Spider-Man/Pineapple Express/Milk actor James Franco has been bettering himself over the last couple years, finishing up his undergrad degree at UCLA and then enrolling in MFA classes at both Columbia (creative writing) and NYU (film). Now, he’s got a short story, “Just Before the Black,” published in Esquire, and the bio for said story tells me a collection of his other short stories, Palo Alto, will be published by Scribner this October. As the editor of one of America’s least-prominent literary magazines for the past ten years (I don’t need to link it here; if you’re that curious, google), I can say this with some contextual certainty: James Franco’s short story in Esquire is slightly above average, nothing special. But it must be really handy to be famous.
Do I think James Franco has potential as a short story writer? I do. But there’s a particular affliction that affects especially the male authors of short fiction, a need to dirty everyone up, to make their characters just a little sicker and more slovenly and less redeemable than the societal average. Some would call this “walking the longest mile.” I just think it’s kinda lazy, means you feel the need to be graphic in order to get attention in workshop instead of just writing well about interesting things. In “Just Before the Black,” Franco’s narrator, Michael, is a bored young man with a death wish, specifically fascinated by the notion of driving his giant blue car off freeway overpasses. He has these suicidal thoughts while cruising around with his dumb fat friend Joe, a man he doesn’t seem to like very much. The two have ridiculous rhetorical conversations. The story has an appropriately ambiguous ending. (Ambiguous endings are big in short fiction land.) I’ve read thousands of pieces with the same tone, style, point of view, and (believe it or not) general subject matter. I’m not sure I would have accepted this one. I felt nothing while reading, from beginning to end. You might.
Better question: Does it matter? My best friend has an MFA from the Columbia creative writing program; she doesn’t have a short story published in Esquire. Other talented writers I know never got in to Columbia in the first place. I don’t know that it’s of any value to assess Franco’s work next to theirs, or any other non-famous person. Esquire printed Franco’s story and Scribner is publishing Franco’s book for the same reason I’m writing this blog post: Because it’s James Franco. I’m not even bitter. One hopes Scribner will turn around and spend some of the money it makes off Franco to publish the work of non-famous writers, many of whom may be more talented, if less notable, than Franco. This is the circle of cultural life. I stopped being upset by it a long time ago.
I do wish everyone had been at this reading with me the other night, where a woman named Jennine Capó Crucet read a story about a Miami radio station intern coming off an all-night bender to consult both a nun and a santera for help raising Celia Cruz from the dead. You can actually read the whole piece here for some reason, if you click on “Excerpts.” It’s not the same as hearing it aloud in her fierce Cuban-American dialect, but it’s still pretty great.
What do you think, PopWatchers? Am I off the mark here? Is James Franco the next Junot Diaz, or the next Ethan Hawke? And should crabby Aunt Whittlz shut up and just be glad the kids are still writing?