I’ve been paying more attention to literary news in recent weeks.

When it comes to what qualifies as “literary news,” it is important to know that results may differ.  For the most part and like most news, a lot of literary news is actually politics.

Prior to the last few weeks, my exposure to literary news has been limited to whatever filtered through to my facebook feed and to discussions here on TNB.

I am a writer, to be sure, but I’m not a writer.  I’m not hooked up, tuned in, or latched on to the scene.  I barely know who writes for this site or other sites and which books they wrote.  I don’t read much contemporary fiction.  I don’t know what’s going on half the time.  Most of the time, I don’t care.

Of the controversy, news, drama, and shit-talking that has passed before me in recent weeks, one thing and one thing only has fascinated me:

James Franco.

The guy from the Spiderman movies.  The Green Goblin, Jr.–or Hobgoblin, technically, he should be, as my husband reminds me regularly.

The man playing Allen Ginsberg in a brand new fictionalized documentary about the obscenity trial over Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.”

The movie is called…Howl.

For those who are unaware, Franco is a young actor & Hollywood heartthrob with a sincere desire to be taken seriously.  As a writer.

He was accepted to the MFA program at Columbia amid much huffing and snorting from the respectable literary community.  He is currently a PhD candidate at Yale.  The man is said to be blessed with superhuman ambition & stamina.  He’s going to school so many places, it’s tough to keep track.

No matter where he’s going, however, everyone is convinced: Surely, he only got there because he’s James Franco.

But even James Franco knows he probably got there because he’s James Franco.

I discovered that he is well aware of who he is when I stumbled across this (expansive) article in a recent issue of the Advocate.

How many people will apply to 15 MFA programs and get accepted to 14?  Virtually none.  Even the most talented, most hyped, edgiest, flashiest among us will not go 14 for 15.  Contrary to what James would probably like to think, his high rate of acceptance is probably more proof that his name rather than his talent landed him where he is.

So there he is.

He’s James Franco, and he loves literature and writing, and he’s pretty famous, and he wants to be a writer, so he applied to MFA programs and got accepted (a bunch) and went to school.

And people loathe him for it.

That fucking James Franco.

I’m not sure what he did wrong.  I can’t imagine people honestly expected him to self-police the situation.  “I don’t deserve this.  Never mind.”  No aspiring writer would do that.

“He can’t be that bad,” I thought to myself.  “He seems like a reasonably intelligent person.  The lit-set is constantly sucking lemons about something.  This is just more kvetching.”

And it’s true.  In recent weeks, the people taking the most heat in the little corner of the literary community I’ve been exposed to all have one thing and one thing only in common:  They are all more famous than the people who are complaining about them.

Of course, this should be expected to a degree.  There will always be more to talk about with regard to well-known individuals, but this doesn’t explain the undercurrent of contempt.

There’s a Mayan tinge to the whole thing:  Resources are scarce, and the more of us there are–the harsher the climate turns, the more competition there is for basic things–the more aggressive and hostile our cultural rituals become.

So, in an effort to bolster my sense that envy was the culprit, I set out looking for Franco’s work.  He has published a short story in Esquire and at least one essay (that I could find) in a UCLA publication.

They are both…not great.

Particularly the nonfiction.  It’s rambling and conversational.  It is drowning in a wash of its own flotsam.  Something about watching gay sex while researching a role and how he’s James Franco and he may or may not be fucking with you, but he’s not; yeah he is.  No he’s not.  Oh, and here is a character sketch of himself.

It looks like a first draft.  It looks like copy & paste broke.  It looks like the delete button broke.  I have no idea what the uniting theme in the essay could possibly be.

The fiction is better, but it’s a worn path:  A couple of drug addicts in a car, riding around, doing drugs, being crazy, smoking cigarettes, thinking and talking about suicide so on and so forth.  It’s self-explicating and the dialogue is flat.  There are bright spots.  Whole paragraphs that are quite good.  But at the end of the day, it’s a piece of Beat mimicry.  All the elements of Beatdom (TM) and none of the soul.

I’m not a proponent of runaway relativity in literature.  There is such a thing as unfinished, unpolished or even just straight-up bad writing, and what I’ve seen qualifies as at least one of the above.


The more I thought about it–the more I plodded through these pieces–the more I felt sorry for the guy.  Most of us, in our relative (or total) obscurity, would not be able to get something that unfinished to print.

But because he’s James Franco, every single one of these initial forays into serious writing–every ill-conceived plot point or questionable metaphor or clunky, burdened sentence…every overwrought piece of poetry and all the other creative abominations that plague green writers–will have a buyer.  A publisher.

He will always have someone willing to trot out, in front of God and everybody, the most inept creative moments and unsightly growing pains of his nascent literary career.

There will be the flatterers and, of course, the peanut gallery.  The literati politicos. The bitter, toiling masses who do a pretty good job of making themselves look more like they’re choking on a maw of sour grapes than offering honest critique:  Those who take to their social networking accounts to snark and, in doing so, inadvertently lay bare their own frustrated neuroticisms about being writers in a world where writing is no longer considered particularly valuable.

Then again, this may be all that any of us have.  Writers are, traditionally (though certainly not universally), supportive, communal creatures at their cores and when left to their own devices, but when faced with a competitive business-and-marketing environment, sometimes no one stands in a writer’s way more effectively than other writers, united in their conviction that someone–anyone–deserves the attention more.  Either that, or the flattery of “support” becomes synonymous with networking.  The whole thing develops a slimy solipsistic sheen as people move around “supporting” each other to support themselves, and when all is said and done, even a vote of confidence or encouragement can no longer be trusted.

So who will convince James Franco to get better?  To grow as a writer?  Is there any hope for the guy at all?

The obvious answer is, “Who gives a fuck?  I’m sure he’ll be crying all the way to the bank.”

But I have a whole tote bag full of embarrassments of my own.  I’d suspect most of us do.  If not a tote bag, something like it.  Mercifully, at some point, most of us have had those pieces rejected by someone–some editor or publisher–who knew better than to expose it to the public or vice versa.

And we look back at those pieces later and scrunch our noses and are embarrassed for ourselves in front of ourselves and vow to never look at them again.  We self-flagellate and self-deprecate.  We titter nervously and kick the tote bag back under the bed.

But not James Franco.  He can’t.

That fucking James Franco. That poor James Franco.

In his interview with the Advocate, he said something that struck me–unexpectedly–as fairly poignant.

He said something to the effect of, “Short of using an alias, I’m taking my writing as seriously as I can.”

As he can.

He doesn’t even know if he can take himself seriously.  He’s doing the right things, as far as he knows.  He’s idolizing his canonical literary heroes.  He’s in an MFA & PhD program.  He’s doing his day job and writing and getting stuff published here and there.  Now he has a book deal.  He has a book deal that he doesn’t sound totally sure he deserves but that he is nevertheless excited about, as any of us would be.

By most writerly standards, he’s any young writer.  He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

He even wrote a middling Beat knock-off story, which I’m pretty sure is an official rite of passage for any serious writer nowadays.

He’s trying.

But try as he may, he’s still James fucking Franco, both to his readers and in his own head.  And, maybe most importantly, to the community and industry made up of people just like him, for people like him (at least at some level), and upon whom he will be, ultimately, dependent for the kind of validation he seems to want. There is a good chance that those politics, whether eager to promote or stifle him, will never allow him a fair showing or even a solid foothold from which to begin.

Maybe he should use an alias.

Count me among those who hope he pulls it off, in the long run.  He’s not capitalizing on his fame in an opportunistic way, as far as I can tell.  At the end of the day, he didn’t have to go through MFA and PhD programs to get published, but he’s doing it anyway.  He seems serious in the dire, awe-struck way most of us are or have been serious about our writing, and even for all his breaks, at the end of the day, the guy doesn’t seem quite able to catch a break.

So I raise my fist in solidarity with the me who hates my tote bag, with every writer who is making awful literature in an attempt to write something worth reading, and indeed, with James fucking Franco.  With all of us, really, as we negotiate the balance between good literature and marketability in a climate that encourages us to form tribes, make and break alliances, and, even under mundane circumstances, eat each other alive.


Update:  Since the time of writing, Franco has picked up the movie rights to TNB contributor & past featured author Stephen Elliott’s novel The Adderall Diaries, so we may at least say that Franco’s taste is well worthy of approval.  Also since time of writing, this review of Franco’s short story collection (it is curiously dated two days from now, which I assume corresponds to the release date of the book) appeared in the L.A. Times online.

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

141 responses to “In Defense of James Franco’s Nascent Literary Career”

  1. “Ketchup randomness.”

    I have a collection of such “embarrassing” pieces. I don’t deprecate it. I think it’s way better than Palo Alto, and I’m not embarrassed.

    His “art” installation culminated in footage of defecation.

    Heaven save us from “serious writer nowadays.”

    Franco wishes he could write something as honest, good, and exciting as The Adderall Diaries. That’s why he had to option it. I wonder if he’ll write the screenplay.

    • Becky Palapala says:



      “Ketchup randomness” was my least favorite, too. I cringed. I did.

      But come on. How many well-hailed art exhibitions have involved defecation? Many. He’s late to the game, but you can’t act like defecation art isn’t a THING. That kind of crap (pun!) was all the fuckin’ rage at one point. Art is inherently ridiculous.

      Heaven save us from “serious writer nowadays.”

      What does that even mean, Will? Aren’t YOU a serious writer? Or are you not serious? Should we not take you seriously?

      I’m saying Franco is trying to write something that good. Like, I don’t think that’s a matter of debate. I think he liked the book and wants to be a part of it. He’s doing that in a way that befits his situation. He’s using his clout to expose the world to a good book.

      What a DICK.

      Gosh. Yeah. Suddenly it’s all so clear.

      *eye roll*

      • Me? Heh.

        Isn’t it all way too serious to be taken seriously?

        He can try. He didn’t. I rolled my eyes at your post. “Oh, Becky, staking some claim some might read as slightly-antagonistic or anti-establishment. The one people don’t tend to agree with. Raising her fist for James Franco. She’s so, like, you know, the girl with the opinion actively at odds with others’.”

        You can take me seriously if you like. I have no control over that, I don’t think.

        He can try to write something that good. If he ever does, I’ll applaud him. Until then, I’ll withhold raising my fist.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          How’s that maw of sour grapes treating you, Will?

          Is it more lumpy or more stingy?

        • Aren’t sour grapes what we use to make wine?

          I like wine.

          Better than ketchup randomness.

          Smooth, full-bodied, and with a robustness surprising even to the most discerning oenophiles. You should try it sometime.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Wine gives me a headache.

        • Okay. But you admit early in the post that you don’t read much contemporary fiction. And that you “don’t care.”

          I guess it’s like, you don’t like or drink wine. It gives you headaches. You don’t read Food and Wine. You don’t purchase bottles.

          But you’re defending Arbor Mist white zinfandel?

          It doesn’t seem like you’re really trying to defend James Franco’s nascent literary career, which by the content of your post you note has a somewhat rocky foundation in the first place. You seem more to take umbrage with the fact that some of the people who read enough–and, often, write enough–contemporary fiction to care about it wish that in terms of his literary career, he would stick to acting, because, as you note, what you’ve seen of his writing qualifies as either unfinished or unpolished if not outright bad.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I don’t read much contemporary fiction.

