Let’s tilt this rant toward the hazy realm of publishing industry ethics. Unless I’m wrong, no one has yet produced a definitive (and mandatory) Proclamation of Acceptable Industry Practices. While organizations like IBPA, CLMP, and AWP discourage crappy conduct, they’re not sovereignties or disciplinary forces. They have no ubiquitous jurisdiction; no book cops on call and prepared to handcuff shady agents and hooligan managing editors. So, who keeps all the presses in check?
Ideally, a culture’s participants create, govern, and enforce their own guiding principles. For the most part, we rely on “good faith.” We assume nobody is going to cheat because—notwithstanding the resultant shame of having violated honor—there’s no point in committing an infraction. In such a small culture, word gets around quickly. One bad decision could end an editor’s or professor’s career, banish him from the cultural body, blacklist him from publication, send book sales plummeting, and destroy professional credibility. Our faith in virtue is reasonable, though occasionally, a few scamming culprits come along and remind us that localized corruption is both inevitable and impossible to preempt. These thugs are the contest judges who pick winners (a friend or former student) before the contest even begins. Then, there are criminals who package their vanity presses as legitimate publishing houses. “Congratulations!” they say in an email addressed to a desperate writer, “After careful consideration, we’d like to publish your book. We all loved it, and unanimously agreed that it’d be a great fit.” A month later, a letter comes in the mail, outlining the writer’s expected financial contribution to the project, which is 100%.
How about those “certified and trained” book marketing professionals who will promote your self-published e-book for a $1,000 fee? How about all the shit fuckers who use the oppressive James Frey publishing model, and create fiction factories where dejected writers, usually broke grad students, churn out ready-made novels for low pay and zero name recognition?
The great thing is, whenever a writer, institution, or service tries to dupe its writers, we immediately find out. Writers warn other writers. Even industry magazines like Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle sometimes expose shady groups or individuals. Like I said, we enforce our own ethics.
Since I’m part of the cultural collective, I’m not stepping out of bounds by discussing the ethical implications of your publication in Ploughshares. See, by virtue of their affiliation with you; that is, their in-print endorsement of your art, one cannot help but assume that there was… oh, I hate this word… nepotism involved.
And so fucking what if there was?
Here’s my take on nepotism. Let’s say that tomorrow morning, I check my email, and there’s a message from the editor of the Horse Pond Review:
Dear Don Peteroy:
Our mutual friend, Bob McRambo—editor of The Snot Snail Quarterly—informed me that you might be a great match for our magazine! I checked out some of your stories, and I’m impressed! If you have anything in the works right now, we’d love to take a look! Please send it to my personal email address: email@example.com
I could respond one of two ways.
1) “Wow! Thank you for considering me! I feel honored! Enclosed is my short story, ‘Bitch, Don’t Climb that Cliff Again!’”
2) “Barbara, you are a corrupted, profiteering elitist. Such preferential treatment is another nail in the coffin of literature. What about all those writers who have tried so hard to get into your journal? You’re going to skip right over them? I won’t tolerate this injustice. Don’t be surprised if I talk about you ethical violation in my blog.”
The fact is I would send Barbara my story. If a writer’s at a point in his/her career when personal solicitations arrive, then the writer’s work is—get this—distinct, valued, and important.
The critic, suspicious of an editor and author’s relationship, often declares, “They’re probably fucking each other.” She observes, “He probably accepted her story for One Hill Review because they went to school together, and now she’s an editor at The Brooklyn Fiction Journal. Just watch, he’ll be in the next issue of her magazine. I mean, just look at the contributor notes. They don’t even try to hide their exclusivity toward big names and editors of other magazines.”
The critic has a point, sort of. I imagine that for every good writer, there are two literary magazines (I’m not using the term “good” liberally; nor do I consider myself in the “good” category, yet). For every literary magazine, there are at least two editorial positions. Some have more than twenty: a slew of editors and an army of screeners. Plus, most writers know the best way to learn about writing stories is to read piles of them—not just great stories, but the mediocre and downright atrocious ones as well. Where does one go to obtain this pedagogical plenty? Become a screener/reader for a literary magazine.
