James Franco published a terrible short story at Vice this week. People don't and shouldn't take Franco seriously as a writer but that often keeps us from discussing the precise nature of his badness. It is this: He is the kind of bad that suggests the End of Literature would be no skin off anyone's nose.
See, James Franco's crime is not merely that he is a bad writer, but he is a bad writer who has had the benefit of tutelage at many of this country's serious literary and intellectual institutions. When he writes badly he is writing informedly badly. He uses recognizable techniques and then warps them into idiocy in the application. He is a walking advertisement for the idea that talented, intelligent fiction-writing simply can't be bought (or taught).
Here, for example, are two ways in which he completely screws the pooch in this story:
1. He wants to write an unreliable narrator-type of story that critiques celebrity culture, but can't stop himself from ruining it through over-explanation and literalism.
The story opens with an eighty-Prius pileup of rumors that the narrator, whom you're meant to equate with James Franco (let's call him "James Franco"), says Gus Van Sant (also "Gus van Sant") told him about various other young men of ambiguous sexuality in Hollywood. For example:
River [Phoenix] was pulled over by the cops for wearing jeans with a hole in the front so big that his dick hung out.
This bit of "information" sounds off from the get-go, like the fictional equivalent of an unsolicited dick pic, but then you aren't supposed to believe it, not quite. "James Franco" may be encouraging you to take this as gospel though, partly it seems so Franco can cackle in the background at the idiocy of his readers (always a tough position to take as a writer, I think, believing you are only read by the stupid).
Nonetheless Franco isn't content to let his narrator leave it there, he has to ask the question explicitly:
Do you think I've created this? This dragon girl, lion girl, Hollywood hellion, terror of Sunset Boulevard, minor in the clubs, Chateau Demon? Do you think this is me?
The moment you actually ask this question you have destroyed your effect utterly. And sure, if someone edited this story (no one edits celebrities) they could take that out. They'd also have to take out a rant about performance and celebrity later. But the anxiety of it is pretty palpable in the rest of the story too, Franco always making explicit what should be subtle.
2. He includes literary references for the sole reason of conferring gravitas, and doesn't even get them right.
A thing young writers sometimes do as very beginning writers is be super-anxious about their own authority. Many seem to imagine an easy fix is a bare appeal to older male writers; I once knew a young man who literally could not start any of his John-Jeremiah-Sullivan-lite essays without referring to "the Greeks" no matter how many people told him not to. The problem with this technique is not just that it's annoying but it tends to sentimentalize the source out of all actual meaning.
In this story, rather than the Greeks, we get Salinger raised from the dead to confer faux gravitas. Witness this kind of thing:
She was a Hollywood girl, but a damaged one. I knew that she would like Salinger, because most young women do.
That first sentence is a real humdinger, as some snappy "Hollywood Girl" from one of those delightful 1940s rom-coms might put it, internally inconsistent and banal at once.
But the second is not only likely untrue, it wrings Salinger for a plain sentimentality it does not possess. Franco is talking about "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esmé With Love and Squalor" as pure celebrations of innocence, like Anne Geddes pictures or something. Which whatever you think of Salinger, is a pretty big mischaracterization of those stories.
And while we're on the subject of those mischaracterizations:
Salinger would be a companion to young women, real young women, for years, and then, one fateful night, he would sleep with them and the friendship would end. After that, after he fucked them, they were no longer the innocent ones running through the rye to be caught before they went over the cliff. They had gone over, and he had been the one to push them.
This is what you could call a completely dumb idea about how women react to ill-advised boyfriends. Perhaps you go over the cliff for a day or two, but most manage to dust themselves off and pay the rent. Even Joyce Maynard did, in a manner of speaking.
But then utter misunderstanding, banal observation, anxious over-literalism: not everyone finds these actual literary crimes, these days. Which is not half as depressing a thought as the fact that someone is surely going to publish James Franco's next story, and the next, and the next.
[Image by Jim Cooke, Photo via Getty.]