James Franco: Are You A Real Writer. Part III.
Let’s tilt this rant toward the hazy realm of publishing industry ethics. Unless I’m wrong, no one has yet produced a definitive (and mandatory) Proclamation of Acceptable Industry Practices. While organizations like IBPA, CLMP, and AWP discourage crappy conduct, they’re not sovereignties or disciplinary forces. They have no ubiquitous jurisdiction; no book cops on call and prepared to handcuff shady agents and hooligan managing editors. So, who keeps all the presses in check?
Ideally, a culture’s participants create, govern, and enforce their own guiding principles. For the most part, we rely on “good faith.” We assume nobody is going to cheat because—notwithstanding the resultant shame of having violated honor—there’s no point in committing an infraction. In such a small culture, word gets around quickly. One bad decision could end an editor’s or professor’s career, banish him from the cultural body, blacklist him from publication, send book sales plummeting, and destroy professional credibility. Our faith in virtue is reasonable, though occasionally, a few scamming culprits come along and remind us that localized corruption is both inevitable and impossible to preempt. These thugs are the contest judges who pick winners (a friend or former student) before the contest even begins. Then, there are criminals who package their vanity presses as legitimate publishing houses. “Congratulations!” they say in an email addressed to a desperate writer, “After careful consideration, we’d like to publish your book. We all loved it, and unanimously agreed that it’d be a great fit.” A month later, a letter comes in the mail, outlining the writer’s expected financial contribution to the project, which is 100%.
How about those “certified and trained” book marketing professionals who will promote your self-published e-book for a $1,000 fee? How about all the shit fuckers who use the oppressive James Frey publishing model, and create fiction factories where dejected writers, usually broke grad students, churn out ready-made novels for low pay and zero name recognition?
The great thing is, whenever a writer, institution, or service tries to dupe its writers, we immediately find out. Writers warn other writers. Even industry magazines like Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle sometimes expose shady groups or individuals. Like I said, we enforce our own ethics.
Since I’m part of the cultural collective, I’m not stepping out of bounds by discussing the ethical implications of your publication in Ploughshares. See, by virtue of their affiliation with you; that is, their in-print endorsement of your art, one cannot help but assume that there was… oh, I hate this word… nepotism involved.
And so fucking what if there was?
Here’s my take on nepotism. Let’s say that tomorrow morning, I check my email, and there’s a message from the editor of the Horse Pond Review:
Dear Don Peteroy:
Our mutual friend, Bob McRambo—editor of The Snot Snail Quarterly—informed me that you might be a great match for our magazine! I checked out some of your stories, and I’m impressed! If you have anything in the works right now, we’d love to take a look! Please send it to my personal email address: email@example.com
I could respond one of two ways.
1) “Wow! Thank you for considering me! I feel honored! Enclosed is my short story, ‘Bitch, Don’t Climb that Cliff Again!’”
2) “Barbara, you are a corrupted, profiteering elitist. Such preferential treatment is another nail in the coffin of literature. What about all those writers who have tried so hard to get into your journal? You’re going to skip right over them? I won’t tolerate this injustice. Don’t be surprised if I talk about you ethical violation in my blog.”
The fact is I would send Barbara my story. If a writer’s at a point in his/her career when personal solicitations arrive, then the writer’s work is—get this—distinct, valued, and important.
The critic, suspicious of an editor and author’s relationship, often declares, “They’re probably fucking each other.” She observes, “He probably accepted her story for One Hill Review because they went to school together, and now she’s an editor at The Brooklyn Fiction Journal. Just watch, he’ll be in the next issue of her magazine. I mean, just look at the contributor notes. They don’t even try to hide their exclusivity toward big names and editors of other magazines.”
The critic has a point, sort of. I imagine that for every good writer, there are two literary magazines (I’m not using the term “good” liberally; nor do I consider myself in the “good” category, yet). For every literary magazine, there are at least two editorial positions. Some have more than twenty: a slew of editors and an army of screeners. Plus, most writers know the best way to learn about writing stories is to read piles of them—not just great stories, but the mediocre and downright atrocious ones as well. Where does one go to obtain this pedagogical plenty? Become a screener/reader for a literary magazine.
I once heard an insane theory about nepotism. Apparently, during the AWP conference, the “elitists” confer behind closed doors. This literary Illuminati conducts a secret black-market auction of favors. A conspirator/ magazine editor might say, “Here’s a story by a former grad student of mine. I’ll give your friend a read if you consider my former student. I’d really like to see her published, and I’m sure you feel the same about your friend’s future prospects.”