I once heard an insane theory about nepotism. Apparently, during the AWP conference, the “elitists” confer behind closed doors. This literary Illuminati conducts a secret black-market auction of favors. A conspirator/ magazine editor might say, “Here’s a story by a former grad student of mine. I’ll give your friend a read if you consider my former student. I’d really like to see her published, and I’m sure you feel the same about your friend’s future prospects.”
Speculations about an AWP Illuminati are entirely irrational, but amusing. I envision graduate students hired to guard the door. They’re wearing suits that are three-sizes too large. Instead of folding their arms across their chests in order to look intimidating, they take self-conscious, clandestine glances at the poetry chapbooks stuffed up their sleeves, and conceal them whenever someone walks by.
The fact is no editor is going to risk his/her reputation by publishing a friend’s—or a friend-of-a-friend’s— mediocre story. The editor will publish his/her friend’s demonstratively exceptional story.
Hell, if I worked at Harper Perennial, and my friend from college—whom I still owe $200 for a bag of weed—handed me a manuscript for a book called The Church Administrator’s Daughter: Betrayed by the Sharp Thorns of Desire, I’d reject it.
James, the people who are yelling out “nepotism!” are casting stones at you, and meanwhile failing to acknowledge their own sins: stubbornness and pride (which manifests as an refusal to revise relentlessly), laziness (“I don’t need to waste my time building a reputation through sending work to snobby literary magazines. Someone will discover me by reading my blog”), and delusions of grandeur (“Everyone sucks at writing but me. I’m real”). They characterize themselves as misunderstood geniuses who have been victimized by everyone else’s tastelessness. They would rather gnaw on roadkill than acknowledge that their troubles are a direct result of their shitty writing.
Have I just flung a few stones? Christ, I get really heated up when I call upon myself to defend lit-culture. Why shouldn’t I? The short story would have died were it not for academia.
Anyway, back to the James Franco-nepotism dilemma. We don’t know what you went through to get a story in Ploughshares. You might have been rejected 50 times before they passed your manuscript along. You might have started off in the slush pile with the rest of us. Who knows?
Even your story got published because of nepotism, the advantages outweigh the critical ramifications. Here’s the thing: If I became the managing editor of a literary magazine, I’d honor an open submissions policy, and carefully consider the first few pages of every story. But I’d also solicit “big names.” Matter of fact, I’d solicit you. If you sent me a turd of a story, I’d reject it, but I’d be willing to take your “pretty good” story and help make it great. Point being, having you in an issue would—hopefully—increase sales and entice potential subscribers (hell, I bet lots of grumpy writers would buy the Franco issue with the intent of proving that you’re a hack. Their agendas would amount to little but our financial profit. The haters would be subsidizing more print space for “up and coming” writers in the next issue, or, even better, a bunch of bonus checks for my overworked volunteers). Literary magazines, in general, are barely hanging on. A magazine with 300 subscribers is doing darned well; and frankly, that’s sad. When I say “doing well,” I don’t mean making a profit. I mean, they have enough money to buy a few extra office supplies. So what’s the harm in publishing a celebrity who knows a little about how to write a story? I’m not suggesting that magazines sacrifice their aesthetic integrity in order to stay afloat, but in cases like yours, it’s a win-win situation.
Chances are, your agent hooked you up with Ploughshares. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what agents do. But, given the magazine’s limited real-estate, it’s entirely possible that another writer got bumped in order to make room for you. My outlook isn’t that pessimistic; I’m sure Ploughshares made their decision to publish you well in advance, and had planned the logistics carefully. I don’t see Ploughshares as the kind of journal who’d make immediate accommodations at an agent’s request. It’s also plausible—very plausible— that of the 1,500 stories they received that month, 1,499 hadn’t left a lasting impression.
