Palo Alto

Palo Alto
by James Franco
Scribner, 2011
224 pages / $14.00 Buy from Powell’s
Rating: 5.4








Last week, the Guardian posted their longlist for the year’s best first book award, an award carrying a prize worth £10,000. Afterwards they asked booksellers and bloggers to submit their nominations. In response, Elizabeth Baines posted an article citing her own list of books she felt were missing, one of which was James Franco’s debut story collection Palo Alto, recently published in paperback.

It’s disconcerting when a book like Franco’s garners such attention. Palo Alto received blurbs from literary powerhouses Gary Shteyngart, Amy Hempel, and Ben Marcus. Franco published his collection with a major press in a time where the phrase “story collections don’t sell” is continuously repeated by publishers and agents alike. Yes, one could attribute the publication to Franco’s celebrity status, but as a friend of mine put it—“what does it matter if it helps publishing, or if Franco’s fans read the blurbs and end up discovering new authors because of it?”

Franco’s Palo Alto isn’t altogether a completely horrible collection. In comparison, a few of the stories are better than the average MFA student workshop draft (from my own experiences, at least). The problem though with Palo Alto, is these stories are just that—drafts. These are sketches, not stories, and they read like the beginnings of something that could have been good. Each story maintains the same flat tone. There is no emotional range in these stories. There is little, if anything, to distinguish the voice of one character from one story to the next.

The privileged youth in Franco’s Palo Alto have no moral compass. They engage in gang-rape or kill animals with BB guns. They spout homophobic and racist thoughts and later go home to drink or smoke weed or play Nintendo, but the trope of the disaffected rich kid who commits gratuitous violence or has listless sex is a well-trodden one. Franco brings nothing new to the table, offers nothing that we haven’t read better versions of someplace else.

I would have been somewhat satisfied if at least, on a sentence level, the writing had been good. Imagine the disappointment when I come across sentences like this one—“Howard was Jewish and I was Jewish because my mom was Jewish,” or “Tom Prince had horrible face acne, which sprouted in small groupings, like piles of bat shit.” The story “Jack-O” which was originally published in Esquire under the title “Just Before the Black,” includes so many awful similes in such a short span of space that at one point I began counting them. My favorites include: “like life because I am racing,” “like ketchup randomness,” and “like a fat something-awful: hockey-player-pumpkin-cartoon-shithead.”

I wonder, is this supposed to be the writing that Gary Shteyngart meant when he blurbed that Franco’s “talent is unmistakable, his ambition profound?” I wonder, is this what Ben Marcus meant when he described Franco’s “intense artistry?” I wonder, and I worry.

Tags: ,


  1. bobby

      I feel really weird about this book, but only on the surface because I have zero interest in reading it, but like reading about it. 

      Is this a fair object to secretly cast hatred? And I kind of feel icky about Shteyngart; like I feel as if he kind of wanted to seize up some of Franco’s fame to help promote his shitty book — not that there is anything wrong w/ that, and yeah his most recent book was shitty, from its foundation to it latent paranoia to its stupid title. Maybe I had hope for Shteyngart and I’m just venting my disappointment. 

  2. RoachMotelGuest

      Hopefully, Ben Marcus will jump on the comments section and defend his blurb of this filth. He’s commented here before.  Let’s hear it, Ben, you cultural warrior you.  If you could take on me, I’m sure you can answer the questions people have for you, like, why on earth would you sell your soul by endorsing this stuff? A good teacher is honest with his students.  Oh, you think that a good teacher always has to write that letter of recommendation, right? You’re a coward, and a sell-out. And so are your big named friends. 

  3. Vernon Howl


  4. c2k

      Don’t blame the playa.

  5. Daniel R.

      “a few of the stories are better than the average MFA student workshop draft.”  

      Not sure this is saying all that much. In fact, not sure Franco doesn’t remind me of another celebrated writer with a little amount of syllables in his name too.

  6. c2k

      And Howard was Jewish because Howard’s mother was
      Jewish, unless, like Rod Carew, he converted, although Rod Carew never
      really converted, this confusion is Adam Sandler’s stupid fault, but Carew did
      indeed marry a Jewish woman, and they had three daughters, who are all
      Jewish, because, presumably, their mother is Jewish.

  7. Roxane

      Yes, this book was terrible. I didn’t review it because I had not one nice thing to say about it nor the eloquence to explain why I hated it so much. I normally don’t get riled up about celebrity books. It’s easy to laugh them off because Snooki and her ghost writer or Tyra Banks or whomever, they’re not pretending that they’re making a grand contribution to literature. What gets under my skin about Palo Alto is that Franco does believe he’s doing that and people with influence are allowing him to belabor under that delusion. The stories are very draft like and there’s certainly potential (as there is in most MFA-like drafts) but we’ll never know what the stories in this collection could become because Franco is off doing a million different things like hosting award shows and attending fifteen universities and starring on my soap opera, GH. He doesn’t care about writing well because he doesn’t need to.

