I spent most of yesterday putting together notes to write a defense of James Franco and his work. In 2002, before his life became the huge performance piece it is now, I had a run-in with Franco at a Warhol retrospective in Los Angeles. He was there alone, on a slow day, and seemed to be earnestly enjoying the work. These larger, hip retrospectives in LA are wont to become scenes – places to be seen as opposed to places to see, and it was clear he was there for the latter. That moment and this recent appearance on the Colbert Report endeared him to me. Franco’s a smart dude, and of course, it makes sense. His parents are the Keatons for god’s sake. The mother is a poet and an editor, and his father runs a non-profit; they met at Stanford. We should be lucky he didn’t go the way of Alex P. and isn’t Rick Santorum’s right hand. If you were to strip the celebrity from him, his academic endeavors make sense. Almost.
I went through most of the writing on him (the folks over at Salon despise him), glossed a couple stories, including this piece at Esquire, and tried to put together a definitive Franco CV. Here’s what I got, and I may be wrong – it’s a mind-numbing and dizzying project: Undergrad Creative Writing at UCLA, Creative Writing MFA from Columbia, pursuing a Film MFA from NYU, pursuing a Poetry MFA from Warren Wilson, pursuing a PhD in English from Yale, and recently accepted but deferred for Fall 2012 into University of Houston’s PhD in Creative Writing. In an initial draft of this, I’d flubbed spell check and corrected a typo to perusing as opposed to pursuing. Microsoft may be a bit more intuitive than we give it credit. In addition to his course load, he teaches a couple classes – and, uh, makes movies and shit.
One of my favorite things to watch on YouTube is old clips from What’s My Line, a panel game show that ran on CBS throughout the fifties and ended in the late sixties. I think it saw a couple of revivals throughout the years, but the original is the one I’m most interested in. That panel consisted of New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman, the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, the poet Louis Untermeyer and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Hoffman. A little later, Bennet Cerf came on, the Random House Publisher. There was time, at least it seems, when our country’s intellectuals were also its celebrities; when literary circles and the media were one in the same – you know, Faulkner and Fitzgerald writing screen and teleplays.
I grew up during the 80s and was raised on HBO Sports documentaries. I was never into sports, but I was into the spectacular and against all odds narratives, and those cats had it down. Without fail, Mailer and Plimpton would always run commentary. So what if I thought George Plimpton was the same guy who made Plymptoons? I did know he was the editor of The Paris Review. Oh, I hazard you against clicking that one — you may never come back. And I knew too that Mailer was a writer. Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis seemed to be an evolution of this tradition. Ellis still shows up, and McInerney had his wine column, but they in no way came to occupy the positions Mailer and Plimpton did in ubiquity and household recognition.
When I was a kid, my favorite shows were Charlie Rose and Tom Snyder. I was a weird and unpopular child who walked funny. Although Rose is still on the air, Snyder left in 1999, and presently The Late Late Show, now Craig Ferguson’s, bears no resemblance to the one-on-one headiness of the original. My point is this: I want to believe that James Franco is heralding the return of intelligence to pop, much in the same way that Lady Gaga arguably is. Wayne Brady and Noam Chomsky could host a sing-a-long quiz show on NBC called Sing, Singified, Singifier, and they would finally let Slavoj Zizek host SNL. I want James Franco to make what it is that I do just a bit cooler.
But he’s just doing it wrong. With Ellis, Plimpton, Mailer, et al., it was their writing that made them important, that catapulted them to celebrity, and not the celebrity that made the public interested in their writing. If Franco were writing cheesy tell-alls about banging Mila Kunis in Macaulay Culkin’s bathroom, I’d be all for it. But no, he writes similarly sexist pieces — vapid bildungsromans under the guise of literary fiction. Unlike writers-cum-celebrity who became mouthpieces for the culture through their criticism and appearances, this celebrity-cum-writer doesn’t seem to comment on much, besides James Franco. But even that is well and good. Jay-Z’s been rapping about how awesome Jay-Z is since 1995 and I adore him for it. If Franco were writing bad books, making good movies, and hanging out, I’d give him a pass. We did with Ethan Hawke. The problem with Franco is that he’s fucking with my money.
