By Susan Schindehette
November 12, 2001 12:00 PM

On the afternoon of Aug. 31 Jonathan Franzen got the call that every writer dreams of. Make that almost every writer. Reaching him at his modest one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, Oprah Winfrey was on the line to tell him that The Corrections, his critically acclaimed novel about a dysfunctional American family, had been officially tapped as the 43rd selection of Oprah‘s Book Club, whose recommendations are broadcast to her nearly 7 million TV viewers.

“She introduced herself and said that she really, really loved the book and that the characters stayed with her for months afterwards,” recalls Franzen, 42. “The conversation lasted no more than two minutes. I called my girlfriend in California and it was like, ‘Oh my God.'”

But just weeks later, in the middle of a 16-city book tour, Franzen—whose novel hit The New York Times bestseller list just before Winfrey made the selection public on Sept. 24—was sounding considerably less giddy. On NPR’s Fresh Air, he reported that he had been interviewed by Oprah producers but had not yet sat for “the little coffee klatch.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer he deemed The Corrections “a hard book for that audience,” meaning Oprah‘s readers. In an interview on the Web site of a Portland, Ore., bookstore, he remarked that while Winfrey is “really smart” and “is fighting the good fight” by bringing books to a large audience, she also “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself.”

Winfrey got wind of Franzen’s slights, and on Oct. 22, a month after hailing The Corrections as “a work of art and sheer genius,” announced that Franzen was disinvited from her show. Her explanation: “He is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah‘s Book Club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.”

The war of polite words set the literary world abuzz. Why, other authors wondered, would Franzen, whose two prior novels, 1988’s The Twenty-Seventh City and 1992’s Strong Motion, together sold roughly 50,000 copies, object to such a potentially lucrative plug? Alumni of the five-year-old club include such luminaries as Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon) and Joyce Carol Oates (We Were the Mulvaneys), and an endorsement can translate into a breathtaking sales spike even for lesser-known authors. To some colleagues Franzen’s diss smacked not only of financial folly but of snobbery. “I was angry on behalf of the book club,” says author Chris Bohjalian, adding that sales of his 1997 Midwives jumped from 100,000 copies to 1.6 million after it became an Oprah pick. “And I was appalled as a reader who appreciates the incredible amount that Oprah Winfrey has done for books.”

Franzen’s discomfort with pop culture has been clear since 1996, when the Swarthmore-educated engineer’s son from Webster Groves, Mo., wrote an essay in Harper’s magazine decrying the downfall of literary fiction in the TV age. “He’s the poster boy for ‘highbrow fiction’ because of that,” says Elizabeth Taylor, president of the National Book Critics Circle, who wonders, “Why didn’t he just refuse to accept the invitation in the first place?”

Franzen has been having second thoughts himself. Last month he wrote a letter of apology to Winfrey. “I can only presume it was hurtful for her to read that I was anything but purely grateful,” he says. “I should have expressed myself simply and graciously. I messed up.”

Not that it has derailed his career. In fact, says Laurie Brown, director of marketing for Franzen’s publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the flap has bolstered sales: “This level of news activity works to keep him front and center in bookstores.” The Corrections has been optioned for film by producer Scott Rudin (The Wonder Boys) and is a finalist for the Nov. 14 National Book Awards. His publisher had already ordered up an additional print run of 680,000 copies, virtually all of which carry the Oprah Book Club logo, a symbol that, Franzen told the Portland Oregonian, smacks of “corporate ownership.”

Another regrettable choice of words, Franzen now concedes. “I’m sorry, and I wish we could have dinner,” he says of Winfrey. “Maybe not on TV.” But the media queen is all booked up. Reports her rep: “She’s moving on.”

Susan Schindehette

Diane Herbst in New York City and Lauren Comander in Chicago