  8. c2k

      I think you summed up the entire issue pretty well. I vote for closing comments right now.

  9. William Owen

      He shoots he scores. FTMFWFTDDBY.

  10. Guest

      I bet the cover designer was really frustrated that James doesn’t end in O

  11. Justin Chandler

      james franco wrote this review

  12. c2k


  13. c2k

      Just be happy Oprah is off the air.

  14. RoachMotelGuest

      No, we have to wait for the inevitable person to come along and call us haters because the writer is a celeb. 

  15. bobby

      “Franco does believe he’s doing that and people with influence are allowing him to belabor under that delusion.”

      The book would have been amazing if it were written by Franco and not James Franco. 

  16. Roxane

      LOL. This is true.

  17. Scottmcclanahan

      Hmmm, another negative reivew of Franco six months after the book came out.   Man, this site is really cutting edge.  

  18. Dudebroman

      Okay, seriously. Can’t we have a single thread on htmlgiant that isn’t about Tao Lin and MuuMuu House?

      “these stories are just that—drafts. These are sketches, not stories, and
      they read like the beginnings of something that could have been good.
      Each story maintains the same flat tone. There is no emotional range in
      these stories. There is little, if anything, to distinguish the voice of
      one character from one story to the next.”

  19. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      5.4 Rating
      by Anonymous Reviewer
      HTMLGIANT, 2011
      3 Characters / Gratis
      Rating: 3.0

      It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of Pitchfork’s music reviews on our own decisions when applying numeric value to literature. The marriage of a definitive, forthright whole number with a more idiosyncratic — and perhaps unique — decimal number was a precedent set many years past more in the interest of the critic than his or her audience. By applying an off-kilter decimal to what would otherwise be the Wong-Baker scale of reviews, the critic could feel like his or her take on the book or record is really saying something different from everyone else writing a little article on that same thing. You thought King of Limbs was a 6.4? Funny, I thought it was a 6.6. Agree to disagree.However, like any other piece of art, a focus on the minutiae can only take place once we are satisfied with the product as a whole. In Anonymous’s case, the scrutiny of his or her application of .4 to his or her 5.0 is irrelevant, since the 5.0 itself does not lend a feeling a confidence in the reader. Despite the actual review of James Franco’s book being mostly negative, the number branded onto its navy-blue spine indicated that this book was somehow average, or at the median, of typical reading experiences. There is a dissonance here that cannot be ignored, and Anonymous makes no effort to reconcile such a generous rating with such a dour review.

      It is an unfortunate event. Anonymous’s enigmatic .4 in any other work might be lauded as a wonderful technique that helps amplify the overall experience of the review, but here, it is an unfortunate casualty of fundamental flaws. Pray Anonymous will choose to use his or her .4 another time, in a more worthwhile project, where the number’s originality can stand strong and not be overshadowed by a major — for lack of a better term — “plot hole.”

  20. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      There’s supposed to be a paragraph break after “Agree to disagree.” Lame!

  21. M. Kitchell

      guess we should also probably neglect to think critically about anything that came out before last week, huh.  boy those underrated small press books from the 70s and 80s that never received any mention obviously deserve to be forgotten since nobody bothered writing about them the week they came out!

  22. BoomersMustDie

      In all honesty Gary S. and Ben M. are nice folk, they would probably blurb any Columbia fiction grad’s book

  23. RoachMotelGuest

      Hmm. I disagree.  For a site that is all too often content in hiding its smug conservatism behind some Vice Magazine-like, “edgy,” affected, ironic posture, and that too often refuses to critique institutions and institutional nepotism, I found this “negative” review highly refreshing, esp. since it takes aim at the powers who allowed this rubbish to reach print. 

  24. RoachMotelGuest

      The only thing I would add to the review is a comment about how Ben “Experimental” Marcus can look himself in the mirror after this blurb, and after accusing Franzen of being a middlebrow writer. 

  25. goner

       “The privileged youth in Franco’s Palo Alto have no moral
      compass. They engage in gang-rape or kill animals with BB guns. They
      spout homophobic and racist thoughts and later go home to drink or smoke
      weed or play Nintendo, but the trope of the disaffected rich kid who
      commits gratuitous violence or has listless sex is a well-trodden one.
      Franco brings nothing new to the table, offers nothing that we haven’t
      read better versions of someplace else.”

      It’s like a review of Odd Future.

  26. Scottmcclanahan

      I agree M. Kitchell.  We next need to take on the poetry of Rod McKuen.

