help jargon.”   Franzen, also, voices his concern about the “banal ascendancy of TV,” and that’s O in a nutshell, isn’t it?   She’s a TV person.   Nobody in his or her right mind thinks of her as a serious literary critic, or, for that matter, a good reader—analytical, sophisticated, discerning—as she’s more like your parent yelling at you to “go read a book!” instead of watching TV or playing games on your computer because ‘reading anything’ is better for you.

So what’s wrong with that, and can’t you see the irony, you idiot?

Well, nothing may be wrong with it, but, um: Why should her goddamn name be on your book’s cover?   As for the irony of her being a TV person encouraging reading, I wonder if that has to do with the typically U.S., simple-minded notion that you can do everything?   You can’t.   (As our great Grand Puba of Lit Crit, Harold Bloom, contends about reading the classics, it’s a “race against the clock.”)   Can’t do the canon and keep up with Snook and Flav or, for that matter, O. Furthermore, if you were a good reader, would you even care about any one them? Only a real idiot would!

And, yes, I know how it works, I do get it: O has a book club.   She chooses your book.   Because she has a considerable viewership, a potential readership for you, your publisher prints more copies of your book, knowing that your book will be in higher demand.   “Artists typically earn more than $3 a copy toward their advance and royalties.” Furthermore, your publisher puts way more effort than it would have otherwise because you are a much safer investment, that is, you will yield way more dough.  Inevitably, you yield way more dough. (Reports at the time approximated that O’s name on Franzen’s book would have been worth a cool two mil.)

‘kay, so you make money, everybody in and around you, such as your said publisher, make more money, and even O stands to make more money as you bring credibility to her brand, solidifying and potentially increasing her viewership because if you are, for example, Jonathan Franzen, you may also attract the ‘non-schmaltzy type’ because of your ‘high art literary tradition’ standing.   Got it!   So what’s the harm, asshole?   Everybody’s making money, everybody’s happy.   That’s the USA way, yahoo!

The harm: (1) you just don’t want her name next to yours on the cover of your book, damn! (2) you don’t want to appear to validate her ‘schmaltziness’, her ‘lapses in taste’, and any potential harm she may do (thus far, two sex scandals at her name-sake school), (3) you fear that multi-national conglomerates, even the ones with friendly “I know what’s best for you” faces, will eventually rule the entire world (as that beacon of high art literary tradition and integrity Milan Kundera states, “No escape for anyone anywhere!”), and thus by saying no to their brands, you are doing your small part to thwart that, ‘kay? Asswipe!

Anyway, the situation blew up in Franzen’s face because he was turned into, at the time, what most mainstream USA-ers, the so-called Whites and their multi-ethnic imitators, (and certainly the so-called liberals or so-called progressives), think that they hate, “a snob,” and lord knows they can’t stand being called that, even as they claim superiority over every other peoples on the planet.   Ha, the USA way! And though it does not seem to have been clearly, or openly, articulated anywhere at the time, Midwest cracker Franzen was white male snob snubbing good ole’ Mammy “Orpah,” and what could be worse? After all she’s been through, and all she’s done for you!

And that’s why it’s absolutely hysterical, nearly a decade later, to watch the snob in promoting his latest, ironically entitled Freedom, slumped over, taking it hard from Brand O, the snob pleading on the show that he was indeed not that but something called a “Midwestern egalitarian.” Huh?   (Even Brand O double-took on that one.) Now let’s assume that in addition to all those rather pathetic mainstreamers watching, some well-aware, so-called, black folks and our multi-ethnic imitators were watching, too, what do you think that that Midwestern-egala-what?-b.s. would mean to any one us?   I mean, we know all about Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and the subsequent and wholly self-interested viscous attacks on the prosperous Blacks, and, hey, haven’t the Midwestern egalitarians in Wisconsin all but finished off the unions?   So who dis cracker Franzen think he is, Nick Carraway?  (“And, by the way, John-boy, he’s full of it with that Midwest b.s., too!”) Meanwhile, the Midwestern egalitarian goes on putzing about, piling it on about how he likes Brand O (more than she likes him, even), and how Barack Obama’s his “hero,” and how he’s got black friends (oh, I’m just kidding with that one) with, like, NO CLUE!!!!! as to how condescending he’s being.

And, it’s funny, because at that moment Franzen is lot like his Freedom, naïve and totally missing the fucking point.   Again, what do you think conscious, multi-cultural folks think about some stupid ass white people, rich as shit, resources spilling out of their narrow asses, not knowing what to do with their freedom?   They sure as hell know what to do with all the money they accumulate through their sustained exploits (SEE AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ, LIBYA…? for today’s latest). And, so, why should anyone care if they’re morally or spiritually lost?   I mean, really!   “Yes, rich suburban, gentrifying, life actually stinks, and we won’t envy you.” That said, Franzen could learn a thing or two from Nick and Scotty in their assessment of Tom and Daisy. “Careless people,” those who “smash up things,” and then retreat into “the money of their vast carelessness” are never, ever, sympathetic.   Geez, did she even read his book?

Two final points: Since the beginning of the debate, Brand O has morphed into “OWN” (ha, ha!); on the one hand, a symbol of the historically disenfranchised Black’s ambition to be the owner; and on the other: I OWN YOU!, like any other multinational conglomerate, even the nice ones. As for Franzen and his Freedom, well, I happen to buy my copy at a favorite multinational conglomerate.   On the book’s cover was the store’s bull’s-eye along with its redundant name and percentage discount obscuring part of Franzen’s name; something about his National Book Award obscured another part of his name; and, last, a certain book club brand blocked the word “Free” in the title.   All you got was the “dom.”

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