Speculations about an AWP Illuminati are entirely irrational, but amusing. I envision graduate students hired to guard the door. They’re wearing suits that are three-sizes too large. Instead of folding their arms across their chests in order to look intimidating, they take self-conscious, clandestine glances at the poetry chapbooks stuffed up their sleeves, and conceal them whenever someone walks by.
The fact is no editor is going to risk his/her reputation by publishing a friend’s—or a friend-of-a-friend’s— mediocre story. The editor will publish his/her friend’s demonstratively exceptional story.
Hell, if I worked at Harper Perennial, and my friend from college—whom I still owe $200 for a bag of weed—handed me a manuscript for a book called The Church Administrator’s Daughter: Betrayed by the Sharp Thorns of Desire, I’d reject it.
James, the people who are yelling out “nepotism!” are casting stones at you, and meanwhile failing to acknowledge their own sins: stubbornness and pride (which manifests as an refusal to revise relentlessly), laziness (“I don’t need to waste my time building a reputation through sending work to snobby literary magazines. Someone will discover me by reading my blog”), and delusions of grandeur (“Everyone sucks at writing but me. I’m real”). They characterize themselves as misunderstood geniuses who have been victimized by everyone else’s tastelessness. They would rather gnaw on roadkill than acknowledge that their troubles are a direct result of their shitty writing.
Have I just flung a few stones? Christ, I get really heated up when I call upon myself to defend lit-culture. Why shouldn’t I? The short story would have died were it not for academia.
Anyway, back to the James Franco-nepotism dilemma. We don’t know what you went through to get a story in Ploughshares. You might have been rejected 50 times before they passed your manuscript along. You might have started off in the slush pile with the rest of us. Who knows?
Even your story got published because of nepotism, the advantages outweigh the critical ramifications. Here’s the thing: If I became the managing editor of a literary magazine, I’d honor an open submissions policy, and carefully consider the first few pages of every story. But I’d also solicit “big names.” Matter of fact, I’d solicit you. If you sent me a turd of a story, I’d reject it, but I’d be willing to take your “pretty good” story and help make it great. Point being, having you in an issue would—hopefully—increase sales and entice potential subscribers (hell, I bet lots of grumpy writers would buy the Franco issue with the intent of proving that you’re a hack. Their agendas would amount to little but our financial profit. The haters would be subsidizing more print space for “up and coming” writers in the next issue, or, even better, a bunch of bonus checks for my overworked volunteers). Literary magazines, in general, are barely hanging on. A magazine with 300 subscribers is doing darned well; and frankly, that’s sad. When I say “doing well,” I don’t mean making a profit. I mean, they have enough money to buy a few extra office supplies. So what’s the harm in publishing a celebrity who knows a little about how to write a story? I’m not suggesting that magazines sacrifice their aesthetic integrity in order to stay afloat, but in cases like yours, it’s a win-win situation.
Chances are, your agent hooked you up with Ploughshares. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what agents do. But, given the magazine’s limited real-estate, it’s entirely possible that another writer got bumped in order to make room for you. My outlook isn’t that pessimistic; I’m sure Ploughshares made their decision to publish you well in advance, and had planned the logistics carefully. I don’t see Ploughshares as the kind of journal who’d make immediate accommodations at an agent’s request. It’s also plausible—very plausible— that of the 1,500 stories they received that month, 1,499 hadn’t left a lasting impression.
My ambivalence stops here. Whether we want to admit it or not, you have exclusive access to literary culture. Had you lacked celebrity status, wealth, and career-resources, your rise to prominence might have taken ten to fifteen years longer. Your pre-existing influence in Hollywood (which you’ve earned, no doubt), along with its social and financial benefits, has softened your entry into this culture, has enabled you to work with the best writers out there. You’ve got it made, James. My advice—and we’ll get into this more in the next blog—is don’t fuck it up. You’ve been called to walk on sacred ground. Few of us have.