  27. CH

      so what you’re saying is that this book is a lot like everything here is the best thing ever.

  28. bobby

      Yeah, you’re probably right. And maybe James Franco is really nice too. Picture the three of them in a room, not saying a thing, James Franco doing some bad-ass eye and face acting that conveys to Gary and Ben that hey, if it isn’t too much of a bother, maybe . . . Gary and Ben silently nod and the whole thing is silently resolved. That’s probably what happened. 

  29. Leapsloth14

      In 5 days Indiana’s squirrel season opens.

  30. bobby

      You missed the hidden A-axis

  31. deadgod

      ..ALTO stories

  32. shaun gannon

      i don’t think you have to do it secretly

  33. shaun gannon

      no james franco has to come here and post his rebuttal

  34. bobby

      I don’t know how to use the internet. 

  35. shaun gannon

      do they sell/is it legal to use squirrel decoys?

  36. BoomersMustDie

      Or Franco blew them both…

  37. Anonymous

      You should be reviewing books that don’t exist yet.

  38. Anonymous

      Also, after Marcus’s short story in The New Yorker last week, which read like many another NYorker story. Experimental, heh.

  39. Leopoldbloom

      Exactly…or Eggers or Kimball or…

  40. Anonymous

      Mmmm, squirrel brains.

  41. Leapsloth14

      It is legal. It could be dangerous on public land, Shaun. Maybe carry them in in a hunter orange bag, with your beer and the iPhone?

  42. shaun gannon

      a) is it ok if i have an android phone?
      b) does verizon get coverage in winamac or jasper-pulaski?

  43. RoachMotelGuest

      Yes, he has mailed it in.  I’ll never understand writers who hate words.  

  44. Jon Konrath

      The story “Just Before the Black” was originally titled “What we Jack-o about when we Jack-o about Jack-o”

  45. Jon Konrath

      The story “Just Before the Black” was originally titled “What we Jack-o about when we Jack-o about Jack-o”

  46. FormerCity

      There is also this:

      I don’t think I want this to happen. 

  47. James C Langlois


  48. gant

      Shallow alto.

  49. Mittens

      How did the story read like many other New Yorker stories? Was it like an Alice Munro or a Dead John Updike story?

      Could the story, coming from an author from whom you expect “experimentation,” be considered an experiment in form, too? What isn’t experimental literature?

      Also, could it be that Ben Marcus liked the book, or liked Franco enough that he felt it would be okay to blurb it? How much do blurbs matter?

  50. RoachMotelGuest

      We’ve found one! Yes! Finally! Someone who actually believes it’s humanely possible for a non-retard to like this book, one with such language like, “ketchup randomness!”

  51. RoachMotelGuest

      That typo wasn’t intentional, but I sorta like how it operates in the sentence…

  52. bobby

      Maybe he was just mouth-acting the whole thing. Surprised ohs and slack jacks all the way. 

  53. Leapsloth14

      a. You might get spotty coverage with he android. My advice would be to yell, as for communication. That’s what I do in the woods. I yell.

      b. coverage is a big word around here. Are you getting smart, mr. college guy?

      You find my still, you never leave the woods, alive.

  54. Anonymous

      Mittens, btw, have you read the book?

      Some are being way too generous when they say the stories “have potential.” Yeah, right–no they don’t. Sometimes the best advice to a young writer is to tell him to throw that shit away and start over.

      See, in order for a “draft” to have potential, it has to be honestly and sincerely written by someone with a modicum of humanity, which Franco clearly lacks.  For instance, there is a scene in the book where a bunch of privileged brats take turns gang-raping an Asian girl, enacting their “Asian fetish.” There is no purposeful irony here, no social critique—nothing.  It’s just straight-up racist pornography. People are also run over by cars in every other story, for no apparent reason at all, other than to shock. And all this is rendered in the most boring, flat, monotonous style ever. 

      Let’s cut the tame BS: who really believes stories this
      flawed have “potential”? We are not talking about mere craft here.  We are talking about an utterly soul-ess writer with no vision, heart, moral compass, compassion, or ambition.  The
      only “potential” here is for someone who actually cares about him to tell him to grow up and write something that matters, and it’s absolutely outrageous that three notable American writers–who are state-supported professors–actually co-signed this hot garbage.  One can only reach the conclusion that such blurbs were bought and paid for because of Franco’s social status, making this all the more troublesome.

  55. Roxane

      Y’all are overthinking the blurb by a factor of at least a hundred. Blurbs are pretty meaningless. Half the time, the writers haven’t even read the book they are blurbing. Maybe these blurbers loved this book, maybe they loved the writer, maybe they were responding to their tenth blurb request of the afternoon. The blurb is so meaningless and obsessing about who blurbed and what it means and thinking a blurb is somehow relevant to a great (or not great depending on your opinion) writer’s career and body of work feels a bit silly.

