I know you don't know who I am, but I thought I'd write to you since we are both fiction writers and therefore peers, sort of, even though I'm not famous and have never been compared to James Dean. Still, we've both sat down in front of a computer and seriously attempted to write a short story, which sets us apart from most of the people in the world—we're colleagues, whether you or I like it or not.
As a colleague, I'd like to congratulate you on getting a story in GQ, which usually doesn't publish fiction. The story is from your forthcoming collection—the rather unimaginatively titled Palo Alto—and I have to tell you, it isn't terrible. I mean, if you handed me the manuscript without telling me who the author was, I would have thought it had been written by an MFA candidate who was trying to find his voice, which is I guess a fair description of you. Bits of it sound like a third-rate George Saunders story, and that's a compliment believe it or not. (Most people aren't aware of Saunders, but I assume you are, since you're taking writing classes and probably reading a lot of short fiction. If you haven't heard of him, check his stuff out.)
According to the internet, you're not one of those celebrities who gets bored and decides they want to sing (Scarlett Johansson) or write liberal op-ed pieces (Bono, Alec Baldwin), much to the public's annoyance. They treat their second career like a hobby and hardly ever have any talent for it, yet they receive all sorts of attention for these side projects—a major label will release their music, or the Huffington Post will give them a column. They're novelty acts, like this skateboard-riding cat, and like the cat, some of them don't seem to realize it. For instance, I'm sure Sting thinks his generic end-the-War-On-Drugs piece made it to the front page of Huffington purely on the merits of his prose and his logic.
You don't want to be one of those artistic tourists, James, I know. You take your craft seriously, you're doing the work, going to school, and you probably genuinely want the respect of the literary community. The problem is, everyone thinks of you as just another skateboard-riding cat. People were mocking your story on Facebook earlier this week, and I'm afraid I joined in. I couldn't help it. There are some unintentionally funny lines in there—like any developing writer, your prose gets away from you sometimes—and I was a little jealous that GQ was giving you the attention just because you were already famous. Yeah, the story was good for an actor, but I'm guessing you really, really don't want that good for an actor label.
If I were you, I'd be having lots of sex with unbelievably attractive women. Also, I would have published my work under a pseudonym at first so people could give me honest feedback. Like it or not, you aren't getting a book published because you're the next Raymond Carver, you're getting published because you're already famous. The literary community at large won't respect you, because no matter how earnestly you're taking this second career of yours, the perception is that your writing is getting attention that it doesn't deserve. And the public, the people who saw Spiderman and Pineapple Express and have never read a short story unless they were forced to in school, will probably just be confused by it. At best, maybe some of those people will use your work as a gateway to other, better short story writers like Richard Ford or Sam Lipsyte. At worst, you'll be the Scarlett Johansson of fiction. All this will change if you write a story or novel that blows everyone away—which I'm not ruling out—but for now, the most important words you've written are the three at the top: “By James Franco.”
PS—Check out this edited version of your story by my good buddy Giancarlo Ditrapano at the New York Tyrant.
PPS—Do you smoke as much pot as I think you do? Maybe we can get high sometime and talk about. Donald Barthemane.
“Just Before the Black” by James Franco [GQ]