Forget About James Franco

April 29, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 19 7 min read


Shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and coming soon to a multiplex near you is a new movie called Palo Alto. It’s adapted from a book of short stories written by a member of the cast. Surely you’ve heard of the guy. There’s a sporting chance you despise him. His name is James Franco.

What’s interesting about James Franco is not that he has parlayed the job of movie star into a cottage industry of endeavors that includes short story writer, poet, novelist, memoirist, artist, teacher, movie director, Broadway star, Oscar host, fragrance pitchman, perpetual grad student, and, to hear my 25-year-old niece and her girlfriends tell it, the smokingest thing in pants. No, what’s interesting – what’s instructive – about James Franco is the way his precocity has turned him into a lightning rod, into one of those polarizing figures people either love, or love to hate.

I’ve always found such vitriol magnets irresistible. My personal pantheon includes the likes of Richard Nixon, Michael Jordan, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Cruise, Robert McNamara, and Dick Cheney – a gaggle of paranoiacs, megalomaniacs, sore winners, and evil geniuses so immaculately loathsome that they manage to flip my emotional gyroscope and become almost…lovable. Of course most people are content to hate such people, pure and simple, praying for their downfall and relishing the moment when it comes.

There’s a German word for almost everything and the German word for this icky delight people derive from the misfortune of others is schadenfreude, literally “damage joy,” or malicious gloating. To my knowledge there is no German word for the converse of schadenfreude, that is, resentment for the success of others, an emotion that’s especially prevalent in creative fields. I’ve been around enough creative types – writers and artists in New York, car stylists in Detroit, songwriters in Nashville, movie people in Los Angeles – to know that the only thing more toxic and debilitating than their schadenfreude is their seething resentment over the success of a rival. Especially when it’s seen as unearned.

You saw this same resentment go thermonuclear back in 2010 when Jonathan Franzen, another guy many people love to hate, got his unshaven face on the cover of TIME magazine. So unearned!, cried the outraged multitudes. The fury of their reaction was a telling sign of the times we live in, its toxic stew of snark and schadenfreude and resentment, all of it ready to go viral in the time it takes to hit Send. Before Franzen’s anointment, it had been a decade since a living writer had made the cover of TIME (Mark Twain did it in 2008, Stephen King in 2000). There was a time, the 1950s and ‘60s, when such appearances were virtually an annual rite (T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost did it the same year, 1950, and they were poets). These appearances were causes for widespread celebration in the literary world, not because everyone loved the writing of, say, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but because it was a kick to see a writer enjoy a dollop of fame and increased sales. As Franzen and Franco have shown, those days are long gone. And we’re all poorer for it.

I spent my life believing I was immune to this kind of petty resentment, but recently discovered I am not. (I’m guessing no one is.) When an acquaintance of mine snagged a monster advance for his first novel, I actually sat down and did the math and figured out that his advance was exactly 400 times larger than the advance I’d just gotten for my third novel. This made me sick – not the whopping disparity in our paydays, but the very fact that I cared. It took me several days to get over the shame I felt for being so petty, and several more to come around to feeling what I should have felt all along – namely, delight for my acquaintance’s astonishing good fortune, and pride in the fact that I had sold another book. It was an unnerving emotional roller-coaster ride.

coverWhich brings us back to James Franco. Judging by the reaction to Janet Potter’s recent essay here at The Millions, the people most likely to work up a foam-at-the-mouth hatred for Franco are aspiring writers. We’re back to the converse of schadenfreude. Potter’s essay grew out of a recent poetry reading she attended in Chicago featuring Franco and Frank Bidart, a renowned poet who has become a mentor to Franco and a vocal supporter of Franco’s literary ambitions. Franco’s first book of poetry is called Directing Herbert White, a reference to the short movie he directed that was inspired by Bidart’s poem, “Herbert White,” which is narrated by a necrophiliac murderer. At the reading, Bidart said it was “thrilling” to watch Franco turn his poem into a movie, and he praised Franco as someone who “astonishes the guardians of category.” To her surprise, Potter found that this unlikely pairing of the poet and the movie star made for an “unironically enjoyable and inspiring” evening.

Her sentiment was not unanimous. Ian Belknap, who also attended the reading, wrote that Franco is a “slack and slipshod writer – a writer whose name we would never know if we did not see it on marquees and posters.” Belknap added that Franco’s writing is “farcical beat-offery,” his poetry is an “aggressive and sustained campaign of dipshit-ification,” and Franco himself is “more pretentious than the leotard-wearingest mime.”

Vitriol can be so funny! Amusing as it is, Belknap’s rant raises serious questions, such as: since this is still sort of a free country, shouldn’t someone who is successful in one field be free to dabble in another field or, in Franco’s case, many other fields? And even if Franco’s celebrity makes it easier for him to get published than a more talented nobody, is it really true that a book by a movie star automatically siphons vital money from more deserving writers? I have my doubts. Franco has said that he hopes his celebrity will bring new readers to all poetry and fiction. Maybe it will. Given the sorry state of reading in America today, I say anything that might get people to read is worth a shot.