To coin a bad metaphor, most writers, stuck between a rock and a hard place, have to sacrifice an arm in order to ascend from the crevice. We stitch our amputation wounds with thin thread: an occasionally uplifting acceptance letter sent by Quarterly West or Wisconsin Review. We take minimally effective measures to prevent infection: we win a chapbook contest, which guarantees our health for another year. But soon enough, the stitches come loose, and tetanus turns the skin black. We enter twenty more book contests and send out hundreds of poems or stories. For a graduate assistant making $15,000 a year, the contest fees alone are upward of $300. Beans to you, a month without rent for a grad school student.
When you jumped into the crevice, when you screamed for help because your arm was stuck, a thousand cranes and bulldozers rushed to the scene. Along with them: miners, the Red Cross, the best doctors in America, FEMA. When all was said and done, you wiped the dust off your shirt, popped a Vicodin, and said to everyone, “Thanks! That was close! I’m considering Everest, so let’s start planning now, in case I need your help.”
I can’t anticipate your reaction accurately, but I imagine—if you’re as prideful as any human—you’re thinking, “No, fucker. You’re wrong. First off, you want to talk about sacrificing an arm for your art? Try being a movie star and getting your PhD at the same time. Try spending ten hours shooting an eight minute scene, after having not slept because you’ve been flying around the country all week. Try reading Ulysses in your trailer, while people keep banging on your door. Then stay up all night writing a seminar paper on Faulkner’s inadvertent tendency to render a Marxist critique of post-Civil War Mississippi by subverting heteroglossic hierarchies and thereby diffusing narrative control equally. Second, my fame and my connections didn’t make me a writer. My writing, which I’ve worked years to develop, made me a writer.”
But no matter how well you justify your case (assuming you’d waste time doing so), the question remains: Should we take your art seriously?
My answer is yes. You’re a writer who cares about writing; a reader who cares about reading. That’s all that should matter. It’s all that matters to me. I’m glad to know that you and I probably experienced the same edge-of-the-seat, manic inability to put down Danielewski’s House of Leaves. That Denis Jonson’s Jesus’ Son made us squirm merrily. We devote our lives and souls to seeking out these sermons. We’re not searching for salvation; we’re celebrating it, one book at a time.
Next question: is it even possible to take your art seriously?
My answer is yes (no). Ideally, I’d approach your writing through the same critical lens that I’d use to read any other writer’s story. But no matter what you write, it’s always going to be by James Franco, the guy who kissed Sean Penn in Milk. For most readers, your Hollywood biography will interfere with (or contaminate) the reading experience. Had the New Criticism movement in literary theory illuminated, honed-in on, and perfected our allegedly “natural” way of arriving at meaning though texts, then you’d never have to worry about the intentional fallacy. Unfortunately, for you, modern literary nerds are trained to laugh at the idea of an objective reading. Don’t blame us. Blame the French. Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida. They’re the ones who said, “Hey, check this out, Pierre. The text isn’t the text! It’s everything else, too.”
The good news is, the people who admire your acting but barely read probably won’t be grumpy when they read Palo Alto. They’re not interested in stories; they’re interested in stories told by the celebrity James Franco . And I’m willing to bet that the majority of Palo Alto copies sold went into the hands of film lovers rather than English majors/professors. All the power to you. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe’s they’ll get to the end of Palo Alto, find out who your favorite writers are, then get into Danielewski and Jonson. Then they’ll look into who influenced Jonson, and maybe go buy some of Jonson’s top ten books.
We haven’t yet resolved the problem of how to remove all James Franco connotations from the text. Is a purist reading even possible?
Hemingway suffered the same predicament, and he didn’t like it. People were no longer reading Hemingway, they were reading Hemingway. Having become a literary celebrity, he felt like he had no other option than to do a parody of himself, to perform the role of Hemingway both in and out of the text.
It made him depressed. In the end, he wouldn’t settle for amputation.
The fact is no matter what you write, readers will find themselves removed from the story because they imagine James Franco the star. Some will get close; they’ll be an inch away from textual intimacy. Others, your haters, will be as far away from your stories as the moon.
Although I’m in no position to give you advice, I’d like to point out an opportunity you might have overlooked. You can work around this “my celebrity status contaminates this story” dilemma by adopting certain postmodernist techniques. Self-referential metafiction isn’t as popular anymore, but you’d have a particular stake in that aesthetic. I’d love to read a story that’s aware of the fact that it’s being written by a celebrity who has had very few road blocks to publication.
Now, back to the original question, the whole point of this thing. Are you a real writer?
Yes, James. An enormously lucky one. Welcome aboard. Although this means nothing to you, I’m glad you’re here.