  56. bobby

      Yes and no. I’m sure a lot of us have gotten real thrills reading blurbs from writers we thought were cool. I’ve probably purchased a lot of books just cause I read a blurb and went, hell yeah! I want to fucking read this!

      It is a silly thing, but that’s okay. 

  57. Leapsloth14

      Roxane is correct. Blurbs are a sub-set of reference letters and whatnot, though, actually like ref. letters, they have nuances and hints and secret codes, etc. But a blurb is really not a thing to use to investigate a book, ever. Really. People give blurbs as sometimes a professional duty. I’ve done it, had it done for me. I’d lay off a big engagement with blurbs.

  58. bobby

      I am going to have to take the butcher’s word for it. 

      I’m just speaking as someone who, if I identify as anything, it’s as a reader. I’ve had real world feelings based on some of these flimsy sub-sets. 
      I like graphics and words and letters, maybe I’m okay w/ being seduced by them. 

  59. shaun gannon

      is your brew that potent? i wonder if there are moonshine-sniffing hounds, used by the police or by rival distillers looking to fuck up someone’s rig or even by cheap guys hoping to find some free booze.

  60. bobby

      I’ve thought about it some more. I agree that, for the most part, they are pretty trivial. Maybe I was in denial or something. Maybe I’d like to see an expose blog-post on the promiscuous world of blurbs. 

  61. Brooks Sterritt

      I hate fiction “honestly and sincerely written by someone with a modicum of humanity” but that’s just my preference. (also haven’t read any Franco)

  62. RoachHotelGuest

      You probably think I’m speaking with John Gardner hovering over my shoulder, reading from “On Moral Fiction,” but I’m not: all good fiction, whether it’s ironic, comic, dark, meta-fictional, traditional domestic realism, “experimental,” maximalist, whatever, is written “honestly and sincerely by someone with a modicum of humanity.”

      Stanley Elkin was darkly comic, but had a huge heart.  

      This is pretty much undebatable.  Heartless, soulless writers have short careers. 

  63. Dawn.

      Nice review, anonymous. I haven’t read Franco’s collection (I was interested though because I enjoy his acting and I heard he plans to turn a couple Cormac McCarthy books into films), but I did read the Esquire story and I agree with your general assessment–it was a draft, not a story. It’s disappointing, really, because he could’ve ended up with a pretty kickass collection if he would’ve, like, not turned in a pile of first drafts and then zipped off to do his ten million other projects.

      And re: blurbs, I used to take them seriously but for the past couple years I’ve assumed most blurbs are glorified reference letters/written by writers with some kind of personal relationship with the writer in question, which doesn’t bother me.

  64. Brooks Sterritt

      I don’t think anyone is hovering over your shoulder. “Sincerity” implies a claim about the mindset of an author, which is not something you can ever prove.

      It is pretty much undebatable that the statement “this is pretty much undebatable” doesn’t do anything.

      I don’t know what a soul is, or a heart. I do know that certain uses of language interest me when I’m reading.

  65. adrian

      I’ve often blurbed myself in the privacy of my own home.

  66. RoachHotelGuest

      “Sincerity” implies a claim about the mindset of an author, which is not something you can ever prove.”


      As if, this entire time, I wasn’t analyzing aspects of the text to get to the idea of sincerity. 

      As if, “certain uses of language” fall from the sky,” and aren’t created by authors. 

      Pardon for me not jumping on the death of the author bullshit, postmodern bandwagon that reduces authors to mere automatons. 

  67. RoachHotelGuest

      Earlier in the thread, you wrote: 

      “Franco does believe he’s doing that and people with influence are allowing him to belabor under that delusion.”

      These are not random blubbers he meet one weekend at Breadloaf–two of the three were his professors at Columbia. 

  68. Anonymous

      The blurbs were written by former professors who oversaw the entire project in an academic setting. 

  69. Brooks Sterritt

      I didn’t notice you analyzing any texts.

      Authors “create” texts if you want to think of it that way–the point is that you can’t ever locate their intent.

      A text “having heart” is strange to me–you can say it affects you emotionally, but that is subjective.

      I don’t have a problem with automatons really. Stanley Elkin has a huge heart? Not as big as Chris Farley’s.

  70. Anonymous

      I didn’t realize I had to write an academic essay, replete with MLA citations and secondary sources, to “analyze” a text in a comment stream.  I did, however, cite specific examples from some of the stories and related those examples to his brain dread, flat style. 

      But I get it–everything is subjective and I’m the first one to ever bring up this silly notion of compassion and humanity in literature. Oops! I did it again.  Sorry! 

      If you reread this post backwards, it means the same thing, too. 

