Michael-Finkel-The-Stranger-in-the-Woods

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with journalist Michael Finkel . He is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was made into a film starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. His latest book is called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, available now from Knopf.

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I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.

Humans like to say things like ‘the human spirit’. They like to think it means something, that it’s what’s special about them. That it separates them from other animals. There’s that new movie out, 127 Hours, starring James Fracno, about that guy, Aron Ralston, who got his arm caught under a big rock when he fell into a canyon, and he had to cut the arm off with a really dull multi-purpose knife. The movie’s about, like, ‘the human spirit’.

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.

Still.

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.


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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.