Ian Belknap, it turns out, wrote and performed a one-man show in Chicago last year with a title that says it all: “Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull.” Asked by a Chicago Tribune writer to explain his beef with Franco, Belknap replied, “The basic thrust is that Franco has taken the most bloated, lightweight approach to the arts I’ve ever seen…My problem is with the people who ostensibly believe in the arts, as Franco claims he does, who then erode the value of art from within…(M)y qualm is with the access to an audience, resources, publishing and galleries by people like him.” Among “people like him” Belknap includes Ethan Hawke playing novelist and Kevin Bacon playing in a band.

Wait a minute. Nobody squawks when established writers publish shitty books, something that happens every day, to the detriment of worthy unknowns. And nobody squawked when a bunch of bestselling authors – Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others – formed a band called Rock Bottom Remainders and hauled in some $2 million from their performances and recordings – money that, in theory, was diverted from the pockets of more worthy professional musicians. (It probably helped that the wealthy authors didn’t take themselves too seriously and they donated the $2 million to charity.)

But back to Palo Alto and Palo Alto and “Palo Alto” – the place that inspired the book of short stories that inspired the movie. Franco grew up in this privileged California town, and his book of short stories attempts to capture the anomie of coming of age in such a place. The writing is flat, wooden, and disjointed, not an easy combo to pull off. The movie isn’t much better – a string of vignettes about teenagers hooking up, binge drinking, barfing, smoking weed, cutting down trees, and driving the wrong way on the freeway. We’re reminded, yet again, how tough it is to be a rich teenager.

coverLast year, Franco followed Palo Alto with his first novel, Actors Anonymous, which includes an actor named James Franco and feels like a dashed-off first draft in need of rumination and polishing. Like his other books, it got largely negative reviews and inspired widespread foaming at the mouth.

The self-referential streak in Franco’s writing announces that he has decided to write what he knows. Normally a hobbling strategy for a writer unless you happen to be a Proust, a Joyce, or an Updike, this might yet prove to be a smart move on Franco’s part. His intimate familiarity with the workings of celebrity puts him in touch with a potentially rich source of material, especially in a culture like ours that’s drunk on the stuff. Unfortunately, Franco has not yet figured out a way to write knowingly about what he knows. Consider the poem “Because,” which opens Directing Herbert White. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

Because I played a knight,
And I was on a screen,
Because I made a million dollars,
Because I was handsome,
Because I had a nice car,
A bunch of girls seemed to like me.

But I never met those girls,
I only heard about them.
The only people I saw were the ones who hated me,
And there were so many of those people.
It was easy to forget about the people who I heard
Like me, and shit, they were all fucking fourteen-year-olds.

And I holed up in my place and read my life away,
I watched a million movies, twice,
And I didn’t understand them any better.

But because I played a knight,
Because I was handsome,

This was the life I made for myself.

Years later, I decided to look at what I had made,
And I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw.

But he’s the one who stayed after I died.

After bumbling along on the surface of some mildly interesting ideas, the poem suddenly dives deep and says something visceral and revealing: I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw. Now we’re getting somewhere dark and promising – the movie star’s dirty little secret, his loathing for that chimera on the screen who millions of people worship. Maybe, with time, Franco will grow into the role of Hollywood mole, delivering wise dispatches from inside the belly of the beast, à la Bruce Wagner or Joan Didion or Nathanael West.

I’m not going to wait and see, and I’m not going to waste my time hoping James Franco fails because I know this: schadenfreude and its evil doppelgänger, resentment, are a pair of stone-cold killers. They will kill you and they will kill your writing. So you might want to do what I’m going to do: I’m going to forget about James Franco and Jonathan Franzen and other writers’ advances, then get on with my own work.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. This essay is not helping me forget the steaming pile of entitlement that is James Franco!

  2. Isn’t Franco directing versions of “Tender is the Night”, “Moby Dick”, “Cannery Row”, “Pale Fire”, “Wise Blood”, and “The Sheltering Sky” as well as teaching these seminal texts this semester at Columbia and The Sorbonne?

  3. In most of the interviews I’ve read, Franco seems like a pretty humble guy who is very earnestly trying to become good at writing (something he probably has very little natural talent at, unlike acting). I personally think it’s kind of nice to have someone with a little cultural cache and very high cheekbones be discussing Melville and O’Connor and O’Hara in People Magazine, even if his own poems and novels are dreck.

  4. Very disappointing article. Your “if you can beat’em, join ’em, they’re all just jealous” analysis of criticism against Franco’s undeserved access to and recognition by the literary world is dismaying. Frank Bidart has completely discredited himself with his support of Franco. A true literary mentorship by an established writer involves mentoring a writer whose work would otherwise have no access to the larger literary world and implies a genuine respect and nurturing of that work –difficult to conceive considering Franco’s literary branding the the ubiquity of his recent publications in multiple genres by big publishing houses. Bidart has shown that even prize-winning poets and writers are not above being flattered by celebrity attention. Your belief that Franco isn’t “siphoning” off money for more deserving writers and that, in the end, if it gets more people to read, are both tried and true albeit weak justifications for the worse abuses of privilege. It’s not shadenfreude my friend; it’s called fairness. That’s what people are really decrying.