          That doesn’t mean that I don’t read and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care what people are writing.

          What I “don’t care” about, in the post, is the scene, whatever that may mean. The networking. The business-social end of it.

          That doesn’t make commentary on writing and writers somehow “off limits” to me. It’s not a turf war. And it’s not your turf to try to shoo me (or Franco) from even if it were a turf war.

          If you want to go on a crusade against any writer who gets unfinished or bad work published, you’re going to be too busy to write. And plenty of people who do get subpar work published go on to be perfectly decent writers. I’ve had poems published that I’d really rather retract at this point. That’s how it goes. Should I stick to my day job, or am I allowed to keep trying?

          You gotta know–I mean, you have to be aware, at some level, that the only reason you find anything wrong with what he’s doing or find anything worth bitching about in it is that he’s famous. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with what he’s doing. The guy has done nothing wrong. If he proves to be untalented, then he is untalented. But God knows, he would not be alone among writers in that.

        • I have been glib. I’m going to try to correct that.

          First, apologies. Misunderstood you. You wrote: “I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I don’t know what’s going on half the time. Most of the time, I don’t care.” I had thought you meant you don’t know what’s going on in contemporary fiction, and I figured you didn’t read much contemporary fiction because you didn’t care for it and it’s not to your tastes. So misunderstanding there.

          To address a new point in this most recent response, I hadn’t meant to imply I thought commentary on writing and writers was “off limits” to you. In regard to commentary, I’ll make the point that often times some commentary can be more valuable than others. For example, when I watch a political debate, when I want insight or commentary concerning it, I would generally seek out any made by someone qualified to offer such commentary. What are qualifications? Well, for example, I wouldn’t much care about the commentary of someone who didn’t know much about politics. To be hyperbolic, I wouldn’t ask a botanist for commentary concerning constitutional law, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t ask that a botanist refrain from making that commentary.

          Now, I’m not saying that you’re as qualified to comment on Franco, writing, and publishing as a botanist is to comment about constitutional law. Like I said, I was being hyperbolic. But I think my point there, as above–which I might not have made well–is that when you opened this with a qualifier that you don’t read much contemporary fiction, my reaction was to wonder why I should value your commentary on it, or the argument you presented. And I think a defense counts as something of an argument.

          I want to clarify with regard to Franco. Because the situation is, I think, far more complicated than my just being against him because he’s famous, which I don’t think is really true. I’m not sure I’m actually against him, in fact.

          What I’m against, on the other hand, is something I think Franco–and Snooki, and Paris Hilton–is actually symptomatic of with regard to the publishing industry in general and the public’s perception thereof. Publication has often been regarded as a signifier of quality in terms of literary endeavor, and as such, agents, editors, and publishers have often posited their position as akin to “gatekeepers.” The general rule of thumb is that many literary agents reject outright more than 90% of the queries they receive–that’s the queries, not actual manuscripts. So even a great manuscript may never get notice simply because an author can’t compose a query letter.

          Before I digress too much, though, “gatekeeping” is problematic. Some people might think some gates are more secure than others–literary quality being, as it is, somewhat subjective in terms of taste and execution. The idealistic notion is that publishing is, at its heart, a business whose model is making revenue by publishing good books, but sometimes that making revenue becomes more important than publishing good books (for varying definitions of “good”–is a good book simply one that sold a bunch of copies? In a business sense, perhaps. But are we really just talking about business?). Will Palo Alto sell a lot of copies? Probably. Whoever bought it (I don’t know off the top of my head) is obviously inspiring controversy, and people are obviously talking about it.

          The main problem, as I see it, is that even you, a person who admits she doesn’t read much contemporary fiction, calls it unfinished, unpolished, or even just straight-up bad. Now, you’re not a lay-person. You contribute well thought-out, thoroughly revised, and generally thought provoking non-fiction to this very site, but you’re not, in a credentialed and/or professional sense, really in the publishing industry, though you contribute to it. You’re not an agent, or an editor (I’d say you’re not a publisher, but the definition thereof is changing. You clicked “publish” to post this essay, after all. So you are, in effect, publishing…).

          Going back, those agents and editors are supposed to be credentialed, or discerning. They are, after all, keeping those gates. Making sure that what is published is good, or at least achieves a certain minimum standard.

          Except you see that what they are letting through is not up to that standard. Even you see that it is unfinished or unpolished, and potentially bad.

          As I see it, that’s a problem. Cultural traditions consider publication an honor. Being an author is a position of privilege in some ways. Except it’s, by this post’s position, actually not. When unfinished or unpolished–and perhaps outright bad–work is getting published, it seems that those keepers are asleep at the gate.

          And the ultimate point is that must be acknowledged. When people like Sarah Palin, James Franco, Sarah Silverman, Paris Hilton, and Snooki are getting published, those gates that used to mean quite a lot can’t really anymore.

          And for the record, and totally on the topic of this post, I actually will applaud Franco for dedicating himself to it and trying. I think his stories are crap so far, but like you, I thought they were merely unfinished and unpolished. His Esquire story in particular read like a first draft one might bring in to a writing workshop; some potential, certainly, but not actually finished. Wasn’t it the job of Esquire‘s fiction editor to recognize it as such and reject it–especially when even someone with no formal qualification in publishing recognizes it as unfinished or unpolished, and potentially bad? I think Franco has potential as a writer, and might one day actually be good, but isn’t it the publishing industry’s job to filter out the chaff and publish books that are polished? I think Hemingway said “Fuck ’em all. Let ’em think you were born knowing how to write.” Because part of the point is not showing readers the nascent process, isn’t it? Is that just me? I guess I just think too highly of my potential readers to charge them for reading a draft I don’t consider final.

          Now maybe Franco didn’t actually recognize it as unfinished or unpolished, but shouldn’t someone have? Shouldn’t someone have said, “You know, kid, you got a lot of potential, but you’re not yet as good at writing as you are at acting. Keep working, keep writing, and then come back in a few years and we’ll see how much better your fiction’s gotten.”

        • As a postscript, I also want to note that I’m also not sure it’s the fame if only because Hugh Laurie’s The Gunseller is one of the most terrific books I ever read, even if it did fall apart in the third act (as many novels tend to).

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, let’s clear one thing up because it seems to be recurring. Just because I don’t read much contemporary fiction doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about writing and books and literature and what’s unpolished or unfinished. All it means is that I prefer something other than contemporary fiction. Like, for example, early-to-mid 20th century modernists and poetry.

          The notion that I am somehow unqualified to have an opinion on the matter is so absurd, this is last I’m going to entertain it: My argument is coherent and valid. If you’re suggesting that who I am or qualities I possess or things I do render my argument invalid, that’s textbook ad hominem, and by definition, a logical fallacy.

          How in the hell an MFA-carrying PhD candidate at Yale is the same as Paris Hilton, Sarah Palin, or Snooki is something you’re going to have to explain to me. I mean, you can have a conversation with James Franco about literary theory, about the act of writing, of revising, of going through the creative process, regardless of what you think of his results. I’m not sure Snooki even knows how to read. The comparison, even if Franco is untalented, which I think remains to be seen, is incomprehensible.

          Is it the editor’s job to say those things? Yes. It’s also the editor’s job to make money, to run stories and features that will attract readers, etc. Esquire is hardly the New Yorker; I’m not sure it IS Esquire’s job to police the quality of literature in print in that regard.

          That said, amateur and beginning writers are published all the time. I see stuff I think is junk regularly, in actual literary publications, coming from perfect nobodies. There is nothing super-exceptional about Franco’s situation except that we know about it.

          Somebody SHOULD say “come back when you’ve got this cleaned up.” I said that Will. Right in the piece. I worried that he would suffer a lack of that kind of guidance, didn’t I. I did.

          In any case, it’s not Franco’s fault. If you don’t think it’s Franco’s fault, if your problem is with the editors, the publications, the agents, fine. We have nothing to argue about. Direct your contempt at them.

        • I think my position is that the fact that Franco’s writing is, so far, unpolished or unfinished–and perhaps bad–renders your argument invalid.

          I mean, yeah, I guess, good for James Franco for taking advantage of the system.

          And you’re not unqualified to have an opinion, certainly. No one is unqualified to have an opinion. That’s not what I said.

          If I needed an opinion about cars, I’d go to a mechanic. If I required an opinion about my health, I’d go to a doctor. Sometimes, by virtue of qualification, credential, experience, or education, one might value one opinion over another. That was the point I was making. Your argument here is certainly coherent, but I’ve found others more valid. Sometimes by virtue of the fact of possession of advanced degrees or professional experience in the publishing industry.

          Esquire is actually well-known for high quality journalism. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” as an example. High-quality fiction, too. I’m pretty sure they published stuff by Mailer. I’m also pretty sure that when Fitzgerald said that the mark of genius is the ability to hold in one’s mind two opposing opinions, he said it in Esquire.

          I didn’t see you say “Come back when you’ve got this cleaned up.” In fact, I did a Ctrl+F and my stating it was the first time it was said. You also didn’t once use the word “guidance.” Nor “suffer.” So maybe you think you said a few things you actually didn’t, and meant some things you didn’t actually say?

          You don’t comprehend the comparison of Franco to Palin, Hilton, and Snooki? Really? Even when they all have writing of questionable quality attached to their name? I mean, the only difference, really, is that Franco wrote it himself. Is that better or worse? Hell, written as they were by ghost authors, Palin’s or Hilton’s book might actually be more technically finished or polished than Franco’s.

          Finally, the fact that there’s nothing super-exceptional about Franco’s case except that we know about it might be the most damning aspect of the entire situation. Whether it’s junk from James Franco or junk from perfect nobodies, sounds like there’s a lot of junk about. I just think that’s a problem, and I think raising your fist to Franco’s unfinished or unpolished writing is like raising your fist to mediocrity. I mean, it’s really nice you’re so supportive.

          Out of curiosity, do you plan to buy or read his book?

        • Oh, and I think ad hominem would be “You’re wrong because you’re a bad person and you smell,” not “I question your opinion in this matter because I value, rather, the commentary of persons with more education and/or experience concerning the publishing industry.” While who one is doesn’t render an argument invalid, one’s qualifications, education, and experience might lend greater credibility/authority to any argument. I tell my students this when they are making citations in their papers; always make clear to readers what makes any source an authority on the matter at hand.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Will, how does my opinion of the quality of the work change his right to be writing, to pursue writing, and not to, as you suggested, “stick to acting?” My argument is that James Franco has just as much right to be writing and pursuing other interests as anyone and that the attitude that he’s just another celebrity hack is profoundly complicated by the fact that, by all reasonable gauges, the man is making every effort to learn, to practice, to go about the business of being a writer in a serious way, just like any writer would.

          As a writer, it is his job to try to get things published. If you don’t like that people are allowing it, you should take it up with them. He’s doing nothing wrong. That is my argument.

          You’ve got one hell of a chip on your shoulder about this. There’s something personal going on here, but I can’t tell if it’s Franco or your own career or me or all of the above that you’ve got a problem with. Whatever it is, you’d better come out with it, or this conversation is going to be over in a hurry.

          I skewered his story and especially his nonfiction. I said it shouldn’t be published. What I raised my fist to was his willingness–and right–to try. To try and to do it right as best he can given his particular lot, which is all any of us are trying to do and certainly more than most celebrities do. That is what I wrote. I don’t know what you think you read. No one else seemed to have any trouble picking up what I was throwing down.

