12/31/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Being called the author of a masterpiece is what writers hope for," says Jonathan Franzen. "Then when it actually happens, you feel like people are going to hate you." He got the hate part right. But it wasn't the glowing reviews showered on The Corrections, Franzen's stab at the Great American Novel, that stirred ire—it was his dissing of the Great American Talk Show Host. Informed in August that his 568-page best-selling third novel had been chosen as Oprah
's 43rd Book Club selection, the boyishly bespectacled Franzen, 42, accepted the honor, then expressed doubts in interviews about having the Book Club's "corporate logo" on his book's jacket and about some of Oprah
's "schmaltzy" past picks. Miffed, she disinvited him from her show; mortified, he wrote her an apology. The literati turned the brouhaha into a spitefest. "What he's done is ugly and elitist," says Jennifer Weiner (whose 2001 novel Good in Bed didn't get the Oprah
nod). Franzen, who admits he "messed up," says he was "hurt by the antipathy of the literary community." But that's not uppermost in his mind. During the seven years it took him to write The Corrections, the story of a dysfunctional midwestern family with some similarities to his own ("The rarity," he says, "is the functional family"), Franzen often despaired of achieving his goal: combining ideas about the perils of modernity with rich characters and a zip-along plot. Winning the National Book Award for fiction last month eased those fears. Franzen, who will soon trade his Manhattan walk-up for a roomier pad to be shared with his writer girlfriend, Kathy Chetkovich, 43, only wishes his parents, both of whom died in the 1990s, could see him now. "They pushed me to do something big," he says. "I think they would be proud."