  5. I don’t see why the arguments that 1) Franco isn’t siphoning off money for more deserving writers and 2) that he’s shedding light on better literature and getting people to read are weak justifications. They’re both true. I guess it’s unfair that he’s published, but who cares? His stuff has been roundly mocked, as far as I know. I mean, shockingly, a celebrity enjoys privileges and access unavailable to non-celebrities. Anyone upset about this must spend their days concussed into insensibility by the unfairness of the world.

  6. Slightly different editing would not now have me sorta thinking that Mark Twain was living in 2008. But you know genetics research is a runaway train and assuming SLC’s body is where they say it is I’m sure he’ll be a candidate to make the first 100 American dead people to be cloned. (First will be Lincoln, you can take that to the bank.)

    The people who buy James Franco books are probably not about to buy the latest work put out by some starving artist. If anything Franco is probably eating into the royalties of Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling. His attempts to be literate should be appreciated but what he really should be doing is using his Hollywood ins to give some even more literate people a seat at some tables.

    I’ve been struggling for a while to understand why more small-print-run authors who are championed by the literary crowd can’t make a greater impact in movies or TV. TV in particular is now teeming with literate geeks. I think what is most galling to many Francohaters – though they’d loathe to admit it – is that they lack the charisma they need to wedge their way into more influential spaces.

    James Franco gets things done because one way or another he influences people to let him. His influence may exceed his learning but at least he has found a way to succeed (if you want to call it that). Although the hill is steep and most writers are at the bottom looking up, the issue is as much that they lack proper footwear as it is that the mountain is high.

  7. “Has the son of a bitch (John Updike) ever had one unpublished thought?”- David Foster Wallace

    I always think of that quote on Updike when it comes to James Franco hate. Franco it seems does everything. He acts. He directs “As I Lay Dying” and other book adaptations that no one watches. He writes novels and creates “art”. There’s so much Franco overload that it creates resentment.

  8. “It’s not shadenfreude my friend; it’s called fairness. That’s what people are really decrying.”

    Are we really all that naive to assume that there is a fairness at work in the literary world? Dollar, dollar bill, y’all.

    Nothing is about fairness – to quote Wilde “Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”

    If your argument is that it is not fair that Franco is famous and can use his fame as he wishes is a weak argument.

  9. That last sentence, can I frame it and put it on my wall? It obliterated the rest of your article in the second it took to read it.

  10. Having just read the quoted Ian Belknap comment from the linked Potter article, I really must comment on the rich irony. Belknap chides us as a culture for paying attention to James Franco’s literary sidelines, when he is the one writing thinkpieces and a one-man play about them, and getting considerable attention himself for doing so. Has James Franco actually received any serious acclaim from anyone whose work he isn’t adapting into a film? Isn’t he regarded with tolerant condescension by most literate people, the same way you might humor a mentally handicapped child who wants to wear a fireman’s hat and ride on the truck. In short, again, does anyone actually care about James Franco and his literary aspirations besides James Franco, Frank Bidart, and Ian Belknap?

  11. Dig the man telling you that life isn’t fair and get on with your work after he has just got done posting a piece about James Franco, hoping it gets enough hits so that he can continue to write about hard hitting topics like all y’all’s jealousy of James Franco. You first. Bill, you first. When did you decide that worrying about James Franco was the pasttiime of a ninny? This morning? The only thing more tiresome than people calling out James Franco for being the mediocre talent that he is are all the writers telling us to stop worrying about this mediocre talent who is constantly being written and talked about. Now that Bill’s sucked James Franco’s tit hard enoug to squeeze out a little bit of milk he feels full and can move on to the next. That’s very proactive, Bill. Very.

  12. Resentment is a killer. When the French peasantry beheaded Marie Antoinette, where did it get them? Had they just focused on their own fieldwork, they would have been much happier and well-rounded people. Vitriol is so funny!

    Also, thank you for defining schadenfreude for me! Always wondered what it meant.

  13. “When an acquaintance of mine snagged a monster advance for his first novel, I actually sat down and did the math and figured out that his advance was exactly 400 times larger than the advance I’d just gotten for my third novel.”

    Garth Risk Hallberg, with your advance bring about 5k?

  14. If I worried about all the awful-to-middling writing out there I’d never stop worrying. I can’t find it in my hardened heart to care very much whether Franco writes. This won’t change unless it becomes blindingly obvious that he’s transformed into one of the world’s pre-eminent literary treasures at which point I’d feel compelled to reassess the situation.

    I would lay down good money to watch a Franco-directed ‘Moby Dick’ film starring James Franco. But i’m comfortable with my own perversity in this regard.

  15. He played a great Tristan, though.
    And he wrote a good column on his “favorite summer reads” for a popular news website.

  16. The reason we don’t need to import a German word for the counterpoint to schadenfreude is that we already have a common English word for it: “envy.” This phenomenon is more ancient than literature itself.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.