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In Focus: James Franco, the writer

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James Franco is infamously known as a jack of all trades - but in the eyes of journalists and critics alike, often not all of his trades are up to scratch. For example, Franco’s movie adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying flopped and received poor ratings. The lesser known of his talents, his writing, is also something that divides opinions. 

For those of you that weren’t aware, James Franco is the author of a selection of short stories called Palo Alto, published in 2010, and a novel, Actors Anonymous, which was published in 2013. He is also a regular writer for VICE. Not only does Franco express flare in his habits, his writing has a very unique style; some hate it and think he is an pretentious wanker/amatuer and should stick to the acting, others, however, believe that there is something worth reading in his work. I’m on the latter team so would encourage everyone to delve deeper into Franco (ew) and read his writing! What do you have to lose? 

Palo Alto 

Published in October 2010 by Scribner, Palo Alto was the first of Franco’s writing efforts to hit shelves. The book is named after the California city in which Franco spent his youth, and is dedicated to many of the writers he worked with at Brooklyn College. 

The collection of short stories collates the jumbled thoughts of teens living in Palo Alto. Written in a stream of consciousness style Franco often leaves the reader feeling very confused as to where the narrative is heading. Despite this he manages to perfectly intertwine each of their teen memoirs to show that they all link to one another, often in disturbing ways. Franco is not afraid to describe the taboo thoughts of teenagers, in fact he opens this up and throws it at the page for everyone to cringe at. 

In late 2013, Gia Coppola worked alongside Franco in an adaptation of the short story collection for the big screen. Having debuted at many film festivals in 2013 and early 2014, it gained a fairly positive reaction.


Another way in which James Franco exudes writing talent is in his journalistic endeavours for VICE. In his article selection ‘A Few Impressions’ he writes comment pieces on the latest trends in entertainment, namely culture and film. They are witty and intellectual and show Franco’s personality more than his novels do.  

A few of my favourite from this collection have to be ‘James Franco’s Summer Book Club’. This article more than any of the others shows his love for writing, and in particular, his love for the classics. Not only is Franco’s favourite novel Moby Dick - god knows why, that middle section about whale anatomy was torture during my English Lit undergrad - he also references some of the greats and articulates why you should read them with a modern rigour; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, for example. 

Franco's vast range of influences come across in his writing for VICE. Often he will critique modern blockbusters whilst introducing the reader to some obscure playwright, and then in the same breath flip to analysing Lord Byron’s poetic technique. Even if you do agree with my earlier suggestion (*cough* pretentious wanker *cough*) you should find his articles for VICE very easy to digest and even funny - if you allow yourself. 

Actors Anonymous  

Inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous's 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, Actors Anonymous is a dark, genre-bending work that mixes memoir and pure invention in an audacious examination of celebrity, acting and the making of fiction. In the same way that Palo Alto invites discomfort, Actors Anonymous does that, and then some. Graphic descriptions of everything from blow-jobs to diarrhoea, Franco doesn’t shy away, instead he shoves it in the readers face and shouts ‘this is reality’. 

Although unsettling at times, the novel is funny and personal, and you empathise with even the shittiest of characters - Franco loves the word shitty, in fact it appears 66 times on the novel’s 304 pages. Franco presents his characters in their raw humanity, he even mercilessly turns his ‘James Franco’ persona - a-la This Is The End - inside out. However, this provides the biggest problem with the novel, but not from Franco himself, but from the readership. The trouble with Actors Anonymous is that most people who will read the novel will only do so to decipher when Franco is writing about himself. This is a sure-fire way to ruin the entire novel as it is not an autobiography, it is a work of fiction. 

I use the term novel in a loose term because it is, similarly to Palo Alto, more of a collection of memoirs that piece together than a coherent narrative. Not only do the memoirs come in various forms - emails, cryptic messages, poems - the novel as a whole has the same disjointed brilliance showing Franco’s versatility as a writer. I have to admit, this brilliance came at a price as the ending was disappointing - Franco leaves ends untied. However, looking at it from a wider perspective, perhaps this was the whole point? Once an actor, always an actor, you can never fully rehabilitate like they do in the real AA - or maybe Franco is simply making a statement about the strange environment actors have to live in. Whatever your interpretation of the book, it’s a gripping and insightful read.  


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