Dear James Franco,
This letter isn’t addressed to you in particular, but to all the literary journals and monthly magazines that offer book reviews.
If you’re not familiar with VIDA, they’re an organization that “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of wring by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” I pulled that off the VIDA website, which you can access here:
I don’t know the specific circumstances that led to the formation of VIDA, but I’m sure a lot of it had to do with many magazines’ overt bias toward reviewing books written by male authors, along with other acts of discrimination. For the last couple of years—and maybe more—VIDA has kept track of how women writers are being neglected in the literary world. They’ve scoured national magazines and periodicals, and have collected data that verifies these disparities. VIDA releases “the count” annually, at or around the time of AWP (AWP is an academic conference for writing programs. About 10,000 writers attend this yearly, and just about every publisher, press, and literary magazine has a booth. There’s a shit ton of readings, celebrations, panels, fucking, drinking, and schmoozing). The VIDA count consists of pie charts; each chart pertaining to a single magazine or venue that either publishes fiction/poetry, or offers book reviews. For instance, if you look below, at the bottom of this post, VIDA published this Harper’s Magazines pie chart showing that of the 65 books reviewed in 2012, 11 were books written by females.
Busted! Think that’s bad? The New Republic’s overall representation of gender was 389 males to 77 females. Magazines like Harper’s, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and on and on and on, got nailed for dismissing women writers. The Times Literary Supplement might as well print a full page spread that says:
“ Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5:22, New Testament (NIV).
You can take a look at the VIDA pies here: http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2012
And now it is time for me to switch gears. Listen, I have no sympathy for these magazines. I might be giving myself a bad name by attacking these powerful magazines. If I even write something that has the potential for a review in one of the said venues, they might—God forbid—group me with the women. But I’m a benevolent person, always willing to help out any male who feels like his penis is in danger. The New Republic’s dick is in danger. They’ve caught the literary equivalent of gonorrhea. The Times Literary Supplement’s collective cock has stage-three syphilis. Do you know what that looks like? Imagine cauliflower growing on a pecker. Who wants that? I just happen to have the cure for book review syphilis.
I’d like to offer all the literary misogynists a bailout. It’s time to even the playing field and recognize females of the opposite sex. I know this will be terribly difficult for you because you believe that women are innately worse writers than men. I don’t have the time or energy to convince you that you’re wrong, that Ernest Hemingway was one of the greatest female writers of all time, but I can offer you a quick VIDA pie-chart fix. In a way, it’s a readymade recipe. I have written reviews for a number of books written by female authors. If you’re one of the guilty, and would like to see a more favorable pie chart representation next year, feel free to copy these reviews and publish them. These reviews are about as poorly-written as I can make them, but at this point, you should be more worried about quantity than quality.
The Days Are Gods by Liz Stephens (University of Nebraska Press): Stephens has crafted a definitive intertwining of prose and lyricism that only the most inviting of unorthodox memoir forms can achieve insofar as her personal recollections thrive on the fluidity of the controlling theme (laying down one’s roots) re-envisioned through multiple tonal valiances. Similar to Kevin Collins-Wavette’s detail-rich New Sentimentalism, Stephens takes readers to the next level, where self-discovery isn’t synonymous with cock.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (Scribner). This close examination of integrity resonates with our long-lost romanticism, and threatens—through the use of skillfully rendered dialogue—to incriminate readers who have banished their youthful ideals on the precept that passion is prosaic. Niffernegger is neither hostile nor aggressive; rather, she uses narrative as a vehicle for sympathy, and with an unconditionally loving sense of duty she walks side-by-side with her readers, ushering them back to the beautiful but often terrifying romantic world of abstractions.
Together Tea by Marjan Kamali (Ecco). And now that we know empiricism is no longer influential, we can either valorize the excess of life’s tenderness, or succumb to the tenacity of emotional obfuscation. Kamil boldly embraces tenderness, and it sometimes seems like no matter what she’s talking about, she’s come up with something to make what her characters talk about about. Before I began reading this, I was aware that the writer is a female woman; however, I’m glad she is because I was better able to grapple with the lack of dual-narratives. Together Tea is an exciting, well-developed journey about the subtextual non-journey that we’re all afraid of taking. We get there at least twice in the novel, and I assure you, we’re in good hands. What would otherwise have been dramatic indulgence were it written by Saul Bellow or John Updike, Kamil officers picturesque landscapes to compensate for the “unnoticeable despite” that intersects—perhaps even decapitates—the form’s necessity for trivializing the glimpses into personal lives we expect from a book about noticing things that happen to people in relationships when they’re going from one place to another
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingslover (Harper Perennial). This book will empower women who are searching for things.