My ambivalence stops here. Whether we want to admit it or not, you have exclusive access to literary culture. Had you lacked celebrity status, wealth, and career-resources, your rise to prominence might have taken ten to fifteen years longer. Your pre-existing influence in Hollywood (which you’ve earned, no doubt), along with its social and financial benefits, has softened your entry into this culture, has enabled you to work with the best writers out there. You’ve got it made, James. My advice—and we’ll get into this more in the next blog—is don’t fuck it up. You’ve been called to walk on sacred ground. Few of us have.
To coin a bad metaphor, most writers, stuck between a rock and a hard place, have to sacrifice an arm in order to ascend from the crevice. We stitch our amputation wounds with thin thread: an occasionally uplifting acceptance letter sent by Quarterly West or Wisconsin Review. We take minimally effective measures to prevent infection: we win a chapbook contest, which guarantees our health for another year. But soon enough, the stitches come loose, and tetanus turns the skin black. We enter twenty more book contests and send out hundreds of poems or stories. For a graduate assistant making $15,000 a year, the contest fees alone are upward of $300. Beans to you, a month without rent for a grad school student.
When you jumped into the crevice, when you screamed for help because your arm was stuck, a thousand cranes and bulldozers rushed to the scene. Along with them: miners, the Red Cross, the best doctors in America, FEMA. When all was said and done, you wiped the dust off your shirt, popped a Vicodin, and said to everyone, “Thanks! That was close! I’m considering Everest, so let’s start planning now, in case I need your help.”
I can’t anticipate your reaction accurately, but I imagine—if you’re as prideful as any human—you’re thinking, “No, fucker. You’re wrong. First off, you want to talk about sacrificing an arm for your art? Try being a movie star and getting your PhD at the same time. Try spending ten hours shooting an eight minute scene, after having not slept because you’ve been flying around the country all week. Try reading Ulysses in your trailer, while people keep banging on your door. Then stay up all night writing a seminar paper on Faulkner’s inadvertent tendency to render a Marxist critique of post-Civil War Mississippi by subverting heteroglossic hierarchies and thereby diffusing narrative control equally. Second, my fame and my connections didn’t make me a writer. My writing, which I’ve worked years to develop, made me a writer.”
But no matter how well you justify your case (assuming you’d waste time doing so), the question remains: Should we take your art seriously?
My answer is yes. You’re a writer who cares about writing; a reader who cares about reading. That’s all that should matter. It’s all that matters to me. I’m glad to know that you and I probably experienced the same edge-of-the-seat, manic inability to put down Danielewski’s House of Leaves. That Denis Jonson’s Jesus’ Son made us squirm merrily. We devote our lives and souls to seeking out these sermons. We’re not searching for salvation; we’re celebrating it, one book at a time.
Next question: is it even possible to take your art seriously?
My answer is yes (no). Ideally, I’d approach your writing through the same critical lens that I’d use to read any other writer’s story. But no matter what you write, it’s always going to be by James Franco, the guy who kissed Sean Penn in Milk. For most readers, your Hollywood biography will interfere with (or contaminate) the reading experience. Had the New Criticism movement in literary theory illuminated, honed-in on, and perfected our allegedly “natural” way of arriving at meaning though texts, then you’d never have to worry about the intentional fallacy. Unfortunately, for you, modern literary nerds are trained to laugh at the idea of an objective reading. Don’t blame us. Blame the French. Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida. They’re the ones who said, “Hey, check this out, Pierre. The text isn’t the text! It’s everything else, too.”
The good news is, the people who admire your acting but barely read probably won’t be grumpy when they read Palo Alto. They’re not interested in stories; they’re interested in stories told by the celebrity James Franco . And I’m willing to bet that the majority of Palo Alto copies sold went into the hands of film lovers rather than English majors/professors. All the power to you. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe’s they’ll get to the end of Palo Alto, find out who your favorite writers are, then get into Danielewski and Jonson. Then they’ll look into who influenced Jonson, and maybe go buy some of Jonson’s top ten books.