          It’s not curiosity; it’s a loaded question and a poorly disguised one, but I’ll answer it anyway. No. I don’t plan to buy or read his book.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          No part of my argument is reliant on intimate or insider knowledge of the publishing industry, Will.

          Not one iota. It is a purely humanist assertion. The man has every right to be doing what he is doing and there is no reason why he should be crucified for trying. Period.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I brought up Paris Hilton so maybe that’s my fault. It wasn’t related directly to this conversation. But it’s an important consideration for me because of the gatekeeper argument. I think it would be great if agents and editors were only concerned about literature and a legacy of great writers, but unfortunately this is not the case anymore. That sucks. But it’s the world we live in, and if we want to be successful as writers in this (newish) world, we have to adapt to the environment. Worrying about Mr. Franco or Ms. Hilton or anyone else is not adapting. The only thing we can control is our own efforts.

          I remember when I was submitting manuscripts, I used to point to terrible published books as why it was such a travesty that I couldn’t get an agent. I’m better than this loser, I thought, therefore I should be published. That may be true or not, but it doesn’t help me be successful. In the end it’s just whining. I mean if you want to whine to yourself or your friends but you keep trying to be successful, then great. If you whine and throw up your hands and give up, that’s not productive, and doesn’t bring you any closer to success.

          Ultimately Becky’s point has more to do with literary credibility and not simply getting published, but to me the discussion also includes who is vetting whom, and how much it really matters if “unqualified” people have success. And if those people are “stealing” publication slots that other, better writers deserve. They most assuredly are taking up some of those spots, but most of those books are likely to make more money than a first time, no-name author, so this practice isn’t going to stop.

          The rest of us have to figure out how to navigate these waters and find a way to have success within them. Even if you circumvent the system, you still have to figure out how to reach the reading public, and I’m not sure many authors are going to have much luck doing this without the clout of a traditional publisher.

        • Richard demonstrates part of the issue at hand. “Adapting to the environment” becomes, later, “circumventing the system.”

          It would be really interesting if we based “literary credibility” on quality of work as opposed to quantity published (or sold). Would that it were.

          I’m glad you raised your fist to Franco’s willingness to -try-, Becky. I think it just struck me as interesting that it took Franco to raise your fist when you know so many other people trying, as well. Then again, it’s also interesting that raising your fist does not extend to reaching into your pocketbook.

          Because I think you know, as well as anyone: he’s just not that good a writer.


          Have fun keeping your fist raised. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go storm a castle. I was mostly dead a little while ago, but I’ve got a holocaust cloak on my side and true love as my cause (not to be confused with a good mutton, lettuce, and tomato).

          “Don’t rush me, sonny. You rush miracles, you get rotten miracles.”

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Will, you are out of your mind. What did I say? In my last paragraph?

          Did you even read the piece? Honestly. I’m having my doubts here, buddy.

          “So I raise my fist in solidarity…with all of us, really, as we negotiate the balance between good literature and marketability in a climate that encourages us to form tribes, make and break alliances, and, even under mundane circumstances, eat each other alive.”

          That’s the conclusion. The SUMMARY. That is what it is ABOUT.

          It isn’t a matter of supporting Franco OR you. No one has to choose. No such dichotomy exists. None. It’s a figment of your imagination. And this territorialism you’re up to is EXACTLY the kind of cannibalism I’m talking about. Thank you, really, for illustrating it so clearly.

          Money? Is that what this is about? Holy shit, man. Yeah. That means we’re friends. If I send money. Jesus. And what if I’d said I would buy Franco’s book? Then I’d be a bad human being for sending money to the rich guy and not the little guy. I never had a chance and I knew it. You are piece of work lately, Dude.


          I don’t know if it’s even literary credibility so much as literary integrity. Writer talent operates on a continuum. Whether one believes that talent is something you’re born with or something you craft or both, some people are simply better at writing than others. That’s a reality. So the quality of the end result is, in a way, irrelevant with regard to integrity. Writers, published and unpublished, are more talented or less talented and that’s that. It is, to some degree, out of people’s control.

          What people do have control over, what indicates, to me, a level of writerly integrity, is doing the work and the learning and the reading and exercising the intellectual curiosity that might improve writing. Franco seems to be doing that. Potentially better or more so than a great many of us. Hence, he has what I would consider integrity.

          Whether the people who made the decision to publish his middling work have integrity in their respective professions is a separate issue entirely. I suppose it would depend on what their beliefs about the purpose of their jobs are. But, for his part in the process, there’s no reason why Franco, personally, should be held in contempt.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I guess I didn’t write that clearly, Will. Adapting to the environment is what I believe one SHOULD do. Circumventing the system is what I believe one should NOT attempt to do, unless that person believes they have created a work of such singular genius and groundbreaking form that the current method of publishing books cannot conceivably accommodate it.

          Publishing a manuscript yourself that was rejected by a number of reputable agents or houses is not a groundbreaking way to find a new audience. It’s throwing your hands in the air and giving up on real success. It’s a great way to appease your small audience of believers but not a way to believably break out into the book selling world.

          That being said, it has happened. The Celestine Prophecy circumvented the model. House of Leaves also did to some degree. It can happen. But in my opinion your manuscript must either deliver a significant message or introduce groundbreaking form if you want it to be successful in this way. Otherwise, keep writing until you produce something so good that any publisher would be stupid not to buy it.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          The Celestine Prophecy! I read that!

          See? I read contemporary fiction. In 1995.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          The question of who is qualified to comment on the matter is a good one. Especially because the answer is: I am.


          My post-graduate study was Publishing and Editing. And I totally graduated. Academia for the win!

          The people getting uppity about Franco seem to be forgetting the fact that publishing is a business like any other. Sure, there’s the question of whither art? but… Franco’s gonna sell shit. He’ll sell books, and magazines, and drive popularity for websites – because of who he is, he’s a value add.

          It’s an important qualifier to remember, regardless of artistic merit.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          *crosses arms*

          Well, Will?

          Whither thou goest now?

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Which isn’t to say artistic merit isn’t important.

          But people gotta eat, yo.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Now I’m thinking about this when I should be doing my Spanish homework.

          It would seem as if Franco the commercial property is committing himself to a level of artistic work in his studies and exertions, and, despite his lack of artistic talent, is receiving both artistic and commercial reward.

          So the only problem, really, is that he’s not that good.

          I mean, what if he was actually a really good writer? Would people still complain?


          What an interesting cat you’ve dropped among the pigeons, Becky.

        • I can’t speak for others, Simon, but I wouldn’t complain if he were a really good writer. I’m always quick to recommend Hugh Laurie’s The Gun-Seller, for example. It’s a terrific book. So’s Heat Wave, the media tie-in to the Nathan Fillion Castle show. Really well written books.

          Can’t one adapt to the environment include circumventing the system, Richard? I mean, the system was basically put in place by publishers, who sometimes seem to know less about business and its models and practices than one would actually hope.

          I don’t think any part of my argument has been about supporting me, specifically, Becky. Especially given that you have been a collegial to me over the years. Nothing about anything I’ve said has involved me or my writing. One could argue, I suppose, that it’s part of the prism through which I view everything, including the Franco situation.

          I’m with Simon, actually. I know Franco’s a good get. I’d wager Palo Alto will sell a ton of books to people familiar enough with contemporary fiction to know the genre pretty well and Franco’s place in it, as well as to many people who wouldn’t know DeLillo from Franzen but know that guy from Freaks and Geeks and Spider-Man 3.

          In other words, that publisher will sell a lot of copies of books of writing that seems to even an untrained eye either unfinished or unpolished and maybe outright bad. Like Jewel. Jewel probably sold a ton of copies of A Night Without Armor to people who don’t know who Billy Collins and Seamus Haney are. Heck, I got one for Christmas that year. Jewel’s hot.

          Interestingly, it looks like Palo Alto‘s gotten pretty middling reviews but rather breathless blurbs. I wonder if that’s shrewd on the blurbers’ part. Like, Gary Shteyngart gave it a really good one. I wonder if the blurbs will have the reverse effect to normal: people will pick up Palo Alto and then, later, consider reading books by the blurbers. I’m glad I was never asked, because that would have presented an interesting dilemma: do I be honest and say that the stories show potential but could have used some better revising and editing before publication, or do I go breathless just to get my name on the cover of Franco’s book?

          Hypocrite or shrewd businessman?

          Tomato, tomato?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Will, are you calling me an untrained eye?

          I mean, this point has passed a few times and I haven’t said much about it, but you just keep hammering at it. My lack of expertise, how “even I” think it’s unfinished.

          There’s some passive aggressive shit going on here. Do you have something you’d like to say about my competence as a writer, a reader, an editor? Perhaps you have something you’d like to assert about your own expertise?

          I can’t imagine you actually believe that just because a person doesn’t read much new fiction, s/he can’t read. There is no difference between a book written yesterday and a book written 70 years ago. All the same rules apply.

          Insulting me, repeatedly, in my own piece is no way to defend your position, and I’m done fucking listening to it.

        • dwoz says:

          Becky, I like you, I agree with you,

          ….but you invite such responses.

          Heat + kitchen.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          dwoz, we were getting along so well. There’s no reason or need for you to be inserting yourself here, unless you’re just jealous there’s a fight happening that you’re not a part of.

          I’ve known Will for a long time, and you don’t know the half of what’s going on here, so just tend your own garden.

        • I said up above I wouldn’t exactly call you a lay-person. Still, I don’t think you have as much training or expertise as, say, Esquire‘s fiction editor, or whoever bought Palo Alto at Scribner. They’re editors at major, corporate publishers, and have been for years. Perhaps decades. Those guys (or women, I’m not sure) are paid to choose fiction for their publications. Selectively. They’re ostensibly paid to reject unfinished, unpolished writing.

          I never said just because a person doesn’t read new fiction she can’t read. Ever.

          I think you’re reading into my comments stuff I’m not actually writing. Things like that it’s personal, or that it’s about Franco’s fame, or other such.

          You’re very competent as a writer. You seem mostly competent as a reader even if it seems like you’re continually misreading my responses. I know nothing about your abilities as an editor, so I wouldn’t make a claim there.

          On that note, out for the day. Maybe even storming a castle!

        • Slipped, but must add, shit, I don’t think even I know half of what’s going on here.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Such. B.S. and backtracking.

          You get nakedly antagonistic, nakedly personal, and then say you meant nothing by it. That it was misread. I know a little something about that strategy, Will. You can’t con a con.

          Yes. Go. Out. Have fun.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Make no mistake, Will. Blurbs are almost all about business. Who gets asked, where one appears, who chooses to blurb versus who doesn’t. It’s totally calculated. There was a particular author I wanted to contact about blurbing one of my novels, and my editor explained even if I convinced him to do it, it might not go on the book because said author was not considered influential among my audience.

          Which is a whole other topic because the people who most seem to enjoy my books (from emails, reviews, comments from friends) are not always among who was considered my possible audience. When I read the sci-fi blog site reviews, the complaint that crops up most is “not science-y enough” and “too much romance.” Whereas people who read mainstream fiction always seem surprised and tell me, “This isn’t sci-fi. Thank goodness.”

