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.