We haven’t yet resolved the problem of how to remove all James Franco connotations from the text. Is a purist reading even possible?
Hemingway suffered the same predicament, and he didn’t like it. People were no longer reading Hemingway, they were reading Hemingway. Having become a literary celebrity, he felt like he had no other option than to do a parody of himself, to perform the role of Hemingway both in and out of the text.
It made him depressed. In the end, he wouldn’t settle for amputation.
The fact is no matter what you write, readers will find themselves removed from the story because they imagine James Franco the star. Some will get close; they’ll be an inch away from textual intimacy. Others, your haters, will be as far away from your stories as the moon.
Although I’m in no position to give you advice, I’d like to point out an opportunity you might have overlooked. You can work around this “my celebrity status contaminates this story” dilemma by adopting certain postmodernist techniques. Self-referential metafiction isn’t as popular anymore, but you’d have a particular stake in that aesthetic. I’d love to read a story that’s aware of the fact that it’s being written by a celebrity who has had very few road blocks to publication.
Now, back to the original question, the whole point of this thing. Are you a real writer?
Yes, James. An enormously lucky one. Welcome aboard. Although this means nothing to you, I’m glad you’re here.
Chapter 2. The Road to Ploughshares is Paved in Copies of Ploughshares: An Examination of Your Writing.
Dear James Franco,
Now that we’ve established that I’m a misplaced social worker and not a real writer, let’s pivot our attention toward you. Let’s talk about authenticity, and your position in the literary world.
I mentioned earlier that contributors to Franco-related discussions on the internet commonly express ambivalence. I’m not sure if I believe them, but I understand why they’re cautious about voicing skepticism. Squirrels don’t attack bears. Unknown writers who hope to get published in prestigious journals don’t lay into the journals’ contributors. They don’t lambast book publishers. It’s not a wise career move.
As it is, there are a few rabid squirrels among us, hissing at your paws. Although they clearly haven’t done their research, they accuse you of being a poser. Actually, your breadth of knowledge—especially concerning poetry—proves that you’re not a fake. I came to this conclusion after just a few clicks on Youtube.
See, you’ve already one-upped most writers, insofar as you’re well read. For every well-read writer, there are fifty aspiring writers who, only in dire circumstances, resort to reading a book. When their wells of spontaneously overflowing emotions dry up, they might pluck their high school copy of Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby off their one-tier bookshelf, hoping to find inspiration. They’ll confuse nostalgia for insight, feel satisfied, and get back to writing their heart-felt confessionals. Once a year, they might blow the dust off a Barnes and Nobel gift card, and try to “catch up.” While scanning the fiction section, their eyes will pass over Percival Everett and Lauren Groff and Dan Chaon. They’ll see your collection of short stories and think, “Oh! James Franco! I know him.” Invariably, they’ll leave the bookstore with your collection, two magazines, and a self help book purporting ten adventurous non-anal steps to having a better sex life.
Can you see how this angers me? What’s worse, a well-read celebrity who gets a book published, or a willfully illiterate amateur landing a book deal?
Last year, I read your Esquire story, “Just Before Black.” Although Franco critics and disgruntled writers—motivated by a territorial agenda—cited lines like “the shadows make it shadow-color” as undeniable evidence of your ineptitude, I beg to differ. I can see this statement’s tense undercurrent of hipster-minimalist irony. It’s the kind of irony I strive to produce.
Here’s an ironic hipster simile for you: “The tree was as tall as a six-foot fence.”
I know you just giggled. Everyone did.
Here’s the problem with “Just Before Black.” Were I to put my silly simile in a story about being a bad-ass suburban New York teenager and send it off to Esquire, they’d reject my manuscript without question, whether I’m poetically embodying this generation’s existential irony or not.
Also, If you’d submitted “Just Before Black” under the pseudonym Joe McThick, do you think Esquire would have published it?