          I probably sound too holier-than-thou in these comments than I mean to. I get frustrated like anyone does. What mystifies me are authors aspiring to publication who come to a well-trafficked web site like this, knowing full well Google can easily alert readers to our comments–and probably many stakeholders are reading the posts even without the aid of Google–and then proceed to skewer publishers and publishing. I’m not saying in many cases the system doesn’t need skewering. Upheaval is occurring for a reason.

          I’m also not trying to attract any publishing bees with honey, because my struggle is no longer with finding representation or a publisher but selling actual books. Selling books in numbers significant enough to keep me in print and encourage the publication of further books. Which means, at a minimum, numbers in the tens of thousands. And hopefully much more. Accomplishing this goal lies somewhere between my publisher and me, but it’s much more on my side than I believed when I signed my first contract. That’s not a bad or good thing. It’s just the situation. I did not understand this very well when I was first published. My attempts to reposition myself are what led me to MySpace, which led me to Zoe, which led me to Brad and TNB. I certainly wish I had thought of TNB instead of Brad, but I didn’t. However, I still enjoy marketing benefits by being here. This web site is in a way adapting to the system. I don’t think it is necessarily circumventing it. Yes, TNB has its own imprint now, and the site is doing many innovative things, but I would imagine having created TNB and helping it evolve into a relevant force in publishing would not cause Brad to turn down a nice contract for his next book. And it certainly has not hurt his chances to receive such a contract.

          I guess what I’m saying is the frustration is understandable, and anyone who isn’t a literary darling or a commercial star feels it to some degree. Maybe all of us do. Shaping that frustration into motivation and hard work is a good thing. But if the frustration leads you down a different path, like assuming the gatekeepers don’t know what they’re doing, telling the world, and then taking matters into your own hands…well, that might work. I’m not saying it can’t. But if I were a betting man, you know where I would put my money.

        • One thing I wonder, Richard, is whether “aspiring to publication” is worthwhile. We know that publishing isn’t about literary quality. It’s about selling books. It’s a business, right? Except it’s pretty obvious selling books isn’t about literary quality, either, and publishers have little to do with selling a lot of books. At least here, really, all Scribner is doing is printing a bunch of books by James Franco. They’re not going to be bought because they’re good; they’re going to be bought because James Franco’s name’s on them, and that’s because he’s an actor, not a writer. Scribner doesn’t have to market Franco; he’s Franco. Ditto Jewel and Snooki and Paris and the Sarahs.

          Aspiring to publication? Publishing isn’t hard. Getting in front of eyeballs is the important part. Do corporate publishers facilitate that, or do many simply piggyback on authors already in front of eyeballs? Is this why so many agents and editors demand writers have platforms, and if we have platforms, and get in front of lots of eyeballs, what do we need publishers for, anyway?

          It seems like the books that sell the most copies are the ones publishers don’t have to work too hard to market, anyway.

          And isn’t an advance against royalties pretty much nothing more than a bet, on the part of both author and publisher? Ultimately, isn’t the idea of a six-figure advance both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          It seems like the books that sell the most copies are the ones publishers don’t have to work too hard to market, anyway.

          Aren’t such books what afford publishers the time and energy to market lesser-known authors and their work? I, publishing ignoramus and all, remember at least this much from any number of discussions on the matter.

          I mean, you’re saying the publishers don’t press a big-name book like Franco’s. People will just buy it because he’s famous for other reasons.

          Maybe you should turn your disapproval to the reading public? That seems to be where this trail of blame is leading. Doesn’t appear to lie with Franco. Though the publishers are publishing the book, they’re not really pressing it or coercing anyone to buy it. The fact that they don’t have to–above and beyond profit–seems to be part of the business model. If they didn’t publish the Francos of the world, they couldn’t really publish the Richards or Wills of the world, either. Arguably, however circuitously, they publish guys like Franco in the interest of publishing little guys. Or at least to little guys’ benefit. Conundrum.

          Sounds like the blame rests soley with the book-buyers of the world. Publishing behavior seems to be a result of their tastes, not vice versa. As Mark mentions below. It’s symptomatic of more than some kind of moral or ethical corruption in publishing (if it’s symptomatic of that at all).

          But it would be a bad idea for an author to go around calling his potential readership ignorant or accusing them of having pedestrian taste/intellect. So it gets ugly.

          We could look elsewhere. We could continue following the slope to the slippery part and blame Hollywood, the general media, and standards of beauty for the fact that Franco is famous at all, but at least in his case, there appears to be some sentiment that he has toiled away long and hard at that craft (and whaddya know, even went to school for it), that his acting chops are under-appreciated, and that he very much deserves his fame.

          Gosh. This might be complicated. *mock shock*

        • “Aren’t such books what afford publishers the time and energy to market lesser-known authors and their work?”

          I think this is the general claim, yes, but I’ve seen little actual evidence of it. Consider, as a for example, a literary agent. Agents claim their workload is already stupendous, right? It’s already so bad that many no longer even bother responding to queries, preferring instead a “If you don’t hear from me, it’s a rejection.” Because they have to do real agent work with actual already clients, right? So if an agent picks up a hot, young actor whose book is guaranteed to sell, and probably whose stories will be optioned, and who will attract lots of attention and offers, do you think that agent will have more or less time to pick up a lesser-known client?

          “If they didn’t publish the Francos of the world, they couldn’t really publish the Richards or Wills of the world, either.”

          Er. But they’re not.

          I mean, I get the claim that doing a high-profile project allows a passion project. Like when Matt Damon does a Bourne movie so he can do, like, The Informant!, or George Clooney does a new Ocean’s installment so he can direct Good Night, and Good Luck. I’m not sure it really works that way, in publishing, or if it’s just a happy fiction.

          “Sounds like the blame rests soley with the book-buyers of the world. Publishing behavior seems to be a result of their tastes, not vice versa.”

          I’m not sure of that. I agreed with Mark’s first comment, concerning Franco’s associates and the editor in question, but I’m less inclined to paint culture so broadly as vapid and shallow. Me, personally, I think that’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum: do publishers buy bad books because that’s what readers buy, or do readers buy bad books because that’s what publishers publish? I stand fast in the belief that every book purchase comes with some amount of hope on the reader’s end. That every time readers plunk down hard-earned cash for dead wood pulp, they do so hoping to fall in love. They do so hoping that this book will touch them, that some turn of phrase will resonate with them, that some theme will inspire them. They do so hoping that each book they purchase–and most don’t purchase many, I don’t think. I think most people read one book per year, with some few heavier readers edging that number higher–will transport them.

          Which I think may be the real tragedy here. I feel bad for every reader who’s going to buy Franco’s book hoping for good stories from that dude from Freaks and Geeks but who is going to instead find little more than ketchup randomness. And you’re right, that’s not Franco’s fault. It’s not Franco’s fault his writing is not good enough, nor that his book is going to let them down. You’re right that the boy’s trying, and good on him for doing so. I hope someday he writes a book that won’t let that hypothetical hopeful reader down.

          And really, we agree, here. My problem isn’t with you, or Franco, despite what you have perceived as naked hostility, which wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry if I was brash. Perhaps I should have tempered my responses, as I hadn’t meant to offend. I’m sorry I did, Becky.

          The real tragedy is all those hypothetical hopeful readers Franco’s ketchup randomness is going to let down because some publisher cared more about easy money than good writing. The real tragedy is that the only reason Franco is an exception is the reason you’re right; at least he’s trying, which is more than one can say about the “writers” who feed the monster.

          I could be wrong, here. Maybe the reading public really doesn’t care. Maybe readers don’t hope for all that. Maybe books are just books, just a distraction, just an escape. Maybe Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown and Paris Hilton and Snooki got it right; maybe it’s all shimmery vampires and quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo and fake tans.

          Maybe I should go work on my abs.

          I don’t know. I just know that I sit down every day with only one hope: to not let that hypothetical hopeful reader down. Maybe Franco does, too. Maybe the only reason his book’s coming out is because somebody else fell asleep at his job, and you’re right, that’s not Franco’s fault. Who wouldn’t take the advance and the marketing campaign, if offered? Who wouldn’t attend the graduate programs, if accepted?

          I think the only real difference of opinion we have here, Becky, is that you’re willing to reward effort. I’ve never been the sort to give someone an A for effort, only a C for result. Unless, of course, the results warrant an A. I mean, I aim at fairness.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Er. But they’re not.


          There are any number of TNB authors who are published by these people. (Del Rey, a Random House imprint, is Richard’s, Simon & Schuster is Brad’s, and the list goes on and on).

          I’m sure some TNB author (featured or contributor) is published under the Scribner imprint (it’s an imprint of Simon & Schuster, btw), just like Franco is.

          Regardless of the author in question, the point is, and it has been made a zillion times: For every Franco or Franzen, there are tens–maybe hundreds–of perfectly talented average Joes/Janes (average, at least, insofar as they are not celebrities or uber-famous authors already and, at the very least, weren’t uber-famous authors when their first book came out) who are writing or will get their publication starts under the same giant publishing families of imprints. Those are the people sitting in the majority of the available authors’ seats. Snooki will “write” one book and vanish. Same with most of the celebrity types. It’s doesn’t seem quite worth getting bent out of shape about, in the long run. Most will not have multi-book deals. Those generally aren’t the positions they occupy.

          This idea that publishers are only publishing Snookis and Francos to the exclusion of upstart or lesser-known, non-celebrity writers strikes me as all but a total fabrication. Dissecting it, though, would involve a pretty drawn-out conversation about who is or isn’t a celebrity, who is an average Joe, whose work is “quality” enough to be deserving, and so on–a quagmire I’m not sure it’s worth getting into. Suffice it to say I am of the gut feeling that there are many more Average Joes than there are James Francos publishing work under those imprints, and they are the ones sitting in the seats you or any corporate-publication-seeking author really wants.

          Now, I don’t know. Maybe the celebrities of the world are taking ever more seats. Or maybe the fact that there are so many people vying for those seats in recent years just makes it feel that way. I suspect the latter, potentially some combination of the two.

  2. Tawni says:

    Haha. My “tote bag full of embarrassments” was a cheap steamer trunk bought for twenty bucks at Wal-Mart. It was loaded with every diary, poem and story I’d written since childhood when it burned to ashes, along with the house I was living in at the time. Only the metal lock from the front of the trunk was left, found resting sadly in a puddle of firehose water in the now-exposed crawl space under the house. When the firemen showed it to me, I was puzzled, then heartbroken when I realized what it was. Now that I’m older, I think the fire was probably a blessing in disguise. (:

    I’ve got nothing but respect for a work ethic like James Franco’s. I recently tried to read part of one of his fiction pieces in Entertainment Weekly, and I will admit that I didn’t finish it. But I didn’t think it sucked, I just thought it wasn’t my taste. Good for him for branching out and trying different things.

    My name is Tawni and I like James Franco.

    *raises fist in solidarity with Becky*

    • Gloria says:

      I like James Franco, too. I don’t *mean* to. But I do. He’s a likable guy. His writing, though…hmm… He’s a fine actor in the right role.

      **raises fist in solidarity with Tawni and Becky**

      • Tawni says:

        I like him because he’s trying, which is more than what a lot of big talkers in the world are doing. People get so many points from me for being brave enough to put their ego/heart/soul/fear/words/art/music/insecurities/guts out there for all to see. I’ve got huge respect for trying.

