In these times of upheaval and uncertainty it sure is comforting to know that in at least one small corner of American society nothing has changed. Given the opportunity, the literati can be as snotty, self-absorbed and self-righteous as ever. Last week one of the most prominent put on a public display of all these characteristics that had to be seen -- or read about in the papers -- to be believed.

The gentleman in question is Jonathan Franzen, of whom you may perhaps have heard. Until recently he was but one among many laboring in what he calls "the high-art literary tradition." He had published two novels that some reviewers admired -- yours truly, taking exception, called "Strong Motion" a "preachy, didactic homily," a "small orgy of sermonizing," a "tired anti-American screed masquerading as a novel" -- but neither was a smash commercial hit. Then a couple of months ago his third, "The Corrections," descended upon what seems to have been, however improbably, an eager public. It was reviewed extravagantly and shot immediately to the top of the fiction bestseller list; then -- even more improbably for a novel in "the high-art literary tradition" -- it was anointed by Oprah Winfrey as a selection of her book club.

All of which should have made Franzen the most happy fella imaginable. Even writers in "the high-art literary tradition" dream, in the privacy of their chambers, about commercial success such as is ordinarily enjoyed by the likes of Stephen King and Danielle Steel. Being chosen by Oprah Winfrey's book club is a lead-pipe-cinch guarantee of precisely that. Members of the club are so loyal and dutiful that sales of about 750,000 copies are practically guaranteed; to put that in perspective, consider that "The Corrections" shot to the top of the bestseller list with a first printing of 90,000.

How lucky can a guy get? Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Franzen's publisher, scrambled to put another 680,000 copies of "The Corrections" into print (as was reported last week in the New York Times), the kind of numbers that can relocate an author into the tract mansion of his choice on Easy Street. Franzen had to be thrilled. He had to be dancing on the ceiling, a{grv} la Fred Astaire, and singing in the rain, a{grv} la Gene Kelly, and building a stairway to paradise, a{grv} la George Gershwin. Right?

Wrong. In a move so stupid as to defy comprehension, Franzen did everything he could to take Oprah Winfrey's money and then run as far away from her as possible. First, when his publisher slapped "Oprah's Book Club" logos on the dust jackets of those hundreds of thousands of books rolling off the presses, Franzen whined that he was "uneasy with advertising on the front of a hardcover." Then the Times reported that some book buyers were spurning copies with the Oprah logo -- one reader, who apparently regards the jackets of the books she reads as Personal Statements, told the Times, "I don't want people to think that I have no idea about literature or that I sit home and watch TV all day" -- which seems to have served only to embolden Franzen.

Franzen was quoted in the Portland Oregonian that he had at first considered rejecting Winfrey's honor, since "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it." On National Public Radio, he whined some more about "this sense of split that I feel" between "the high-art literary tradition" and "entertaining books." As to Winfrey herself, Franzen peered down from his mountain and issued this pronunciamento: "She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and really fighting the good fight."

Winfrey, to her eternal credit, recognized that grudging, backhanded compliment for exactly what it was. She did not cancel "The Corrections" as a selection -- the lady has class, a quality apparently unknown to Franzen -- but said, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection," and then added this exquisite -- nay, perfect -- squelch: "It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict."

Yet -- here's the truly amazing part -- Franzen didn't recognize the squelch for what it was. He kept right on babbling. He told USA Today that he felt "awful" about what he'd done, and then topped even himself: "To find myself being in the position of giving offense to someone who's a hero -- not a hero of mine per se, but a hero in general -- I feel bad in a public-spirited way."

If that doesn't make you want to stand up and salute, maybe sing a few choruses of "God Bless America," then nothing ever will. Me, I've got this huge lump in my throat from thinking about this "public-spirited" practitioner of "the high-art literary tradition" slipping into his hair shirt because he did this "awful" thing to this "hero" . . . though, covering his flank on the high-art literary side, "not a hero of mine per se." Is this or is this not a great country?

All of which inevitably leads one to imagine, or hope, that Franzen's next book will be a work of nonfiction titled "The Fine Art of Self-Incrimination: How to Master and Practice It." First chapter: "Hoist With My Own Petard." Second: "My Foot's in My Mouth." Third: "The Joy of Ingratitude." Fourth: "A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted."

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.