I’m addressing a rather petty concern; this “Esquire-favored-Franco” argument has come up a million times in a million Graduate Assistant offices. Although I have nothing new to contribute to the conversation, I’m assuming that you might not be aware of the extent to which this debate has permeated our subculture. Even in Cincinnati, we’re scratching our heads.
The general consensus among my friends is that you’d written an OK story. Maybe I have lower standards, but I like entertaining stories, and “Just Before Black” met my expectations. God knows, I’ve read far too many trendy “nothing happens” vignettes about middleclass ennui. Snore.
I have not purchased Palo Alto. I might enjoy the book, but you don’t need my money. Let the kid who admires your portrayal of a stoner in Pineapple Express be the one to purchase it. Heck, maybe it’ll get him interested in books. I’d rather spend what little money I have on the following wish list of books. Feel free to buy these for me:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff.
Grim Tales by Norman Lock
The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense by Tim Kinsella
The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville
Daddy’s by Lindsay Hunter
AM/PM by Amelia Gray
Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience edited by Stacey Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, and Kat Meads
How to Predict the Weather by Aaron Burch
In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor
Bob, or Man on Boat by Peter Markus
With the exception of Groff, all of these books are published by Mud Luscious Press and Dzanc Books.
Back to your stories, one fellow said about Palo Alto, “The stories are good, but no better than what most upper-level graduate students bring to workshop. It’s just that he’s James Franco.”
Then, of course, this illuminating section from a book review in The Atlantic, addressed directly to you:
The casually interconnected stories of Palo Alto are written in a flat, minimally descriptive style that would be inscrutable if it weren’t punctuated by equally flat dialogue, bringing your entire authorial skill into question. While this book isn’t quite “undergraduate-level mulch,” it is perhaps graduate-level mulch. You can surprise with your words—as when you describe a car full of teenagers as an “octopus of bodies,” or how all the letters in a book, read by a stoned boy, “were ants marching to the crease”–but the overall style, a spiritless monotone, denies youth its complexity. (April 8, 2011)
I imagine that you don’t give a hoot what the guardians of the cultural gate—and the MFA collective—say about you. You’ve got my sympathy. A lot of them are not huge fans of my writing, either. If I were to set ablaze all my rejection slips, the smoke would blot out the sun for a decade.
I say that with no animosity. I earned my rejection slips by sending magazines bad stories. I try not to do that anymore. Back then, I believed I was a good writer, and only needed minor improvements, here and there. I thought that my ability to express uncensored feelings on paper was enough. I didn’t realize that the act of confession, in and of itself, isn’t art. The same goes for being “experimental.” I was taking liberties with form and narrative without knowing anything about form and narrative. I was like an auto mechanic who’s never worked on a car setting up shop and wondering why his garage is always empty.
Did I use that simile in a previous blog? I think I did. See, I’m still a lazy writer.
About the difficulties of getting a story published if you’re not a celebrity:
Let’s say you write a great story. Getting that first story published is tricky business, especially if you’re aiming for more competitive literary magazines. You might have produced a gem, but if it ends up in the hands of a slush pile screener who’s tired and having a bad day (like most graduate student volunteers at lit mags); who has deeply-rooted and unfavorable opinions about your chosen style, form, genre, or subject matter; or who just read a story by a Pushcart Prize winner and frequent Missouri Review contributor, then you can forget about it. These magazines get thousands of submission every year, presumably all from writers who believe that their story/stories stand out more than the others. In the end, the screeners might pick ten to twenty stories. Let’s do the math:
The Park Slope Literary Review gets 1,000 fiction manuscripts during their open reading period. They read them all and pick the best ten. That means, aspiring writers have a one-tenth of one percent chance of getting a story published in the Park Slope Literary Review. 990 fiction writers will get rejection slips in the mail.
This is normal. I don’t want to know the numbers pertaining to Colorado Review, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and so on.
See what I’m getting at? A writer whom I admire once said, “Writing is about failure.”