        • Gloria says:

          I agree. I heard him on Fresh Air with Terri Gross and he seemed incredibly authentic. He seems super affable. I hope that he’s taking the right classes and they’re giving the right feedback and that he grows. That would be great!

      • “His writing, though… hmmm… he’s a fine actor in the right role.”


        Withholds fist.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      That’s the thing. I don’t even really like James Franco.

      I don’t think he’s a super great actor, and I don’t find him all that attractive.

      For the most part, the only thing I understand or like about him is his earnest attitude towards being a writer and intellectual. He wants it. Bad.

      As far as I can tell, the only crime the man has committed is being famous. Take away his Hollywood stuff and he’s anybody.

      Anybody who can afford to go to UCLA, NYU, and Yale, granted, but the writing community, as a whole, is not bereft of disaffected, pretending-to-hardship bourgeoisie. In fact, it is dominated by them.

      So what the fuck? Give the guy a break.

      • Greg Olear says:

        Did you see FREAKS & GEEKS, the TV show? Watch its one brilliant season, and then tell me you don’t find him attractive. (You should watch it anyway, because it’s brilliant…like a really great teen movie that lasts for 13 hours).

        I like James Franco. Good for him. I like Ethan Hawke, too.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I like Ethan Hawke. He is (was?) cute.

          I do not find Franco attractive. Not my type. He insists he’s not gay, but I have my reservations.

          I bashfully admit that I never did see Freaks & Geeks. It was what everyone was talking about, so I avoided it, then it was gone.

          My strategy backfired on me.

        • Gloria says:

          I love Freaks and Geeks. I was so sad it was canceled. A truly great show.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Ethan Hawke. Greg. Nononononononononooooooo.

        • Becky Palapala says:


          Come on. You didn’t like GATTACA? Right up your alley.

        • Gloria says:

          Gattaca is great too. Seriously, Richard? You didn’t like Gattaca? Really?

        • Richard Cox says:

          I like Hawke in certain roles. I thought Gattaca was all right. I just think he’s overrated as an actor and don’t care for his writing.

          But kudos to him for trying. He probably wouldn’t like my writing either.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I like how my affection for Gattaca was being questioned before I even had a chance to respond. This is how rumors get started. Hahaha.

        • Greg Olear says:

          The Linklater films — Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — are both awesome, and he co-wrote the scripts. But I just like the guy. I think he’s cool. I like that he left his high-maintenance movie-star wife for the down-to-earth nanny and seems happier for it, too.

          The problem with Gattaca is that the secondary characters — especially Jude Law — are more interesting than the main ones. Same problem as The Truman Show, which the same guy wrote.

          Becky, rent the F&G series. Won’t take long to watch. Trust me. Just do it.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I meant his prose, but I do like those Linklater films, particularly the first one. I remember reading somewhere or in the DVD extras that the second one was largely ad-libbed, a la the Christopher Guest films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. In any case, IMDb doesn’t list Hawke as a writer for the first.

          I enjoyed The Truman Show a lot more than Gattaca. It was more concerned with the architecture and implications of the world, where Gattaca seemed way more like style for the sake of style. You’re right about the secondary characters, though. I never thought about that before but I definitely see what you mean. Although less so in Truman Show, for me at least.

          Also, for Truman Show Andrew Niccol should be thrown in jail for not acknowledging Philip K Dick. That was theft in broad daylight of Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Stop being mean to New Zealanders, Richrob. Andrew Nichol is a good kiwi boy.

      • Tawni says:


        “Hey! Look! There’s an actor trying to be more than just a pretty face! GET A ROPE.”


        • Becky Palapala says:

          He’s not just already famous, though, he’s already rich.

          There’s a class warfare element to it, too.

          Which I really don’t understand, since the actually-poor people of the world (or even the lit community) are not the people who are bitching.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Thank you so much, by the way, for the “raise fist in solidarity” thing. It’s so useful.

      For the record, everyone, that was Tawni’s thing.

    • dwoz says:

      In “A Moveable Feast” Hemingway discusses the loss of a trunk full of manuscripts, by his wife in a train station.

      On the one hand he despairs of the loss, and on the other he opines that every writer should lose a trunk full of early manuscripts, before they have a chance to see the light of day.

  3. Patricia Brinkmann says:

    This was a funny piece I like how it went from “James Franco to James Fucking Franco” this would make a great tag team piece to Franzen.

    “I am a writer, to be sure, but I’m not a writer. I’m not hooked up, tuned in, or latched on to the scene. I barely know who writes for this site or other sites and which books they wrote. I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I don’t know what’s going on half the time. Most of the time, I don’t care.”

    *rolls smirk* this is so true thanks for your honesty

    James Franco is trying and if he fails as he seems to be doing in his literary work he seems to still have an affinity to the world.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Ah Patricia! Your email has changed. Excellent move. You should really just stop and get a gravatar and stick with it, but who am I to tell you what to do?

      I think if Franco fails it will be because he gives up or blocks out the criticism that is actually helpful.

      I don’t think he’s a lost cause. At least no more lost than any of us are or were.

  4. Richard Cox says:

    I don’t root against other authors, though I do take occasional pot shots at people like Paris Hilton who publish novels that they almost surely didn’t write. But even that’s not really defensible. Who am I to take that satisfaction away from someone who can make it happen?

    Besides, the world where Paris Hilton can publish a novel is not Paris’ fault. It’s OUR fault, or more specifically the fault of people so impressed with celebrity that they care more about familiar faces than they care about literature.

    And really it’s not even “fault,” necessarily. It is what it is. It’s the world. If you’re an actual writer you just have to accept it. You look at the marketplace and the culture in which you want to write, and you figure it out. End of story.

    I have no patience at all with the argument that publishers don’t know what they’re doing and the model is outmoded and they only publish celebrities and NYC literary cronies. And I don’t say that because I’m published. I worked my ass off to figure out how get a book published. My work hasn’t sold particularly well and that sucks, but it’s up to me to figure it out, not complain, and certainly not to try and subvert the model. Yes, things are changing and there are more ways than ever to get your book in print, but at the moment the best way to get your published words in front of eyeballs is to go the traditional route.

    As far as James Franco, I think if he wants to be taken seriously, he should use an alias. Make it without his name and then go, hey, it’s me! James Franco! Any other way is never going to give him the satisfaction of true respect. But if mainly he wants to see his name on the spine of a book, one published by a literary imprint, then he should just do what he’s doing. Who wouldn’t do that if they could?

    Stephen King wanted to know if his commercial success was a fluke or because of real talent, so he published several books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Bachman did begin to pick up an audience, which told King he could really write, but those novels sold ten times better when King’s name was attached to them. So in the end the question was left somewhat unresolved. I don’t see how Franco could get respect any other way. And really, someone would figure it out pretty quickly, I bet, so even that might not work.

    I like this post. I like the ideas you brought up. I’m interested to see where the conversation goes with this.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I think part of my problem is that I have largely been exposed to the “alt press.” There’s a certain amount of bitterness that comes with the alternative label.

      The alleged oppression.

      “We haz an opprezzed!”

      It’s tiring.


      And at the end of the day, I’m an ass in the matter. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I’m just here, in flyover country, writing my opinions of the online goings-on. I’m sure in New York it makes perfect sense to act like that.

      Where is T.S. Eliot? Where are the Giants? I want to stand on shoulders! I like people who are like me, I guess.

      Business-model types give me the fucking heebie-jeebies.


    • Thanks, Becky and Richard, for the conversation. My alerts lit up on Richard’s comments.

      Surely author fame as trumping talent is one basic frustration among serious authors–especially when that fame comes from projects other than writing (such as James Franco’s “Freaks and Geeks” and “Spider-man”).

      To counter this somewhat, publishers ask authors to have a platform (beyond the book under discussion) to bring as much notoriety as possible to each book project. So far, for fiction writers, the quality of the story is more important than the following. But this surely will continue to change over time in favor of having an established platform. And surely this won’t even things, but simply create a clearer index by which to measure the gap between pop culture icons and dedicated, well-selling authors.

      Thanks for the conversation. Tim

  5. I was reading a short story today that screenwriter/director Wes Anderson had written as undergraduate at the University of Texas. The current editor of the literary journal there had found it published in an 1989 issue, so the editor posted it to their new online blog as a curiosity. More interesting I thought was the debate in the comment thread that followed, some chastising the editors for republishing something they felt Anderson would be embarrassed to share now that he’s a much better, more accomplished artist, his tote bag of embarrassments emptied for the world instead of a “circulation of 40 UT students in 1989.” At least Anderson can say his work has progressed. Interesting idea, that Franco won’t get to hone his skills the way so many other writers do. I think that’s probably very true. I’m indifferent about his writing career … and his acting career too, actually. Snooki’s book deal however, *really* burns me.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      As dwoz mentions below, no need to worry.

      Snookie’s book will be ghost-written. That’s money in the pocket of a real writer. Money that will help to afford that individual the time s/he needs to work on the serious stuff.

      Theoretically. Hopefully. That’s how I’m choosing to look at it. I mean, otherwise it’s just a bunch of teeth-grinding over something I can do nothing about.

      See…the Wes Anderson thing. Excellent to bring up. Maybe Franco’s rambling essay in the UCLA lit journal will be a similar thing. He’ll go on, improve, and everything will be fine.

      I think Franco will have ample opportunity to hone his craft. He’s going to some of the best schools in the country for it (but how much do you want to bet that one school he didn’t get into was Iowa? I got $20 on it). The thing I keep thinking about is how valuable brutally honest feedback has been to me in the past. And people don’t ever want to offend celebrities. So, you know, do people just slap him on the back, go “good job!” then turn away and roll their eyes?

      It’s not limited to just celebrities. I mean, even around here, from time to time, almost on a cycle, people start talking about how they don’t necessarily trust TNB for honest reaction to their work. It gets a little back-slappy. Most of us have one or two people we go to for honest reactions. Does Franco have one? I hope so. I think it’s important.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Yeah, Becky, but I’m still jealous.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    This is a good piece, Becky, and not so much because of James Franco (I didn’t even know who he was) and his writing (which I’ll never bother reading) but because it’s an excellent invitation to look in the mirror, and have a quick look around as well.

    It’s almost light enough for me to resume rebuilding my porch — knee pads, jacks, 4x4s, tongue-and-grove nailer, mallets, nailsets, vapor barriers, and all. Me, the non-pro. I’ve watched and helped in the rebuilding of three porches, and figured I could do this one solo. So far, so good.

    I have during the past few days (and regularly, at other times) tried to look at myself working away on tasks that professionals do, and asking myself — how do they feel about it? I could have hired my excellent contractor friend Tim to do it for me. He would have charged thousands of dollars and gotten it done much more quickly, and in some ways doubtless better. I am sure that when Tim sees my work he’ll think (and he’ll say, because we’re friends) that yes it’s sturdy but my solution to the structural problems and my detail work are not clever and not subtle, although the porch looks good and won’t fall down.

    I suppose I’m taking bread off the table of the pro porch builders, but only for the one job — mine, for which I permitted no other bidders and thus easily awarded to myself. Where this fails as an analogy to the Franco thing is that I’m not out there bidding against Tim on porch repairs, and never will be, but nevertheless I think it’s worth thinking about.

    Here’s a more analogous situation.

