How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??

23Nov/11

The James Franco Problem

James FrancoJames Franco has been turning up in the fiction section of various magazines and websites over the past year, and it’s a problem. It’s not a problem that he’s an actor, or that he’s handsome, or rich. The problem is that his work sucks, and it was being an actor, handsome, and rich that led to his recent run of publications.

  • He’s had fiction in Esquire.
  • He’s had fiction in McSweeney’s.
  • He’s been writing reviews [Review 1] [Review 2] in The Paris Review blog.
  • He read something on video for The Paris Review blog. In his bed. (Because Lorin Stein loves to be faux-naughty, anything that contains the slightest hint of sex is embraced at TPR.)
  • He published a short story collection with a non-indie press.
  • It's well-known that he got a MFA at Columbia and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale.

[To read more about how The Paris Review loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex, click here.]

I don’t have anything against James Franco personally, though I suspect the guy is due for a major embarrassing scandal, given all of the attention that’s been paid to him and the extent to which he seems to over-extend himself. But my scandal theory, why the hell is he showing up in the fiction section of these magazines?

Is he any good? Is that why James Franco is taking up real estate in these popular magazines?

The Atlantic posted a James Franco “report card” of sorts, grading Franco’s recent artistic endeavors, both written and otherwise. His short story collection, Palo Alto, got him a C+. (Franco grew up in Palo Alto and the loosely-connected stories in his collection feature…teenagers in Palo Alto. I guess he was taught to “write what you know” in Columbia's workshop.)

Here’s an excerpt from The Atlantic article:

The casually interconnected stories of Palo Alto are written in a flat, minimally descriptive style that would be inscrutable if it weren’t punctuated by equally flat dialogue, bringing your entire authorial skill into question. While this book isn’t quite “undergraduate-level mulch,” it is perhaps graduate-level mulch. You can surprise with your words—as when you describe a car full of teenagers as an “octopus of bodies,” or how all the letters in a book, read by a stoned boy, “were ants marching to the crease”--but the overall style, a spiritless monotone, denies youth its complexity.

The Atlantic didn’t think he was any good. Doesn’t sound any good to me.

Let’s check out his Amazon reviews. The distribution of rankings is funny—as many people panned the book as loved it, with a near-reverse bell curve. A typical positive review talks about why they bought the book (“I was curious to see what this hot movie star would write. I loved reading about teenagers! I had a hard time as a teenager myself!”) A typical negative review excerpt follows:

“I found little to like in this collection of short stories. Each seemed to be packed with scenarios designed to produce shock and emotion, with very little substance to back it up. The characters were shallow and poorly developed, as were the stories. Instead, form was replaced with the vulgarity I have come to expect from those from the entertainment capital of the world, Hollywood. Cat poop soup mixed with urine just isn't my idea of literature, and neither is a vivid, raw description of an adolescent boy's emissions. Please. This book found its way to the trash can quickly, and seems quite at home there.”

While I agree with the above negative assessment, rather than debate the artistic merits of the writings of James Franco, the point I want to make is this:

James Franco is not being featured in these magazines because he’s any good. (He’s not. It’s juvenile stuff, over-sexed stories packed with gratuitous violence and totally devoid of emotion. The Atlantic really nailed it, calling the stories “flat.”) Franco is being given prime spots for fiction because he’s a famous person, and the literary world loves a famous person. The promotion of James Franco’s work has nothing at all to do with his work, and everything to do with him being James Franco, Actor. One person argued that “if movie stars being involved in the literary scene is what it takes to bring in new readers, that’s alright with me.”

But why should we, as readers, accept the fact that movie stars are publishing shit, and that shit is placed front and center in the top literary magazines for all to read? Say a thousand people buy Palo Alto, say it's the first book they’ve bought in years and they bought it because they think James Franco is a great actor. They get the book home and it turns out that they hate those stories. Most likely, they turn away from reading and literature all over again. Books had their chance with those people, but the book that was pushed on them was a crappy book. They think that James Franco stories are the best of what’s available, and they shouldn’t be blamed for thinking that. With nothing else to compare the Palo Alto reading experience to, why would they think anything else?

It would be one thing if James Franco had gotten his one story published and then quietly disappeared from the literary world, kind of like the thing that happens when  a movie star starts a band that sucks, tours for a month, and then breaks up. But the James Franco Problem lives on, and seems to be getting worse, as he's been featured in The Paris Review blog three times since September. What, is he going to be in The New Yorker next?

As readers, we want great stuff to read, not senselessly-hyper-violent, flatly-written, emotionally lacking stories written by young heartthrobs. But the publishing world has the power to push whatever they want on the reading world, and since they've decided to push James Franco, one of the things we end up with is shit by James Franco.