  71. Anonymous

      “Authors “create” texts if you want to think of it that way–the point is that you can’t ever locate their intent.”

      Sure I can–I’m have a pretty good idea when someone is bullshitting me. 

  72. Mj

      “like a fat something-awful: hockey-player-pumpkin-cartoon-shithead.”

      Basically Anonymous, that simile was just so dope it made your head explode. That’s what happened. That up there is poetry.

  73. marshall

      wut yall kno bout james franco…

  74. Anonymous


  75. postitbreakup

      I wanna fuck James Franco a lot when he has his Pineapple Express hair, I wanna fuck him less so in other films.

      I don’t wanna fuck with his book, period.  (But I’d blurb it, if it meant I had a chance at fucking James Franco.)

      The response to Palo Alto is kinda funny, though, because it acts like this book is somehow different from any other celebrity’s book.  No one holds Countess Luann’s book to the standards of the best self-help (if such a thing exists), no one expects Kathy Griffin to write a memoir like Joan Didion.  James Franco just happened to encroach on sacred Fiction Territory instead of bullshit biography/inspirational “nonfiction” so people are freaking out.

  76. Anonymous

      I’m seriously confused here. What a bizarre turn of events. The review clearly alludes to nepotism in the final paragraph.  In Roxane’s first post on the thread, the one with double-digit likes, she alludes to this notion as well.

      Now, all of the sudden, people are overreacting. For instance, how dare people discuss the blurbs, two of which were written by former professors (re: nepotism, “people in power who maintain his delusion”). 

      I had such high hopes, but should’ve known better: I should’ve
      known that the tenor of the thread would veer safely to the middle or right, to
      where it’s safe, to where people with all sorts of cultural cache can write
      whatever the hell they want on the back of a book and we should just STFU and
      get over it already, etc.

      Yet another reminder of why this site is more like a social networking/publicity site, rather than a place where people engage in honest, critical inquiry.

  77. c2k

      I think actually, Bobby, your first instinct was correct: that is, your response as a reader. Because that’s what blurbs are for: for the reader, or the potential reader, or the potential buyer of a book. That they’re deemed meaningless in the world of so-called creators and to writers of blurbs who are oh so casual about this blatant professional-courtesy lying is a separate issue.

  78. marshall


  79. Roxane

      I didn’t know they were his professors because I don’t really give a shit about James Franco. That said, the blurbs are beside the point. If it wasn’t those two, it would have been a bunch of other famous writers because when you reach a certain level, blurbs are often given thoughtlessly. 

  80. RoachHotelGuest

      So now you don’t give a shit? Your first post says otherwise.  It’s okay to be wrong every once and a while.  I get that you’re super-competitive and all–it’s admirable and a necessary trait for any writer to have such supreme confidence in herself–but, again, it’s okay to to be wrong every once and a while.

      And the “blurbs are not beside the point” because they were written by “people..with influence” who enabled “Franco” [to believe in what] “he’s doing…allowing him to belabor under that delusion.”

      So, no, they are not “beside the point,” because they happened to be written by “a bunch of famous people” who mentored and taught him.

  81. deadgod

      I’ve never bought a book because of a blurb, but I’ve opened many books because of blurbs, and bought some of those on the strength of a few pages or so.

      You put it right:  blurbs are a kind of writing, and, for people who like to read – or somehow need to read – , blurbs can be well-crafted indeed–informative, accurately enthusiastic, seductive – or badly inaccurate from another perspective.

      The ethics of blurb authorship – which I think is what Roxane is talking about – are a different question, though.  If, say, Amy Hempel thumbs-ups a book, it’s not so much that she’s responsible for me – a fan of hers – buying or borrowing the book–that’s on me, after checking a few pages on her recommendation.

      However, her taste is a part of her reputation, which ‘name’ is how her next book will get a lot of the attention it gets, and which is pretty tony.  If she publicly ‘authorizes’ the quality of a book and, after a few pages, I say, ‘eh, not for me’, well, de gustibus et cetera.

      –but if someone slaps their ‘good name’ on to something they don’t really care about, because ‘chillax it’s not a biggie’–that, to me, is like standing on stage by a politician whom one doesn’t support and wouldn’t recommend voting for after a bit of thought:  a Sourly Hypocritical Thing.

  82. Roxane

      I’ve never given a shit. What are you talking about? My first comment says I hate the book. I have written quite a bit about my hatred of Franco, as recently as this week re: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. My dislike isn’t a revelation. Reading his book doesn’t constitute giving a shit. I guess I give enough of a shit to complain about him, so sure, I guess I do, technically speaking. Your comment makes no sense. I’m wrong often but I think the blurbs are irrelevant. You don’t. So what? I don’t understand what the attitude is for.