When people ask me what being a young poet is like, I give them that tired bit we’ve all probably heard of academia in general — it’s like Hollywood without the money. Every time I send a poem or manuscript out for publication, I enter into a huge lottery. The slush pile is like an open call: I study, write, practice a craft, and stand before a group of anonymous folk who dependent not only the quality of my work but hundreds of other unaccountable variables — how their day was, who they’re currently reading, whether or not they react to this certain style, whether or not they’re facebooking while going through the electronic submission manager, or whatever – decide on whether or not to publish a piece. But unlike nailing the audition of a lifetime, my payout is next to nil. The poem gets picked up by a journal I respect that has maybe circulation of 2,000, and sometimes, very rarely, I get a check for $15. With that check I buy a bottle and cry again about not going to law school.
Of course I don’t make work just to publish. Rather I make poems because I have to make poems for poems’s sake. Does that mean something? I hope it does. It’s that I am driven to, regardless of the larger system out there. And I hope that is true of Franco, that he writes because he has to. But the fact remains I chose to be a poet and nothing else. With that choice I forewent more lucrative careers (not me), and part of the baggage that comes along with that decision is that the system demands that I compete with other poets for very, very limited resources. I don’t like that about what we do. It makes this Gore Vidal line ring a bit too true: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
But it does develop a strong camaraderie and sense of community. We root for one another. We know how hard it is out there. So although our supper’s plain, we are very wonderful. It’s the reason AWP’s such a blast, but I’ve never seen him there. That’s where the Franco vitriol comes from. He’s not one of us. He isn’t out there hustling his MFA thesis. It was already picked up. He wasn’t at the pub with the rest of us, bitching about how so and so’s workshop is a sham. He forewent the trenches and he’s just doing too much. He missed Rankine flaming Hoagland and has never sent Michael Martone a text message. Every time he places a story or poem, someone I went to grad school does not. Yale’s PhD is fully funded, and Houston’s program “works hard to provide financial supports to all of its students.”
When his celebrity gets him into a highly competitive PhD program like Houston’s, someone with an MFA and a decent publication record who’s lucky to be teaching a 5/5 at a community college in Kalispell, Montana lost a spot. One of my New Orleans writer friends doesn’t get that sweet university health care, but rather has to sit in the Covenant House Free Clinic on Rampart for four hours because the summer’s brought on that curious staph infection again. Franco and his many MFAs mean fewer lines for the rest of us.
If you scan the comments below the story that the Houston Chronicle ran on his acceptance, you’ll find that even folk in Houston are confused about his attendance. Why UH, they ask. People who live in Houston are generally unaware of its program’s reputation. Unlike, say, Joaquin Phoenix’s foray into rap which was a joke and critique of celebrity at large, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, or even Franco’s own work on General Hospital, here he has cracked a small and insular group. Every time Franco gets into a new program, we all die a little. If I sound like the jealous geek, pissed because the captain of the football team is after my co-chair on academic decathalon, it’s because I am. I’m on that decathalon because I can’t play ball. You can’t have it all, Franco. You’re too close and know too much. Pretty soon you’ll be sending chapbooks to Omnidawn and reading slush for Sarabande. Or, actually, you won’t.
There’s an argument floating around that these renaissance folk of letters no longer exist due to specialization. Journalists are no longer novelists who are no longer poets who are no longer pundits who are no longer because we lost them to the niche demands of the university and the market. I wanted to believe that Franco bucked this trend and was a return to something of yesteryear, but rather he is an empty projection of it and a mirror of our constant content aggregating culture, a collection of links and thirty second clips. Shiny metals to pin to inflated chests. There is no there there. He is a man everywhere at once but really nowhere at all.