Yesterday, the New York Observer reported that James Franco has sold his first novel—and not to Scribner, which published his story collection, but to the fairly new publishing wing of Amazon. Cue, predictably, the eye-rolling: “a New Year has never truly dawned without announcement of something that James Franco is doing,” wrote Sean O’Neal at the A.V. Club (sarcastically, in case that’s not immediately clear). Amazon’s publishing wing, O’Neal says, “threatens to upend traditional publishing models forever, which is something they probably said to James Franco, probably in a wild-eyed and flamboyant manner they thought he might find attractive.” O’Neal also poked fun at the tentative title for the book, Actors Anonymous, and the novel’s reportedly autobiographical nature.
Of course, Franco has yet to explain to Amazon that his Franco “novel” is actually just his life, that every day is but a new chapter, and that we are all already reading it, but they’ll probably be really excited when they hear about it.
There was a time when a lot of people found Franco’s fooling around with his own celebrity (and his seemingly boundless appetite for graduate school) fun and even a little exciting—read, for instance, Sam Anderson’s terrific profile of Franco for New York Magazine. Then came the Oscars, and his dull performance in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and a general surfeit of James Franco news. It’s not surprising that O’Neal and others would greet this latest news with mocking disdain. But the very aspects of the story many people have already mocked are actually kind of encouraging. At least a little.
Start with the Amazon thing: Whether the e-tail giant is a force for good or evil in the literary world, the fiction acquisitions of its publishing wing deserve, at least for now, the benefit of the doubt. The reason: Amazon’s fiction editor Ed Park. One of the founders of The Believer, Park is a good writer of fiction himself and an excellent critic with consistently interesting taste. That doesn’t mean he can’t make mistakes or that a company as large as Amazon couldn’t make him feel pressured to go after a celebrity author like Franco. But Park’s past accomplishments inspire confidence in his choices.
Then there’s the autobiographical angle. O’Neal (and he’s not alone) presents this as evidence of Franco’s narcissism—as if much of the world’s great fiction isn’t based on the lives of its authors. Writing about his own life won’t turn James Franco into Philip Roth, but it’s a perfectly good subject for a novel—in fact, it’s precisely what, as a reader, I want James Franco to write about. One of the disappointments of his story collection (if “disappointment” is the right word; my expectations were not high) is that it lacked the playfulness regarding his own identity that Franco displayed in, for example, his General Hospital appearances. Writing, like acting, involves the creation of a persona, and opens a complicated distance between the author’s actual life and his life on the page. I hoped to find in Franco’s short fiction (which I wrote about for the London Review of Books) some awareness of that distance. Maybe he’d been reading Borges in one of those MFA programs? Alas, his major influence seemed to be early Bret Easton Ellis. Still, a title like Actors Anonymous at least provides some hope that Franco will bring a different approach to the novel.
And why not? Franco’s stories, which were not very good, may simply have been the apprentice-work that short fiction is for some writers. Yes, most actors-turned-novelists have little literary success. But Franco’s approach thus far has hardly been typical: He studied writing at the graduate level, he put together a collection of stories—he took, in other words, the steps most writers who are not also famous actors take, these days, on their way to a literary career. Of course, he’s gotten the kind of attention most of those writers can only dream of for taking those very ordinary steps—and it’s understandable that this would create frustration among many people at the injustice of it all. But what if Franco’s novel is actually good? Now that would really be unfair.