    Does anybody here read the excellent Patrick Smith Salon column “Ask The Pilot?” Or look at his website? Or have read his book of the same name? If you fly, you should. When Sully piloted the Airbus into the Hudson, Patrick applauded but declined to stick the “hero” label on him. And when Sully had his moments of fame, Patrick admired that Sully didn’t take all the credit, used his short-term bully pulpit to call for better conditions for pilots everywhere, and so on.

    But when the announcement that Sully was writing a book hit the street, Patrick was angry. You can find that column in his archives. Many of the comments following that column were unfavorable. People said he was jealous.

    I didn’t think they understood how it must feel to have been an experienced pilot and to have written an (excellent and funny) book and to be writing regularly about flying, working seriously at becoming a better writer and pilot, and not to have made too much of a publishing stir — and to learn that a pilot who did one wonderful thing is going to “write” a book, a book which will no doubt be a media sensation. Did Sully ever spend time honing his writing skills? It’s unlikely. It’s unfair, says Patrick, and if he wants to complain about it I think he has the right.

    It’s warmed up to 40, so I’d better get out there. Looking out the door, I notice a place where two pieces of flooring have humped up a little. What did I do wrong? I’m not sure how to fix it. I could call Tim, but I don’t think I will.

    • dwoz says:

      You’ve failed to take into account thermal expansion on the tongue and groove decking. Also, the wood we buy today…almost all of it…would be outright rejected, not even offloaded from the truck, 25 years ago. It is not consistent in moisture nor in grain. It might even simply be a board cut from a tree that was stressed. 25 years ago loggers pulped trees that were not standing straight, because they are holding many thousands of pounds of stress, and when you board them out, the boards twist up like pretzels. Today, those trees go right into the line.

      There’s another way to think of the “Snooki” or “Sully” book deal…or even the Sarah Palin book deal…it’s work for a ghost-writer. Someone wrote that book, and someone is making a living from putting words on paper.

      Small solace, to be sure, but better than nothing.

      There’s an additional aspect, that I think bears noting. The business of publishing and selling books is an ENTERTAINMENT industry. People read for many reasons, but the primary one is entertainment. So, a writer is to some extent, an entertainer. I have this argument all the time with my musician friends, particularly the “vee are arTISTes” crowd. No, you’re not an artist, you’re a damn carnival sideshow, and people are just looking at you or listening to you or reading your words because for a few precious moments, they’re transported out of their dreary meaningless lives into a place of ersatz happiness. They’re ENTERTAINED. It makes taking in the next tortured breath just a little bit more bearable.

      This is a very bitter pill for many.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        It might be thermal expansion, but since I had the T&G on the porch for a couple of days while priming it, I don’t think so. It’s probably that I missed a piece with what my carpenter friends call a “whip” to it. The decking’s “C or better” 3/4″ southern yellow pine, but that’s all I could get. It’s knot-free, at least. Normally I’d use 5/4 white pine milled locally, but the mills aren’t milling that any more this year. I forgot that porch work here is seasonal, and I’m very late in the year to be doing this. But the big rotted hole right by the steps that appeared when I stomped on the decking was a powerful scheduling incentive.

        You’re right about wood quality, for sure. Every time I work on an old house, I marvel at the wood — the framing, especially. Every time I read Melville . . .

        I get it about the entertaining, and I don’t feel it as a very bitter pill. My highest goal is to entertain while giving readers something to think about, or introducing them to new concepts or ways of seeing the world. If they’re not entertained, they’ll turn me off or put me down. Coming from an academic background, this wasn’t too easy to learn, but I did learn it.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      The pilot thing…

      The difference, to me, lies in the fact that Franco’s goal appears to be to become a professional. You strip away the acting stuff and he’s a kid who did his undergrad and MFA in creative writing and is getting a PhD in literature, using his other time and talents to undertake lit-friendly projects via alternate outlets…

      How much more professional, how much more serious, could he possibly be?

      I still, and yet, defy anyone to tell me what he has done wrong. By all appearances, he doing everything right. And arguably trying a hell of a lot harder to be an expert and a respectable professional of literary arts than a lot of us. The fact that someone is willing to publish less-than-great stuff because he wrote it is hardly his fault. Who among us would turn that down? If he is untalented, then he is untalented, but it doesn’t appear to be for lack of trying.

      Wallace Stevens was an insurance man. William Carlos Williams was a doctor…I mean, were they taking bread off real poets’ tables? I don’t know. Most writers are not only writers. Writing is a profession for precious few people.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Becky, to me it’s the leapfrogging thing. I’m impressed that he did the undergrad/MFA and is doing a PhD. Who could fault that? Not me. It’s just that (assuming I’m reading this all correctly) his acting fame shot him to the front of the line, where on strict writing/publishing grounds he shouldn’t have been.

        We all understand that’s the way of the world, including the who you know thing. But we don’t have to like it. I do disagree with “hardly his fault.” In what way isn’t it his fault? I can’t imagine that he doesn’t know his fame has had much to do with it. It’s not as though his work bubbled up out of the slush pile, or made its slow way through D-girls and interns and junior editors.

        Dana Gioia, whose poetry I admire, is some kind of business executive, too. But he’s a real poet, as Stevens and Williams were, and so I don’t suppose that other poets were sitting around complaining that their business or other professional expertises were what got them published. All the “real” poets I’ve known had teaching jobs that kept them and their families fed and housed, for what that’s worth.

        I probably shouldn’t have used “bread off the table” because that too easily translates into money. What I was referring to was along the lines of “limited number of pages on which literature can be published.” If I grab those pages, they’re not available for you. If I grab them because what I wrote is dynamite, what are you going to say? Probably nothing. If I grab them because my fame in some other area got them for me, and what I wrote isn’t very good, what are you going to say? I don’t know what you’ll say, but I doubt you’ll say “He deserves it.”

        And thus back to the porch. Come inside for the bathroom, check out TNB.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Ah, but the competition for published pages isn’t Franco’s fault.

          The handful of celebrities that make an honest go of “serious” writing are so incredibly few, to focus one’s blame on them is just disingenuous.

          There is a page shortage because there is an embarrassment of housewives, office workers, plumbers, accountants, bloggers, and other average folk making a go at writing. Not because there are 5 celebrities doing it.

          I think Franco IS aware (it appears so from his interview) that his name & fame is a factor in his swift advancement. What I don’t understand is how, exactly, he is supposed to self-police the situation. I mean, he’s got the hand he’s got. He’s famous. He would prefer to be a writer. So, what does he do? Not write? If he does write, this is what happens. Leapfrogging. The fact that he was bumped to the front of the line is something the publisher did, not something he did.

          Leapfrogging is, at the end of the day, what we’re all trying to do. Get the recognition and journal credits necessary to get bumped to the front of the line. And when we are, we will not complain. We won’t say, “this isn’t my best, Mr. Publisher. I’ve changed my mind. Don’t print it.”

          As he himself said, the only thing he hasn’t done that he could do is write under a nom de plume. That’s the one thing. And as I said, maybe he should. But like most of us, he wants credit for what he writes. He wants the recognition for his writing. The prevalence of this attitude among writers makes it difficult (even hypocritical) to hold his feet to the fire about it.

        • dwoz says:

          we should all wish for his dilemma.

          I agree, Becky, much as I hate to agree with you! it’s about the noise. The insurmountable noise that you have to claw your way to the top of.

        • Becky says:

          It is what it is. I agree with Don. We don’t have to like it, but to pretend that Franco’s case is one in which he, personally, should be held in contempt…it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

          And it occurs to me that the fact that Franco is trying to do it the right way, ironically, may be what makes him that much more threatening/contemptible.

          Bob Dylan, Jewel, Billy Corgan…all these people came out with books of poetry/alleged-literary work that wasn’t particularly good (even awful) and no one seemed to really bat an eye. They may have rolled their eyes, but it wasn’t, like, an outrage.

          It was just more celebrities capitalizing on their fame and indulging their vanity/fanbase/marketability/whatever. What’s new?

          But the fact that Franco has infiltrated academia, is talking about/interacting with the “legitimate” literary world, portraying literary heroes… This gets people’s hackles up.

  8. Darian Arky says:

    Along with not being a writer, I’m also not really a reader. (No surprise there, eh?) But if I was going to read something other than a magazine article, I’d probably just pick a tried and true classic that I “should have read” once upon a time anyway. So, all these struggles for resources seem pretty remote. Like the Mayans. (Unless you make a movie about them — which is easier for me to consume than a whole book.) I have no idea who this guy is, but it seems to me that, yeah, he’s yet another blip that, because he’s blipped, he’ll be given the chance to blip and blip some more until he blips his way off the scene. I can’t say whether that should make a “writer” feel jealous, because I’m not a “writer” after all. I wonder if “real writers” — whoever they (think they) are — even take notice of such things. It’s sort of like the girl at the concert last night who ended up on the big screen shaking her boobs for thousands of people. It doesn’t make me wish I had boobs; though I guess it would be cool to be the guy with the camera. (I’m drifting now, so clearly I’ve exhausted my capacity to fake cleverness on this topic.)

    • Becky says:

      Well, you know how I feel about this. You may not be a writer, but you are a writer in a natural way that a lot of people would kill for and when you do write, it’s always fresh and bizarre and provocative and often hysterically funny.

      So don’t “aw shucks” me on that. You are only not a writer because you’re not writing enough.

      But enough rah-rahs for you.

      Yeah. I suppose this little piece of mine qualifies as aiding and abetting Franco’s blipping. But it’s a larger question, too, about territorialism and young writers, period. I tend to bitch about writers a lot, but it’s usually the bitter old battle axes that really bother me.

      Young/new writers are a great deal of fun to work with, to talk to about literature, etc. From what I’ve seen and read of Franco, he’s got the same energy and aspirations as any of them, and regardless of filmography, I can’t bring myself to shit on that. It just isn’t right.

    • Becky says:


      See. This is part of it, too. Even if he weren’t famous, he’d be secretly despised by people who knew him and on his way to being famous anyway.

      He appears to be one of those super-motivated, super-busy, seemingly tireless people who just DOES until he gets somewhere.

      The kind of person lazy, excuse-making people hate.

      You go, James Franco.

  9. Not really sure where I weigh in on the whole James Franco thing, but I loved your piece, Becky. And these lines cracked me up: “It looks like copy & paste broke. It looks like the delete button broke.”

    Keep on being you, B.

  10. Drew says:

    Franco is so benign its funny. I mean who the hell doesn’t want to be taken seriously in any endeavor? And the guy can act. He has natural chops. Gonna be up for an Oscar come winter for this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0GycqTaXwQ
    And whad’ya know? He has other interests besides acting. Just seems like someone genuinely trying to suck the tit of life dry while he can. Not a put-on at all. Seems believably uncomfortable with his “celebrity” status.
    Nice interview with Letterman.
    I think he was a bit high. or just naturally aloof. either way, Letterman is not this patient with just anybody. He can tell Franco is sincere.

    Viva Franco!!

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, right. Benign. Like Matt says below, “Really, what’s the worst that’s going to come of this?”

      He seems like an okay guy.

      Just doing his (incredibly ambitious) thing.

      Peter Weller is a PhD. candidate in art history. You don’t see historians pissing and moaning and tearing their hair out about it.

  11. Matt says:

    I really don’t get all the rancor.