The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady (West Word Fiction). Brady’s award winning collection of short stories offers more than just a glimpse of life, impulses, and consequences. It discloses things that are irreversibly real, and then confirms them. There aren’t any paradoxes, either. This isn’t math-literature, it’s literature-literature, but with a twist. When you read this book in the comfort of your home, or in the discomfort of your home, you’ll inevitably escape your comfort, or your discomfort. And once you finish it, you’ll return to being comfortable or uncomfortable. It fucking does that.
The Earth is Not Flat by Katharine Coles (Red Hen Press). Cole’s poetry is about Antarctica because she went there and while she was there, she started to think about poetical things like life, death, and the meaning of life. You will not feel cold when you read these poems because her meditations are as warm as a match just seconds after you blow it out. If you like penguins and scientists and words, you’ll like poetry.
The Declarable Future by Jennifer Boyden (University of Wisconsin Press). Boyden uses sharp, poignant, sharp words in poetical arrangement in order to create poetry that both explores, interrogates, and meditates and interrogates meditations on the eager absurdities of alienation. Although doorknobs tell the daily news and an entire village has forgotten their children’s names, this isn’t so-called magical realism because in magical realism, you need reality to serve as the referent. Boyden, instead, tilts reality, so the referent and unfamiliar exist on the same plane. Clever. Alarming. Sharp. Poignant. This book will tip you over. Read it while slanting away from gravity’s pull.
Addled: A Novel by JoeAnn Hart (Hachette Books): Ever wonder what would happen if you killed a goose at a country club? This book tells you. Hart’s prose is whimsical and riotous while at the same time executing a sense of control that, were it goose killing instead of writing, would make for a slow, brutal murder. But this book isn’t a slow, brutal murder of the reader’s time; no, it’s a quick jolt of life. You will experience synergy with the plot.
Living Together: Short Stories and a Novella by Gloria Wheelan (Wayne State UP). If you read this book two times in one day, you might as well go for thirds. Each reading offers local pleasures, unlocks subtextual details that resonate from one story to the next with such great force that even your furniture will vibrate. Wheelan’s prose is like architecture, but I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s rigid; no, it’s like rubber architecture… rubbery without losing its beauty of integrity. What I mean is, if you look at it, it looks like normal fucking beautiful architecture, cement and iron bent in baroque patterns and shit, but if you poke it, your finger will leave an indentation. It’s reciprocal, really. Wheelan’s book approaches the reader, you, as if you’re ridged architecture. In a way, you are: we’re all like that when we open books. We’re tense and stiff and we’re like, “I fucking dare you to make me want to turn the page!” But then, after three pages, you begin to feel a bit elastic, and by the end, you realize that you, too, are rubbery architecture. At that moment, both you and the book are one. Only Gloria Wheelan can accomplish something like that.
Peter Never Came by Ashley Cowger (Autumn House Press). Cowger studies the tensions between adulthood and childhood by fucking the shit up. She whoops the crap out of things with inverted fairytales and contaminated recollections. Cowger provides the most pleasurable discomfort, kind of like when you take a hit of acid and your self-awareness breaks in two, and one is all chill, and the other is bugging out, but you can’t get the chill guy to talk the panicking guy down because they’re not on the same channel.
Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells (FC2): Small town, big woman, lots of mysteries, and false attributions of Godliness. Wells won’t settle for your typical domestic kitchen-scene argument fiction; no, she instead sticks a hose in each of her readers’ ears and then turns the fucking knob or dial or whatever, and the reader is flooded with good old fashioned fun shit that isn’t only fun, but important and meaningful fun, the kind that makes you think, yeah, people are nuts, but maybe I, too, lack a sense of scale; what I mean is maybe I fucking suck at weighing things. I don’t mean actually weighing objects. I mean choices. This book is about choices. Big ones and small ones, and how we often mistaken one for the other.
I was doing my daily inquiry into the search terms that lead people to my blog, and I saw six or so variations of “James Franco and Kirsten Dunst.” Uh-oh, I thought. I wondered if she’d dumped that pretty Garrett dude, her Platonic ideal of a boyfriend, for you.
That’s not the case. The big news is you’ve confessed that you had a crush on her during the Spiderman years. You were envious of Toby.
I have a suggestion. I think it’s in your best interest—that is, you and Kirsten—to fuck like pigs for a few days, get it out of your systems, then go on a one week vacation together. Personally, I think fate wants you two together. But fate’s insecure; it needs to be convinced of its own design. Garrett will understand.
