Thursday, April 8, 2010

James Franco, literary prodigy

Laughing all the way to the bank.

So I'm not sure how I feel about James Franco's short story, "Just Before the Black", in Esquire. Annoyed is probably the right word. Why? Because I'm sure J-Dog queried it hundreds of times like every other writer has to do, before Esquire decided aloud one day:

"James Franco? Never heard of him, but let's give this kid a shot. He's got no real literary credits to his name besides an MFA from Columbia, just like countless others that we reject on a daily basis, but his story has spit-shined promise. I especially like this line: 'I poke the knife at him, at his fat stomach, lightly poking it with the tip, but he's wearing a puffy North Face jacket, so it doesn't stab him.' It's artsy and hip. Readers will love the prose of this relative unknown." Now I don't want to be one of those angry faceless people behind this pitchfork-wielding Internet mob that's out for Franco's blood, but the whole thing kills me. Kills me. And here's why: Just because you're a well-known actor doesn't make you a writer worthy of being published in Esquire. Or being published, period. Based on that magazine's track record of rejections not even many good writers are worthy of being in Esquire (present company included -- we admit, we still have a lot to learn).

Perhaps my standards for Esquire are too high, but they reject tens of thousands of incredible short stories every year from gifted people that deserve an honest shot, and then Jamsie-poo, with his famous last name and movie about Pineapples, can waltz up to the front of the line and cut in front of Those More Talented just because he's got name cred and once played some dude in a Spider-Man movie. It reeks of self-importance and entitlement and I can't stand it when that sort of thing happens with line-cutters at the DMV, much less with a well-known publication. I know, I know: This is the way the world works, I should just suck it up and get used to it, which would be easier for me to do if his story was actually...well...good. I love being pleasantly surprised when someone can wear more than one hat well. But I would call this story a Fail, and I'm disappointed in Esquire for perpetuating Jamsie-poo's narcissism.

Sure, J-Loco is worth his weight as an actor (it can be argued that his portrayal of James Dean was incredible), but a writer he is not. Granted I'm no literary critic, but I've read a lot in my life and feel I'm entitled to an opinion. Reading over "Just Before the Black" and wanting to give it an honest shot wasn't enough to make me ever want to pick up anything Franco-penned again.

I think Sady Doyle over at Salon.com summed it up perfectly:

"... Although James Franco is Salon's Sexiest Man Living of 2009 for good reason, and one of our most valuable Bizarro Celebrities, no one should excuse Just Before the Black. ... The word "gap" is used so many times in this story – in relation to teeth, road barriers, windows. I don't know if it's an intentional motif, or if I just figured out where James Franco shops.

"It's true that, as these things go, James Franco is both interesting and crush-worthy. Unfortunately for him, he is also famous – which is the adult equivalent of being very handsome at a small liberal arts college, in that people will continually tell you that you are great whether or not it's true, and let you get away with far too much. They will, for example, publish your terrifying short story in Esquire. (Or in a book! James Franco will soon publish a book.)"

Yes, Jamestastic has a book deal.

It'd be one thing to accept it as kitschy gimmick -- Lauren Conrad's ghostwritten novel "LA Candy" is the first thing to come to mind. She wrote it "all by herself" within a "two-month span" and a month or so later it was already going to press. Most of us familiar with the publishing process can see through this and take "LA Candy" for what it is: Yet another piece of memorabilia to complement LC's burgeoning celebrity empire. As hard it is for me to admit there is a place for the "LA Candys" in our celebrity-obsessed world.

But the opposite is true with Jamsie-poo. Unlike other celebrity works, "Just Before the Black" is meant to be looked at with a critical eye, in a magazine that has historically produced quality prose and writers. J-Loco does deserve some credit -- he wrote it all on his own without employing the ubiquitous ghostwriter that lurks behind so many celebrity works -- but it still sucked and we as readers aren't supposed to think that. It's not meant to be laughed at as a joke, or cast-off with an eye-roll as a publicity stunt to add to his growing brand. It's supposed be taken seriously. The beginnings of a literary career. And how far it got, laid as ink on Esquire's precious real estate no less, is what is laughable. I think there's a line for just how much crap we can be spoon-fed. What's next? Lauren Conrad writing a piece for The New Yorker?

I hope I haven't spoken too soon...

9 comments:

Tami said...

As a fellow writer, I share your pain. Granted, he gets points for completing an MFA but still...something about fame, good looks and connections had a strong influence on this one.

limbo said...

I was so disappointed when I read the story, having been entertained by LA Candy (just as an example of celebrity-driven writing) and hoping that someone with the education and gravitas behind an actual literary career could do so much more. I was looking more for something in the league of Steve Martin's novellas and instead it was this... this.

Crystal said...

Good point about Steve Martin. "Shopgirl" is an excellent example of a surprise debut from a guy we didn't usually associate the term "writer" with, but who wrote a refreshing and original novella.

JM Tohline said...

Example to the opposite: Joe Hill.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son. He changed his name to Joe Hill so that he would not feel like he was coasting on his father's reputation. For six years, his literary agent didn't know that Hill's full name was Joseph Hillstrom King. Not THAT'S dedication.

I would have a lot more respect for Franco if he wrote under a pseudonym.

But then...well, the book will probably have an early sales boost, because he wrote it. But if it's no good, it will eventually fade. As will his literary career.

You and I know how much effort and work and time and pain and frustration it takes to become a truly good writer. And I'll venture to guess that he has not, in fact, experienced those things.

Maybe we'll all be pleasantly surprised, but based off of your initial reaction, I'm not holding my breath.

Carolyn said...

I hate it all. I had "LC" for her stupid fake chick lit book, and I hate Franco for being published in such an esteemed publication.

Linda said...

Well I suppose the same can be argued when it comes to fashion too. How many times has a celebrity come out with a clothing line...that sucked? Jlo's collection reeked, Lindsay Lohans was knocked off from a REAL designer, and of course "LC". Her so called line was overpriced garbage bag dressed named after her friends and sold for a 5x profit. I totally agree with you. If you are a famous actor, stick to what you are good at...or look good in doing, leave the rest to those who actually work hard and do well. I really enjoy the way you write and hope to someday read your published novels.

Scott Teel said...

Hey, hey now...he probably has a North Face endorsement deal that required him to put that line in. And that makes it all forgivable.

Woah...my body is trying to reject my tongue for saying something that stupid...uch...ulch...aw, gondabbit body, I wa kigging!

Anonymous said...

James' mother is a well established YA author.

Anonymous said...

James Franco is in love with Edward Cullen now (Robert Pattinson, actually), but his advances have been rejected. It's all over the internet. Google "James Franco has a crush on Rob Pattinson".

If they fell in love, James would REALLY then have the perfect life- accomplished actor, handsome, literary career, hot Twink to come home to!

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