The 11 books people will judge you for reading
Elizabeth Gilbert is a genuinely talented writer and before this book became a kind of guide book for self indlugent, middle-class, mid-life crises it could be enjoyed as just a simple tale of an author who blew her advance on a one year holiday to heal a broken heart. Now, whoever you are, like it or not, it says to people, "I'm on the verge of fisherman's pants, a nervous breakdown and an ashram retreat".
So I just spent the past seven hours binge reading multi-hyphenate James Franco’s new book Actors Anonymous (here’s a long boring trailer that probably won’t make you want to read it – enjoy!). If you aren’t familiar with the many works of Franco, he’s an actor who has appeared in Spider-Man, 127 Hours, Spring Breakers and This is the End, but he also does art, directs, teaches and writes.
Books from actors are always hit and miss simply because they aren’t held to the same standards as books from the non-famous since publishers – presumably correctly – assume they’ll get a sales bounce from the already known name. This isn’t to say that all actor authors are terrible -- Jesse Eisenberg does a wonderful series of stories for McSweeney’s from the perspective of an overly sensitive unreliable narrator in Bream Gives Me Hiccups: Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old and Steve Martin has turned out several critically well-received books.
Sadly Franco doesn’t fall into this admittedly small category. I feel shaken and just a little bit grimy from the whole reading experience. I had tried to read his first book Palo Alto but put it down with a life’s-too-short sigh at its unrelentingly grim depiction of amoral teens and gang rape (I wish I could critique it a touch more thoroughly but honestly I’ve blocked it from my mind).
The new James Franco tome, Actors Anonymous.
When artists and authors use rape as a plot point to prove how edgy they are that’s when I tend to hit my done-with-this eject button. His new book Actors Anonymous is billed as his first novel but I’m not sure why, since it’s actually a series of occasionally interconnected short stories and some (unless I have misread his postmodernism) factual behind-the-scenes tales from Franco.
On release the book got mixed reviews with The Boston Globe describing the ‘fragments’ as “just Franco’s literary yard sale” and Publishers Weekly saying the narrative voices all seemed like “flat, Bukowskian recitations of acting classes taken, sex had, and drugs done”, while The Washington Post said “sections of outright fiction here are quite good”.
Much like in Palo Alto rape is again used as a major plot point, but the sensitivity with which it’s handled is lacking. It’s always bad enough when rape is used as a lazy back story to explain why a female character acts a certain way; in Franco’s book, even that is dispensed with as he describes a rape only to examine the repercussions of how it affects not the victim but her now boyfriend, referred to as The Actor.
In the book, Franco also includes some frankly bizarre, ill-thought-out statements such as when talking about movie-making conventions writing, “In comedy you can get away with subject matter like masturbation, rape, and death much easier than in dramas where the material is used for its disturbing aspects.” Oh yes, how often we refer to the great rape comedies, that happens approximately never.
Comedian Michael Showalter does a wonderful bit about the terrible poetry he wrote as a teenager influenced by the Beat poets. In it, he mercilessly skewers his literary pretensions and purple prose. Franco reminds one of someone similarly influenced by the Beats, but who never grew out of it to gain the self awareness of Showalter. His characters male and female are rarely fully fleshed out, but his female characters in particular are mind-bogglingly terrible as well as given charming nicknames like Diarrhea and C**ty. So transgressive! (As a sidenote, I have nothing against the anti-hero or unlikeable characters, but only in service of larger themes – these never come close to achieving that. One is only left with the sensation of having spent a lot of time with unpleasant people with very little gained from the experience.)
In Windsor Girl in what I can only assume Franco believes is a multi-faceted female character, he writes from the perspective of the titular woman and in the voice of no woman ever says, “I don’t want to be a girly girl (sometimes I do), and I don’t want to be a Croatian bride. I want to be a punk rocker riot grrrl. I want to be able to show my p***y out loud. But I’m shy of my p***y. I’m afraid it smells. It doesn’t, and it’s not an ugly p***y, but I’m still shy of it. I’m prouder of my tits. I have perfect tits. I’m very comfortable with showing them.” If you could read that without simultaneously rolling your eyes, cringing and gagging you deserve a special gold star.
Of another lady character he writes, “She was reading The Brothers Karamazov, and she was proud of the fact; she fancied herself a smart, hip girl”. Yes, women only ever read literature to prove to the world how smart and hip they are, there could be no other possible reason like they want to read it. I tried to find a female character in the book that wasn’t along these lines, but in Franco’s world they really don’t exist, it’s just a continual accumulation of condescending and insulting character sketches. It’s strange because he does in passing mention women and non-white actors getting ‘the shaft’ as far as the roles offered in Hollywood, so I’m not sure why he doesn’t do something tangible about the problem by writing more fully thought-out female characters in his own work.
Everything isn’t terrible in this book, just most of it. His non-fiction piece Back to Bataan chronicles the making of 2005 bomb The Great Raid. It’s straightforward and insightful, everything that the convoluted fiction and postmodern essays aren’t. In the book Franco writes on acting, “I used to want to do a bunch of accents and physical impediments with every role. Now I don’t care. Now I want to be as simple as possible, just slip into the world I’m in and be as natural as possible.” Right now in his writing, he seems to still be at the stage where he’s trying on accents. Here’s hoping he drops the fronts soon and can come up with a more authentic voice in his next work.