Move over James Franco and Steve Martin: you aren’t the only fiction-penning celebrities around. This week, The New Yorker features a short story by Tom Hanks — yes, that Tom Hanks — which seems to be heavily influenced by his time working on Apollo 13. While reading, I had do my very best to approach the story, a futuristic space-jaunt called “Alan Bean Plus Four”, as a lighthearted foray into fiction by a revered actor (director, screenwriter, producer, and cultural figure) and not as something I would mercilessly savage if I were in a fiction workshop and a “packet” of my peers’ writing had just arrived in my arms for a pre-class critique.
Maintaining this attitude was hard. Very hard. Hanks is not my peer, after all. He has cultural demigod status, much of it earned by talent and hard work. So when I read Hanks’ attempts at “voicey” phrases like “we were all chuffed, as the English say,” “not that anyone gives a whoop,” and “a rugged place that produced oohs and awe,” (groan) as well as scanning his far too many references to Kobos (Kobos? Really?), iPhones, iPads, Samsung Galaxies, and um, Home Depot, it became even harder to maintain readerly distance.
Here’s where I get just a little bitter. At the last writing workshop I attended, a group of four or five writers had dinner on the final night and read each other our work. They were a diverse group in terms of background and genre, but they were all women who were far more experienced, life and craft-wise, than I was, and their written words were applied with subtlety, wisdom, sorrow and suspense. Honestly, there wasn’t a clunky phrase to be heard. As I began to read Hanks’ story I could feel myself growing a tiny bit petulant, wishing that these writers could access a large platform to test out their writers’ inclinations while Hanks was forced to sit in a workshop’s hot seat and hear people say, “Um, so I’m not really sure what the point of this story is?”
But bitterness begone! This kind of hand-wringing is useless, and who wants to play the role of a solemn snob? My workshop-mates don’t have Tom Hanks’ platform because no one has Tom Hanks’ platform. Many, many people love Tom Hanks. They love his Tom Hanks face, and his Tom Hanks brand of genial gravitas and his various dramatis personae. And now, presumably, they love Tom Hanks’ short fiction, which is zippy and friendly and full of enthusiastic, mixed-up images interspersed with flashes of solemnity. And they can even hear him read it in his Tom Hanks voice, which let’s be honest, improves the experience of the piece quite substantially. In the Q+A about the piece, he tells Deborah Treisman that he took up the pen because “I’ve been around great storytellers all my life and, like an enthusiastic student, I want to tell some of my own.”
I mean, that’s pretty much why all of us scribble, isn’t it? Ergo Tom Hanks has every right to fumble around with story structure, scene vs. summary, syntax and tone as the rest of us. And if fans end up reading more short stories because celebrities write them, then bless everyone involved.
So do your thing, Tom Hanks. I have never had hopes for anything approaching an even playing field. Celebrities will be publishing mediocre fiction and poetry as long as they exist (I see you, Jewel. Also I loved your poetry in seventh grade, so I’m an enabler here).
But the time has come when I am at the very least very ready for a funny and smart lady-celebrity to try out her fiction-writing chops. Will that as-yet-unknown story, should it arrive in a magazine near you, be more readable than these famous guys’ efforts?
To quote Hanks’ latest prose effort: “Does he suffer melancholia on a quiet afternoon, as the world spins on automatic? Will I occasionally get the blues, because nothing holds a wonder equal to splitting Dufay down the middle? T.B.D., I suppose.”
T.B.D., I suppose.