    I haven’t read any of his work yet because, quite frankly, my schedule’s just too damn busy right now to seek it out. But I certainly don’t mind him trying, because he’s actually putting the effort into trying to do it right. It’s not like he spent the weekend banging out some crap manuscript that his agent then sent off to be published. There are plenty of unschooled hacks making a living pumping out bestsellers. Franco’s going to school and learning the craft, and is championing literature and reading, two things that have been on a decline in the public consciousness in the last decade. Really, what’s the worst that’s going to come of this? I mean, maybe somewhere down the line he starts up a lit mag that gets attention because he’s James FUCKING Franco? The pitchforks didn’t exactly come out when Francis Ford Coppola did it.

    The leapfrogging/name recognition argument chaps me a little bit because it completely dismisses the time and effort he put into achieving that. According to his IMDB profile, the guy’s been acting since 1997, but he’s really only been a household name since his 1-2 turns in Pineapple Express and Milk, both in 2008. Freaks & Geeks was wonderful (and very much worth watching), but it’s far more celebrated post-mortem than it ever was when it was on the air – which is why it only lasted 13 episodes. He’s pretty much overshadowed by Tobey Maguire and Kirstin Dunst in the Spider-Man movies, and his mid-decade resume is filled with junk likely doomed to run in perpetuity on the basic cable matinee wasteland: Flyboys, Tristan and Isolde, Annapolis etc. It’s not like he’s one of the insta-celebs our culture regularly produces. Dude’s been working working for over a decade, he’s earned some accolades for his acting, and he wants to celebrate it by –oh, my god, going to school and writing?! Please.

    It’s strange to me the way the arts do this. If, at 40, I decide to chuck whatever career I have at the time, go back to school, and become a paleontologist, and then on my first field expedition stumble upon a new totally new fossil, it’s not like other scientists will be decrying me as a “fraud” or a “hack” because paleontology wasn’t a “calling” for me like it was for them.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Dude’s been working working for over a decade, he’s earned some accolades for his acting, and he wants to celebrate it by –oh, my god, going to school and writing?! Please.


      Talking queer lit in a coffee shop with an interviewer from the Advocate? MONSTER. Gawd. What a jerk.

      Next thing you know, he’ll be sending money to literary orgs and all kinds of shady shit.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Matt, my feelings about Franco don’t extend to rancor. They don’t go much beyond mild annoyance. I do think that this raises many interesting issues, though.

      As for your paleontology example — it’s not just the arts that do it. I don’t think it’s analogous. The reason is that, putting it bluntly, finding a fossil or artifact or interesting site is only the beginning. Anybody can find stuff, and history gives examples of people who were dynamite at finding fossils, but not so good at analyzing, description, and putting them into context.

      You wouldn’t get that first expedition unless you either financed it yourself, or had put in the hard work of getting on top of the field, convincing granting agencies to support your work, and so on. And by the time you got there, nobody would be calling you a fraud or a hack because — yes, like Franco’s doing now — you would have put in the time and effort to master the field.

      Now if you were a rich dude and set yourself up to go searching for fossils, thus bypassing the whole “professional” thing, that would be another matter. I’m sure you’re familiar with all the bad blood between amateur and professional dinosaur folks, public lands/private lands/open scholarly access/private ownership of fossils, etc. etc. There would be some good analogies there.

  12. dwoz says:

    Look at Michelangelo.

    He makes a name for himself as a sculptor.

    He decides that the other painters of the day are hacks, and goes about painting the most important painting in the world at the time. (perhaps still).

    He gets a crick in his neck from that, and decides that all the architects are idiots, and goes about designing the most important building in the world.

    fuckin’ wanker.

  13. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    A bit late on this one, but I don’t care whether Franco writes or not. Hey, if somebody gave me an acting gig, I wouldn’t want others to dump on me just because it’s not my first profession. The thing that ticked me off though was that short story excerpt in EW. Short story EXCERPT. In EW.

  14. lance reynald says:

    two that I have to toss in to the fray:
    Meg Tilly, Singing Songs
    Steve Martin, Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company.

    (ok, that’s three…but Steve really managed to rise to it with both)

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I saw Shopgirl the movie. It was okay. Was the book better?

      Folks have mentioned Hugh Laurie, too, and I wonder if older celebrities are more “allowed,” culturally, to undertake forays into literature (or any other interest area). Are wizened elders less susceptible to accusations of career opportunism and ineptitude?

      Or maybe Steve Martin and Hugh Laurie and Meg Tilly are, in fact, just more talented overall?

      Or is apparent “talent” more like maturity? Something that just comes with age and long-term exposure to narrative storytelling, even if it’s in the form of TV/movie-making?

      Or does their respectability as literary storytellers…in the general perception…correspond to their respectability as actors?

      • lance reynald says:

        as a novella, Shopgirl was pretty sharp. Though maybe not terribly conventional in appeal. the film was a pale adaptation, perhaps deliberately so.

        maybe the astute commentary on the above mentioned efforts is this:
        is the role of writer outside of a portrayal on film daunting to even the most skilled actor? seriously, even in films writers come off terribly. Perhaps the actor turned writer brings too much method to the endeavor.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Huh. Hadn’t thought of it that way.

          You’re saying that actors who become writers or make a foray into writing are “acting” out the writer role? Either convincingly or not?

          Am I getting you?

          I’ll have to ponder that.

          It’s back to the “all the world is a stage” sociological theory that came up recently elsewhere.

        • lance reynald says:

          by trade and craft I think they tend to approach most things a bit differently than the average person…just as a writer approaches the world differently. I’d think it might be difficult to avoid importing the skills, style and approaches into the work. No matter the narrative, somewhere within it the defining character is the writer’s self.

        • lance reynald says:

          and just to be fair; I always find Stephen King to be Stephen King in Stephen King films…go figure.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Excellent point.

          I was approaching the thing in a way that, in light of this, seems a little simple. I was assuming a guy like Franco compartmentalized the same way I do. I think about Franco the actor and Franco the writer.

          Maybe that’s not right.

          Then again, he’s been to filmmaking school, and done visual arts stuff, too. Is he playing the all-artist?

          Or is he ACTUALLY the all-artist? Like, which is the trumping personality for a guy like that?

          This is suddenly much more complicated than I thought.

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    Wait, so, please enlighten me – you have to be accepted into MFA programs on the strength of a submission of work, right? Is that how that works?

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Yes and no.

      He also took 3X the normal number of credits per semester to finish his B.A. in about half the time and still graduated with a 3.5 (A) GPA. So they may have taken that into consideration.

      And his pocketbook.

  16. D.R. Haney says:

    Did you see this, by any chance?


    I was unaware that people, meaning writers, are upset about James Franco getting a book deal and so on. I never gave it any thought one way or the other. It would be nice if Franco turned out to write well, but I couldn’t get past “the air plays on my forehead like a cold whisper” in his Esquire story. I’ve never personally encountered a cold whisper, though I suppose a person could be said to whisper coldly. The “forehead” is odd to me also; why does the air “play” there and not on the rest of the narrator’s face? I don’t mean to sound literal-minded — poetic license and all that — but it’s not a persuasive simile, and it comes quickly, undermining the trust the writer, in theory, is looking to build with his reader.

    Meanwhile, I don’t understand what getting a PhD in English, or comp lit or whatever Franco is studying, has to do with learning to write, other than exposure to canonical texts. (I think more writers could do with such exposure.) It makes sense for those looking to teach, but I can’t see that reading Jacobean plays (and I read a profile of Franco in which he spoke of reading just that as part of his syllabus) will pay off in a practical way for a prose writer.

    But, again, if the guy wants to write, far be it for me to criticize. I’ll take him as seriously as his work warrants, if I’m moved to read it, and right now that isn’t the case, though I did make an effort truncated by a cold whisper.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Canonical texts don’t teach you to write, they teach you to think.

      Which, in the end, helps you to write.

      They orient you within a tradition and help you to converse in a meaningful way with your cultural predecessors.

      I think that’s invaluable. But I would say that. Modernist Becky abides.

      “cold whisper” was bad, but not as bad as “Ketchup randomness.” That was abominable. I don’t know how that passed any editor. Ever.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Yes, I noted “ketchup randomness” here on the message board. Wow. Welcome to the ninth-grade Writing Club.

        I agree with you completely about canonical texts. As I said, I think more writers could do with exposure to canonical texts; a lot of people I know seem to read their contemporaries only. Learning to think — yes, definitely an asset for a writer, I’m wholeheartedly with you there — but I suppose I was questioning the necessity of being in a PhD program if, ultimately, your goals aren’t academic, as would appear to be the case with Franco. You don’t have to be in such a program to read canonical texts, and by now he shouldn’t require a syllabus to know which books to read. It’s the practical part of writing — what works, what doesn’t — where he clearly needs improvement, and I personally have found only one way to improve, and that’s by writing and analyzing the results. Being familiar with great writing will of course assist the analysis, but it’s not a substitute for the act of composition.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m not sure his goals aren’t academic.

          According to what I read, he took up the creative writing endeavor when he felt that acting wasn’t the right racket for him.

          You don’t have to be in such a program to read the texts, no, but I’d argue that the deepest understanding of them or, at least, the greatest challenges in thinking about them come from an academic environment.

          Most people will not arrive at wide arrays of potential interpretations sitting at home on their couches. If they did, there wouldn’t be much need for higher education at all.

          And, I don’t know if it’s just poets, but I was always told–and have found essentially true–that sometimes, the best thing one can do for his/her writing is to put down the pen and pick up a book. The “READ MOAR” strategy.

          Anyway, doing is important. But I don’t think we have any evidence that he’s not doing or that he’s not practicing or making practical improvement. We have evidence that at some point–potentially while he was an MFA candidate or even earlier–he wrote something that wasn’t ready for publication.

          I don’t find that the least bit shocking. In fact, I bet that’s pretty par and is probably true of even well-respected writers. The difference is that someone was willing to publish Franco’s.

    • Gloria says:

      Duke – your paragraph that begins “I was unaware…” and ends “…his reader” is golden and an example of why I think you’re the bee’s knees. You and your critical thinking skills and shit.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Why, thank you, Gloria.

        You’re undoubtedly right, Becky, about the range of interpretations in a classroom, but finally, unless we pursue formal education for a lifetime, we’re left alone with the interpretive acumen we’ve hopefully acquired. And I absolutely think that reading is necessary for the betterment of one’s writing, though personally, the more I write — and I’m thinking specifically of the promotion that accompanies, unfortunately, published writing — the less time I have for reading. James Franco is very lucky that his fame as an actor already amounts to great promotion for his writing, at least in terms of book sales. It will undoubtedly hurt him, at least a little, when it comes to being taken as seriously as he obviously craves.

        On the other hand, Palo Alto got a pretty good review at Salon.com the other day.

  17. Mark Sutz says:

    I don’t begrudge Franco his spidering his way into fiction publication. I also think his ethic could teach a lot of writers to just keep hacking away at it. I do wonder, however, how any editor worth his weight in ink could ever have said, first to himself, then to the final yes-sayer, “It’s really well-written. Better than anything else I’ve seen offered for publication in this spot this month.”

    Though there is plenty of garbage published every day, I suspect Esquire editors had plenty more choices, plenty of well-written, deeply considered and actually moving stories to choose from until they sniffed the Franco effect on circulation numbers and bonus increases at the end of the year.