The thing that separates you from me is that you get to bypass most of the obstacles and obstructions on the way to become an “established” writer. I say “most of” because I recognize that not everything goes smoothly. For instance, you’ll have to work extra hard to get published in The Atlantic. Still, would it be unreasonable for me to make the analogy that you’re using a Ferrari in a twenty-lap race against crippled men and women in wheelchairs? You’re going to win, and there’s going to be lots of wrecked wheelchairs and spilled guts everywhere.
If I sound passionate about this issue, it’s because I’m a shitty writer who has no control over his tone. I’m largely ambivalent, actually. If Glimmer Train decided to devote three full issues to “The Fiction of James Franco,” I’d make some kind of guttural sound, then move on with life.
But let’s stay on-topic. We need to talk about Ploughshares.
Though I need not explain this to you (here’s the problem with using you as a surrogate to address my larger audience of six patient friends), getting a story published in Ploughshares is about as difficult as getting a finger in Rick Santorum’s sphincter. Representation in Ploughshares is about the highest honor a short-story writer can attain. Whether this is because Ploughshares continually reestablishes their aesthetic preeminence, or if it’s because their reputation is so firmly rooted in our subculture’s history, I can’t say. It’s probably a mix of both. (Every aspiring writer has sent them a story or poem at some time, but how many have actually read an issue? I sometimes wonder if the mythos surrounding Ploughshares has a greater cultural resonance than the actual printed magazine. That would be sad). In any case, according to the internet, Ploughshares receives about 1,000 to 1,500 submissions a month. Let’s say they get 15,000 submissions a year. How many submissions (fiction) end up in print? Less than 20?
Rick Santorum is coming to town. Fiction writers, lube up that middle finger.
Several months ago, I tore the cellophane off of my newly arrived issue of Ploughshares. I’m always excited when the mailman drops off Ploughshares. Sometimes, when I read the stories they’ve published, I think, “Fiction is not dead, and it never will be.”
I brought the magazine to the dining room and fished through the contributor notes, which is always the first thing I do. Alas, there was your name. I blinked a few times. I suppose it was like seeing an apple growing on a tennis racket. A refrigerator shaving off its beard.
I thought, “What the fucking fuck is up with this dude?” I’m sure many people experienced similar bewilderment.
My rational side intervened: “Maybe it’s a good story? I’ll give it a fair and neutral read before I make any judgments.”
I read it. You’ve got a distinctive style. The prose and voice are sparse, but not in that obligatory-Raymond-Carver-phase kind of way. I was engaged.
Certainly, many are wondering if your story really is good enough for Ploughshares. I’m not the managing editor, and I’m in no position to speak on behalf of—let me go get the magazine and flip it open to the masthead—the issue’s Guest Editor, Alice Hoffman; Editor-In-Chief, Ladette Randolph; Managing Editor, Andrea Martucci; and Fiction Editor, Margot Livesey.
Shit. I know Margot Livesey. My friend invited her to a Thanksgiving dinner. We talked about writing workshops. She teaches at a local university. I leant some of my rare Vonnegut books to her husband. I also did a silly one-question interview with Margot on the Cincinnati Review Blog.
I’m becoming self-conscious, weary of my message and its possible ramifications. Ploughshares always seemed as distant as Atlantis. Up until this moment, I felt safe under the illusion that I’m critiquing the magazine from afar.
Fuck it. Here’s what I’m getting at: we can assume that since your story is in Ploughshares, it’s good enough to be in Ploughshares.
Case closed. That was easy.
Now, we still haven’t decided on whether you’re a real writer or not. We’ll come to that decision in the third installment. The next section, which I will have up in a week, hopefully, will discuss the ethics of nepotism (the pros and cons) as they pertain to Ploughshares and other influential outlets in the industry. I’d like to point my finger at individuals and institutions who have committed blatant ethical violations, and to trivialize what others might see as violations (like magazines soliciting authors). Lastly, I’ll reach a verdict on your case by evaluating the ways we are being asked to read your work. I also bring into account your mostly unhindered access to literary culture.