  83. RoachHotelGuest



  84. RoachHotelGuest


  85. RoachHotelGuest

      You’re the one who copped an attitude first. 

  86. Roxane

      By saying I don’t give a shit about Franco? That’s not attitude. Anyway, fine, I get what you’re saying. You’re clearly deeply invested in this issue so I concede the point.

  87. RoachHotelGuest

      I don’t see what in my original post required a terse, “I don’t give a shit,” but whatever.  Maybe you’re having a bad day, so touche. 

  88. Guest

      voting 10

  89. Guest

      really enjoying the new anon review thing, gj htmlgiant

  90. Guest

      yeah, this

  91. Guest

      mittens, re “how much do blurbs matter” there is an interesting take on obsequious blurbs and the review-as-institutional-power here

      hth bro

  92. Guest

      mittens, re “how much do blurbs matter” there is an interesting take on obsequious blurbs and the review-as-institutional-power here

      hth bro

  93. Guest

      more interestingly, that mayday piece from 2009 predicts what htmlgiant has just started doing with these anonymous reviews:

      “Given this, maybe it’s time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of ‘unsigned’ reviews. There’s no question readers, in the main, would be tickled and intrigued.”

      one wonders what ben marcus would have said about palo alto in an anon blurb

  94. Guest

      more interestingly, that mayday piece from 2009 predicts what htmlgiant has just started doing with these anonymous reviews:

      “Given this, maybe it’s time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of ‘unsigned’ reviews. There’s no question readers, in the main, would be tickled and intrigued.”

      one wonders what ben marcus would have said about palo alto in an anon blurb

  95. postitbreakup

      nobody messes with franzie on my watch

  96. RoachHotelGuest

      You know, I’ve realized something: this might be another confirmation of the hipster stench lighting up this place.

      Now, I’m not saying you’re one of these hipsters-who-are-too-‘cool’-to-probe-icky-things-like-emotion-and-passion–you seem like a cool guy–but I wonder if all this implied homage to Barthes and Derrida is just a crutch for some of our post-post-post-post-post ironic Urban Outfitter brethren? People like Franco? 

      Look, I did all that shit–I took the PhD seminars where we talked about these upper-class (mostly, if not all, straight, able-boded, able-minded, white male) theorists who reduced every argument to some shape or form or moral relativism, safely ensconced in their precious ivory towers–and subsequently sucked the passion and joy out of literature in English departments for years. Why not just kill yourself (not you, obviously) if it’s all so hopeless and “subjective,” if the “author is dead”? 

      You claim that I can’t “prove” a writer’s intent. Technically, you’re right–I’m not a mind-reader.

      However, I am a human being, one who was raised in an unpleasant environment as a child, a street smart child who had to learn how to read the “intentions” of adults who were constantly attempting to manipulate him.

      It is true that Barthes is important, as well as the notion of intentional fallacy ushered in by the New Critics; for instance, people who assume that poet and speaker are “the same” are stupid.  People who read novels or stories against a writer’s biography are stupid.  Yes, these people need to learn about intentional fallacy.  I get all that. 

      But, critics are in fact questioning the limits of intentional fallacy today.  For instance, many distinguish between the above and a sort of complex “purposiveness” to the work under analysis.  This is not the same as claiming to know the psychology of the author.  It’s rhetorical analysis 101.  The best “subjective” arguments need to convince readers because they’re subjective. A writer of fiction needs to convince or charm readers into a willing suspension of disbelief, and fiction writers who are half-assing it, who don’t have their “hearts” in the game, reveal themselves on the page. 

  97. deadgod

      circle blurb of one

      blurb yoga

  98. Leapsloth14

      The professional courtesy is to give the blurb IF you admire the book. You can always NOT give the blurb. It isn’t going to be a big deal. Most writers have ten people they would ask to blurb a book, and they need three.

  99. Leapsloth14

      No, I mean it’s booby-trapped. Actually people use these vast stretches of public land to grow something besides corn. Very awkward to stumble upon a weed field while hunting, since you have to assume it has defenses. Never shoot a squirrel over a weed field, BTW.

  100. JosephYoung

      i went and read the esquire one. it seemed like glossy magazine writing. there were some clunky constructions and some clunky characterizations though this might just be as good as a writer as he is at this point–more drafts might be beside the point.

  101. c2k

      Thanks for clarifying, because what you wrote above was unclear:

      People give blurbs as sometimes a professional duty. I’ve done it, had
      it done for me. I’d lay off a big engagement with blurbs.

      You seem to indicate that blurbing is not very serious and then say, well, it is serious, professional business…


      If the “professional courtesy is to give the blurb IF you admire the book,” and we accept that those who blurbed this Franco book are doing so because they “admire” the work (and they had to be intimate with his writing – they were his professors), then it is only fair to criticize them here.