    I think Franco has a clear desire to be a good writer, like a shit-ton of people do, but I also think there were probably hundreds of stories at least one-degree better, less hackneyed, less groan-inducing, equally as heartfelt and with as much time put in, that the Esquire editors could have chosen to publish. Other writers were directly affected by this puzzling choice. That is the worst part of all this.

    I think it is just sad that his handlers, Esquire lackeys, publicists and myriad other hangers-on could all just not have said to Franco, “This piece needs more work.” Instead, they all, every last one of them, chose to push and publish Franco not because of the quality of the writing but despite it.

    I’m also disgusted with myself for even occupying time with this. I could care less who writes something well-written, my grandmother or the local fishmonger, a convict or a prince. The story has to stand entirely on its own to even be entered into a discussion such as this and, unless you think Stephenie Meyer is a word wizard, Franco’s work needs Franco actor to prop it up.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, to be perfectly honest, unless his “handlers” and publicists are writers or English majors or big readers, they probably have no idea that there was anything wrong with the story. Most people wouldn’t. Most people aren’t writers.

      Even despite the clumsiness of “ketchup randomness” and other choice phrases, it’s not like it’s the very worst story ever written. I think that’s being dramatized somewhat.

      Esquire’s motivations are clear enough–sell copies–so I don’t think that can be treated as any kind of real mystery.

      • Mark Sutz says:

        Thanks for indulging all of us, Becky. I get where you’re coming from and appreciate your piece and your responses.

        The whole thing really is simply a reflection of this country. Despite how amazing the US is for those who choose to really explore, we are primarily a shallow, vapid, empty, unmotivated, and milquetoast citizenry. Our religion is consumerism, that is all. And that is everything.

        Agreed, not the worst story ever written: that will be whatever next queues its way into my notebook or onto my screen. But then I’ll look at it, hard, rip the fucker apart, patch it up again, see how it looks, maybe send it off into the world but bury it forever if need be.

        Agreed about Esquire’s motivation. Any magazine you can smell from sixteen feet away isn’t primarily concerned with the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. Perfume scratch n’ sniff, now THAT’S where it’s at.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          In indulging you all, I indulge myself.

          The back-and-forth, even arguments, even fights, are half the fun.

          Writing is lonely business.

          When we do see our loved ones, we want to get along with them, so who are we to argue with and abuse but each other?

          I don’t know if that’s really true, but it does seem to be a fairly storied tradition.

        • Mark Sutz says:

          Funny you mention that, my most recent TNB piece is a bit about this odd group of people we called our loved ones.

          Writing is lonely, but I’d choose to do nothing else.

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    Am I the only one who noticed, with amusement, that the L.A. Times review of “Palo Alto” that Becky linked to was written by Mary McNamara, who is — are you ready — the Times’ Television Critic.

    True, she has a novel (“The Starlet”) which another L.A. Times reviewer (an external reviewer, shades of grant applications) described as ” . . . a frothy roman à clef about the excesses of young Hollywood.”

    This all must mean something, but I’m still not done with my porch and today’s the last good-weather day for a while, so I’ll leave it to other folks to figure out what.

    I am reminded, though, of Flaky Foont’s question to Mr. Natural (“What does it all mean, Mr. Natural”) to which, as I remember, Mr. Natural replies “It don’t mean shit.”

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I tried to respond to this yesterday, but my mind was way too blown.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Yours wasn’t the only one (I’m speaking for myself here).

        Ruth — who lived in L.A. for years — says that the L.A. Times has a very serious/literary books department. If that’s still true, then it could be that the Book Review editor said, “No, we’re not going to review this,” and passed it on to TV or perhaps put out an all-employees call for a reviewer.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Or perhaps something along the lines of:

          People who will want to hear about this book are more likely to be following our TV people than our book people.

          I mean, you know, on the one hand, bummer for James, but on the other hand, they’re probably right and hey–it’s promotion, potentially, to the right kind of people.

          Not a super flattering review, but since when does that stop people?

  19. Art Edwards says:

    Yes, but did you look into his dreamy eyes?

    Seriously, are there markets that absolutely do not consider the marketability of the writers they publish? I’d love a list of places that publish with no consideration to the name or “handlers” of the contributor–now *there’s* a policy that would lead to a good literary magazine–but I’m not sure one exists.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, and that’s just it. It goes one step further than that, too. What would writers be working for? We’d all be hand-to-mouth. In a utopian, kind of artistic-wet-dream idealistic way, this is appealing enough, but on the other hand, it’s no way to have a career. Eventually, at some point, if you want a career, you will need to be able to capitalize on your name recognition as a writer in order to get attention for work that may not be your greatest. It’s the writerly equivalent of seniority.

      I mentioned somewhere up above, the “leapfrogging” that a guy like Franco gets to do is, in fact, what we all aspire to, realistically.

      To be well-known enough to no longer have to convince people of our ability to sell books.

      So there’s a tinge of hypocrisy in it. I mean, none of us is going to shove away opportunity, even if we think–or know–we are not writing our best work.

  20. Brin says:

    I was wondering when someone would get around to lining up Mr. Franco in their sights around here and the invariable ensuing Ethan Hawke debate…

    Great piece Becky.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Thanks, Brin.

      Seemed natural to mention it. As far as celebrity writers go, he appears to be somewhat of a standout. The more I found out about him, the more I was surprised and had a hard time sneering. Most don’t take such an interest in serious education…and in so many different types of education. I figure the guy must at least deserve kudos for that.

  21. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Well, I have not read a word of James Franco’s writing though I have been aware of it… I really want it to be good, the way I really wanted Ethan Hawke’s writing to be good.

    I’m going to leave my opinions out of this. But I will make one observation, and would like your opinion on it. Do you think James Franco resembles Jeff Buckley… and I mean almost astonishingly so?

    This piece is incredibly thoughtful and articulate, Becky. I’m always blown away by the suggestion and authority of your analytical voice. I love how you hold us accountable.

    • Gloria says:

      Holy shit. He does.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Yeah, I can see it. I think Buckley’s features are softer–slimmer nose, bigger eyes, less pronounced cheekbones.

      But if you catch Franco at the right angle, the resemblance can be uncanny for sure.

      As such:


    • Becky Palapala says:

      Also, apparently, a biopic of Buckley is in the works, and rumors have circulated that Franco would play him, but as of May 2010, Buckley’s mom says no actors have in fact been approached:


      • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

        Ever since I saw a picture of James Franco grinning over a pile of books in a glossy magazine spread lauding his writing pursuits, I’ve had two distinct and conflicting ideas about him. One: he is aging beautifully, meaning, he’s beginning to look like a real man. I love the lines around his eyes. Two: he better stop aging beautifully, meaning, those lines around his eyes are making him look old. By old I mean too old to be Jeff Buckley, the angel of wise youth.

        I want a Jeff Buckley movie. But I want Jeff Buckley to star in it.
        I’d settle for James Franco, but they need to make the movie five years ago.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m thinking Jeff is indisposed.

          Seems like Buckley’s mannerisms would be tough to pull off.

          I mean, he’s got that whole space cadet thing going on.

          Maybe not. Maybe I just imagine that because he’s so singular in my mind.

          I mean, after all, Franco’s an actor. It’s his job to do that sort of thing.

  22. I interviewed the directors of the film last year and they said of James Franco:

    James didn’t seem like an obvious choice at first, but Gus Van Sant, our executive producer, encouraged us to consider James. Then, as we learned about his serious commitment to art and literature—the guy is in three masters programs!—and after meeting with him and seeing some of his work, we realized he could bring something really interesting to the role. The film is about the poet as a young man—Allen was 29 when he wrote “Howl.” We had been looking at photos of young Allen, who was quite adorable, so the casting seemed less outlandish than it might appear. James is even half-Jewish!

    From here: http://www.beatdom.com/pages/archives/issue5.html#howl

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I still haven’t seen it. I need to do that.

      And, honestly, once they got his hair right and got the glasses on him, the resemblance was pretty good. At least as far as I can tell from the trailers and stills.

  23. Wayne Mullins says:

    Franco will always get a pass from me due to bringing James Dean back to life.
    His performance was so real and spot on that sometimes I had to remind myself that I was not watching the actual James Dean.

    Also, thanks for the Beatdom shout-out.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      My pleasure. You and Wills have a good thing going there.

      I didn’t know he even ever played James Dean.

      I’m learning all kinds of things.

      Just watched the trailer on youtube. Looks decent.

      If this guy’s not careful, he’s going to make an entire career out of playing American cult icons.

      Dean, Ginsberg, (potentially) Buckley.

      If you’d asked me a year ago if I thought the same actor could play all 3 of those people, I’d have said no f’in’ way.

      But. Here we are.

  24. Wayne Mullins says:

    Honestly, the movie is a hell of a lot better than the trailer makes it out to be. I believe he won a Golden Globe (or something similar) for this performance.

    And also, you left out the greatest American icon of them all. The Hobgoblin!

  25. Hey Becky–I hadn’t read this because I didn’t know who James Franco was. I still don’t exactly, because I haven’t seen any of the films you mention him being in. Though I do remember when people were pissed off at Ethan Hawke for similar reasons. And I feel like someone who wants to help turn The Adderall Diaries into a film cannot be all bad. He could have, probably, chosen anything, but he chose that, and in my mind that equals some measure of intelligence. I do concur that the lit world can be viscious, and that the less famous kvetch about the more famous, though probably that can be said of every industry, right? Certainly it’s true of all the people who want to mercilessly mock any actress who goes above a size zero, even if the average American woman is, like, a size 12 or 14. Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. Sometimes a certain amount of truly luminous talent–say Meryl Streep for example–might make people a little less inclined to mock the object of success. Though I don’t know, maybe that’s not even true. Some people (including our boy Stephen Elliott, whose taste I usually really agree with though in this case not so much) seem to think Jonathan Franzen is the best writer of our generation, but it sure as hell hasn’t stopped legions of people from despising him, as though Franzen is singularly to blame for any excessive praise others heap upon him and should–if he had any dignity or integrity–just stop writing out of a self-policing akin to, yeah, “I don’t deserve this, hence I have no right to write at all and will quietly slink to the corner in shame.” Which is, of course, silly. In any case, this was interesting. I’m going to go google Franco’s name now, so I can pull up a picture and see if he’s hot.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Hello hello, Gina!

      Yeah. He’s hot. I mean, not the hottest ever, rip-your-clothes-off hot, but he’s a pretty good looking guy.

      Which probably, too, doesn’t help him a ton with regard to his lit cred. I mean the actor thing or the pretty boy thing, one or the other alone wouldn’t be a disaster, but I think it’s true for men nearly as much so as women: If you’re trying to convince people you’re smart, you should make sure you’re ugly first.

  26. zoe zolbrod says:

    I read this post earlier in the week, but it came to my again this morning when I saw Franco’s collection was reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes. Didn’t someone earlier on the thread say Equire is not an arbitrator of literary merit the way the Times is?

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Yes. I saw that too. Review by Joshua Mohr. I think I said that Esquire wasn’t quite the New Yorker, but someone else might’ve said something about the Times.

  27. “Sorry to hear this, but I hope you have a backup of your files. As far as i am aware of, you must do clean installation of wordpress and then restore it.”…

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