So do the nasty. Then, for the “let’s get to know each other again” vacation, go somewhere uncomfortable. Fuck Maui. To hell with the Bahamas. Bordeaux, France can suck it. Instead, go to a place that insists its ugliness is your fault, that your standards are unreasonable, that your sense of entitlement actually hinders you from having fun, that the horrendousness you see isn’t inherent to the location, but a projection of everything that sucks about you.
Spend a week in Cincinnati with Kirsten. If you can survive the vacation without scratching each other’s eyes out; without sublimating your frustrations into doggy-style bed-breaking, you’re made for each other.
Franco and Dunst fans are rooting for you. You’d make good couple. Personally, I need it to happen. Listen: over the last twelve years I’ve written maybe one-hundred short stories, three novellas, and I’ve got three novels on my plate in various states of revision. I’ve abandoned probably ten novels halfway into them. Out of the two-hundred or more projects I’ve embarked upon, only two involve my exploitation of celebrities as creative writing prompts: this blog (you), and the novel My Helicopter Heart (a failed pharmacist stalks Kirsten Dunst during the Christian apocalypse). I have a vested interest in both of you getting together, not because I need more inspirational material, but because your union would rob me of whatever the fuck compels me to target James Franco and Kirsten Dunst.
I’ll explain. Have you read Stephen King’s “On Writing”? Throughout the book, King argues that writing effectively involves an uncompromised awareness of (and empathy toward) the reader’s experience. He recommends having an ideal reader in mind, a specific person whom you’re writing to. An ideal reader will force you to become more objective, to see your “Everything I write is amazing, compelling, and relevant!” illusion for the crock of egotistical crap that it really is. Six years ago, I decided to pick the most far-flung ideal reader imaginable—someone I only knew from movies, interviews, and gossip. I’d already written to my wife, and as much as I’d like to believe there’s a correlation between my writing and her sexual arousal, that’s probably not the case. In the past, I’d used other girlfriends and exes as ideal readers, hoping my amazing writing might seduce them. I should have just bought them flowers and chocolates. Hell, if I’d scoured the clearance bins at CVS and presented them with gifts of cheap batteries, toilet paper, tweezers, and zit cream, I’d at least have gotten a peck on the cheek, something more than hundreds of shitty poems would have elicited.
Six years ago, when I decided that Kirsten Dunst was my ideal reader, I wasn’t writing with the hope that one day, the two of us would bounce brillo pads. I’d chosen her arbitrarily; I was challenging myself. It was a bad move: she’s too distant. Still, I believed that empathy—if it’s powerful enough—transcends social, economic, temporal, and spatial barriers. In an effort to bridge the massive gap between my middleclass white dude world and her unreachable Hollywood paradise, I strove to create something with a critical mass of empathetic power. I overcompensated and banged out a 638 page manuscript. It has taken years off my life, and now, having invested so much time in writing to someone I don’t know (and will never know), I struggle to divorce myself from the unobtainable ideal reader. Kirsten Dunst has become my ground state, my imagined audience who will not leave the theater. To top that off, I created this blog, which is another self-defeating maneuver: no matter what I say, it has to relate to you somehow. Now I’ve got two ideal readers who are, in my world, abstract.
Here’s the solution. If you two get married, I’d see that as a merging of ideal readers. I wouldn’t be able to write toward Kirsten without considering you. To say, “Kirsten Dunst” would also be an indirect address to James Franco, a conceptual violation of the two different mediums through which I write (blog and novel), a violation of the two differing agendas behind both celebrity-exploiting projects. I’d be stuck talking to both of you. For example, if I say such-and-such to Kirsten, it must also apply to you, because, alas, when people get married, they become one. So I’d cower at the complications, and stop this nonsense all together.
Please. Fall in love with her. Hopefully, she’ll fall in love with you. The minute you slip that ring on her finger, I’m free. I can go find another ideal reader (In my imaginary mind-theater, I’ve currently got Steve Almond chained to a radiator backstage).
If you’re interested, I will be doing a 30 minute book signing on 3/8 at 12:30 pm at the Cincinnati Review table F19.
Then, on Saturday, 3/9 I will be doing a reading/signing at the offsite event, Functionally Literate, at 3PM, with a host of great readers including Erica Dawson, James Fleming, Juliana Gray, Nathan Holic, and Jeff Parker. Hosted by Jared Silvia and presented by Burrow Press. It’s at Dillon’s, 955 Boylston Street, right by the convention center.