      They’re lauding a book that is clearly bad – and this would be true for any “blurber”. If they really think it’s “good,” which is their right, then it is also fair to criticize them here – for being professional writers with very bad taste. A matter of opinion, but still fair to do so.

      Used to be that writers were embarassed by having blurbed a bad book.

      I have no idea what those writer-professors really think about this book, and can only assume (based on their blurbs) that they really think it’s good….until told otherwise.

  102. c2k


  103. Brooks Sterritt

      Ok, so there are several issues here, and I’m sure we don’t disagree on all of them. I haven’t read Franco and have no desire to really–also wasn’t defending his writing, which seems crap (from limited quotes).

      The original comment of yours I zeroed in on was the necessity of “honesty, sincerity, and humanity” in fiction, which is not the first thing I look for in fiction, if I ever look for it. It’s fine if you value that–I just don’t really. I can conceive of a well written, manipulative, lying book written by a robot or alien–it doesn’t matter who writes it, or how many people. “It’s the tale not he who tells it” if you’d like (said Stephen King, not a literary theorist).

      I never brought up Barthes, but of course if you are handed a text it doesn’t matter who wrote it, nor is it fruitful to even talk about “the author meant this,” “the author intended this,” “the author has a huge heart” etc. One passage might make person A sad and uncomfortable while person B finds it hilarious. It’s the reader that constructs meaning, brings his/her own set of experiences and prejudices to the text. But you know all this.

      I’ve never seen (from the street outside, through the window of course) anyone in Urban Outfitters reading Derrida, and I’d be surprised if I did.

  104. Brooks Sterritt

      Could you also define “heart” and “soul” and provide a quote that generates the emotion the author intended in every reader?

  105. Paul Jessup

      Seeing it descend like that makes me want to write a book called OOSO. About James Franco being attacked my weasels.

  106. Jessica Becht

      That a few of the stories are “better than the average MFA workshop draft” is damning with faint praise indeed. I attended one of the MFA programs considered to have the most selective cohort, and even talented people write some dreadful things for workshop. Some of it might be publishable eventually, but a portfolio of short-story drafts does not a collection make. 

      I’ve been reading Karen Russell’s first novel, and, sadly, it is larded with metaphors and similes nearly as awkward and strained as those quoted here. I held her talent in high regard after reading her story collection, but I think this novel needed far more work. I have to wonder what the benefit is to the writer (beyond a financial benefit) when work is published in a nascent state. I think Russell’s book would have been an okay draft of a novel, but one that still required heavy revision. I can still take her more seriously than Franco though; she has written a few extraordinary short stories. 

  107. Anonymous

      Ah, interesting. I got Swamplandia! recently. Started reading it, and kept being stopped by phrases that seemed a little off. (What is a “star-lepered” sky? And why is it special that the narrator’s mom, standing on a diving board, is “breathing”? I won’t even get into that “star-lepered” sky being “dark.”) I kept trying to edit the thing, which is not what a reader should be doing, and since I’m not being paid to edit it, I quit reading.

  108. deadgod

      Great comment of your own – remarkably insightful and potently moving.

  109. deadgod

      I thought those stories were pretty good.  What do you mean?

  110. RoachHotelGuest

      I think we’re simply coming at this from opposite angles. You, lit crit, Me, writer’s POV. 

      I can wear both hats.  I respect both hats. Really, I do.  I’m not anti-criticism at all. If I were to write a formal, academic essay on Franco’s collection, I wouldn’t refer to his “heart” and “soul” (or lackthereof). I would do all the things a good academic critic is supposed to do–I would focus on the text by explicating passages and lines, analyzing themes and motifs, and integrating secondary research, perhaps sociological research on rape for the particular scene alluded to earlier. 

      But if I were his workshop leader and he turned in this half-baked, soulless stuff, you best believe I’d tell him to stop bullshitting and wasting my time, to have more compassion for his characters, to have more “heart” and take more risks, because there’s nothing risky about catering to the lowest common denominator.  For these things, I can’t give you dictionary definitions, and I’m fine with that and any ensuing holes in my argument this might create.  I’m also fine with leading a hypothetical workshop where the discussion isn’t always focused on the “text.” I think workshops run better when there’s a balance between textual critique and larger matters of inspiration.  I’ve lost patience with the rigid Iowa method that treats stories like biology lab frogs. 

      I know the real thing when I see it: it’s James Baldwin. It’s Emily Bronte. It’s Sam Cooke on vinyl. It moves me in some way, even if the delivery needs work.  There is genuine sincerity in the draft, so sayeth my objectively subjective gut. 

