Times are tough, things are bad, and they’re only getting worse: James Franco just keeps writing. We’re in an age when we keep having to accept realities that once seemed impossible. A good-looking, 30-something dude actor getting his writing published all over the place is really pretty low on the list of things we should be concerned about, yet we can’t stop talking about Franco’s writing, or the spectacle of James Franco as an actor who tries to do a lot more than act, and the institutions that enable him.
Now we have “Bungalow 89,” Franco’s story about not sleeping with the “damaged” girl he says we should call “Lindsay.” He read J.D. Salinger to her because he “knew that she would like Salinger, because most young women do.” The story, part of Vice’s annual fiction issue (this one also features something by David Mamet that I skipped and Vladimir Nabokov’s previously unpublished screenplay notes for the film adaptation of Lolita), has been passed around all over the Internet on social media and as a news item from Time to Gawker, where Michelle Dean wondered whether it was possible to stop Franco before he destroyed literature completely.
That answer, unfortunately, is no. Nobody will stop Franco because the literary world, it seems, sees associating with Franco as a boon rather than a bane. Indie presses get to say they put out one of his books, n+1 gets to say it published his co-authored piece on the “psychological economy of the star whose traditional preparations as an actor must be taken to extremes,” and even Esquire gets to brag, “Yeah, bro, we published some of James Franco’s fiction.” In a world where content is king, James Franco is a big celebrity who produces a lot of content. None of it is any good, so far, but he hosted the Oscars and he wants to be on your masthead. Saying no is pretty difficult.
But here’s the thing: celebrities ink deals to write books every single day. As I noted last year, it was pretty difficult to tell the difference between quotes from Franco’s novel and quotes from Jenna Jameson’s Fifty Shades of Grey ripoff, and it feels like not a day goes by without the news that some publisher has scooped up a book by a celebrity, be it a memoir or something else. Sometimes those books are good, a lot of times they’re garbage, but celebrities getting published is a fact of life. What gets us so riled up about Franco’s continued literary success (and make no mistake, along with being validated by highbrow journals and magazines, he already has a few books out — so he’s successful by all accounts) is that he uses his fame to imbue his writing with phony gravitas in an attempt to pass it off as art. Take the dialogue from his story “Just Before the Black”:
“You said you wanted to, puta, so I’m just saying, then let’s do it!” “Don’t call me puta, bitch! And put that fucking knife down! And watch the road!” 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.
I read that and imagined Wes Anderson using those exact lines for one of Max Fischer’s high school plays in Rushmore. And consider this scene from his latest, the Vice piece:
Now we were lying in bed. I wasn’t going to fuck her. She had her head on my shoulder. She started to talk. I let her.
What little literary journal, let alone a massive magazine like Vice, would publish that if the writer weren’t a well-known actor? And that is exactly where the problem is: if James Franco or James Franco’s “people,” or whoever the hell initiates these things, goes to a magazine, a website, or a publisher and says, “James wants to write something for you. Money is really no object, he just wants to see his work published,” 99 times out of 100 the answer is going to be, “Sure,” because our cultural obsession with famous people will ultimately trump good taste, and the machine will continue to enable the meteoric rise of Franco-as-author. The best we can do, from here on out, is try to ignore it.