  111. deadgod

      A “star-lepered” sky would be one where the stars are like pustular rashes – an interestingly infected image for an object that almost always gives rise to benign and even ecstatic emotion:  that is, in contrast to a sense of adulatory awe.  –and, with dawn, the leprotic member ‘falls away’ (?).

      “Dark” sky would be ‘moon-less’ – the stars themselves shine, but hardly illumine the dark world below, might be the sense.

      Also, of course, there’s the homonymy with leopard–in fact, “star-lepered” sounds like it might be a mistake for ‘star-leopard’ sky.  ??

      A character “breathing” as opposed to ‘holding her breath’ (in fear?).  –also as opposed to moving in any other way:  only “breathing”.

      Don’t know Swamplandia! – maybe it stinks – but a character described as “”breathing” isn’t so strange, and “star-lepered” might be subtle.

  112. RoachHotelGuest

      It is interesting how safe most writers play the game, isn’t it? The “oh-they’re-just-blurbs” argument is weak-sauce.  “Oh, everything is fine in Rome–STFU and quit whining.”

      Writers can be some of the biggest, most conformist pansies on the planet, always needed affirmation, always needing to clique-up with each other and maintain the status quo. 

      Why do we accept this shit so easily? Writers shouldn’t blurb books they don’t believe in. It is not a mere “professional courtesy” and the comparison to LOR’s mentioned earlier on the thread is troubling, because it implies that teachers are somehow obligated to write a LOR for any student who asks.  Um, no they are not. 

      Kevin Brockmeier only blurbs books he loves, from what I’ve read/heard.  Now, I don’t think the bar has to be set that high, but I do think a writer should at least *like*/respect the book he or she is blurbing. 

  113. Anonymous

      Thanks a lot there, deadgod, for your superior analysis. Not that most of your surmises have anything to do with what I read, but anyhoo. Perhaps the author would benefit from your reading the book to her.

  114. BoomersMustDie

      Gary S. would have bought him a vodka shot at the bar afterwards, while Ben M. would have demanded teeth, then no teeth and punched him in the nose afterward FOR HIS OWN GOOD

  115. BoomersMustDie

      To be fair, Countess Luann’s book has serious literary merit – whether she wrote it or not. I was shocked.

  116. BoomersMustDie

      Russel hasn’t seen a real leper and doesn’t understand her own metaphor… Pustular rashes wouldn’t have come from leprosy so it’s a poor metaphor (leprosy causes nerve damage, the scars come from the numb limbs knocking into things). It’s fake smart gussied up.

  117. deadgod

      wasn’t interpreting what you “read” but rather what you wrote

      and mostly not “surmis[ing]” at all

      language is a party ain’t it chief

  118. deadgod

      True:  the granulomatous nerve damage of leprosy doesn’t result in either pustules (close) or rashes (not close).

      Don’t know if Russell has seen a “real leper”, but [difficult image alert] here is a real hand afflicted with real leprosy: ; and [difficult image alert] here are two real faces afflicted with real leprosy: .

      Not impossible that some people who have seen pictures of real leprosy might see in the dermatological effects of the disease constellations of pustular rashes – but only metaphorically.

      Fake smart gussied up–a Naughty Thing!

  119. BoomersMustDie

      I say she likely has not seen a leper in real life because the whitish scabs are the last thing you notice about the groveling, bedraggled, moaning, limpless, lipless monstrosities… And unlike stars, scars protrude and blotched ash grey leper skin is full of appalling mass and smell… At the very least you have to admit that her stellar metaphor has been strained past the gossamer skein of brilliance and ruptured and come twanging back all ugly and stringy like some snapped catgut tennis racket string!   

  120. BoomersMustDie

      er… limbed not limped

      and only one string!

  121. JosephYoung

      might well ask what are sitwell-colored primulas?

  122. Paul Jessup


  123. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Omigod, I wish.

  124. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I say, as someone who proudly read “Robin’s Diary” from cover to cover sitting in a Barnes in Noble in middle school.

  125. MNoon

      Reminds me of Ethan Hawke’s (sp?) book/s (?), which I haven’t read either. Though I would discourage devoting too much concern to books like this, or their dubious endos. Whether intended as such or not, this is a vanity project, writ large due to pre-existing fame, with minimal impact on the continuum of literature immediately, and zero impact historically. It’s all writing in the sand–soon to vanish in the tide. Though it is fun to shred crap work, which I will be sure to do in future, even though I haven’t read it.

  126. Russ

      I heard somewhere that Auberon Waugh used to fulfill every blurb request he got with the same blurb: “Quite possibly the best book ever written on this (or any other) subject.”

  127. Cvan

      “Deadgod walks in, smacks your soul around, then sneers on the way back out.  That’s just the kind of writer he/she is.”  —Amy Hempel