Revolver, James Franco, and The Illusion of Chance

If It’s a Matter of Quality Over Name, How Does Franco Keep Striking Gold?

I’ll be the first to admit (both as a matter of honesty and because I don’t think I’m alone in this) that I’m not a fan of James Franco’s work. My dislike is nowhere close to my wife’s, who when she hears Franco mentioned, is visibly angered–but it’s still there. I find him to be cheap and privileged, and as someone who wants it to be hard to really make it as a writer, his rabid success is tiring to say the least.

But I believe this dislike stems from a misunderstanding I have about how he makes it into a publication comparatively to how I make it in.

In my case, it’s a matter of writing a story, revising it, sending it out to my writing group, rewriting it, and then sending it out (where it will, more than likely, come back to me with few notes on what was wrong with it). Repeat this process a handful of times and perhaps it’s picked up by a publisher. This is the standard, I’ve found, and something that all writers talk about and commiserate over and blame drinking on.

Real talk: I  received a rejection while writing this post. 

It’s part of the experience–the rejection and self-doubt and everything else that comes along with it.

But it seems that Franco, with work which at best sophomoric, doesn’t necessarily deal with that experience. It seems as though he has a preternatural ability to send his work to places that are willing to pick it up and run with it (American Poetry Review, Revolver, Graywolf–even Columbia’s MFA program).

I recognize that I’m not seeing the rejections Franco is receiving, of course. If he is indeed going through the process like we all do, he is surely getting back a fair amount of rejections (and I for one would love to sneak a look into his Submittable account), but again this doesn’t necessarily signify.

Assumed Promises

We believe as writers that any one of us has a chance, or at least the hope of a chance. We’re told about blind reading and quality of work over our names, but is that even really the case. With Revolver publishing the most recent poems by Franco, it almost seems like they couldn’t possibly have chosen them without knowing who they were coming from. The poetry is sticky with effort and try so hard to draw themselves together to a larger truth–the case can be made that they aren’t horrible, but they certainly seem to be weak when compared to other work featured on the site. So the question becomes: how do these poems get through when compared to the wide world of poets submitting work? How does Revolver or Greywolf or anyone take the poetry of a relative newcomer–and one who isn’t really shaking the world with what they are producing?

It is possible that the process is different if you have the kind of name recognition Franco does. It could be (though unless someone comes out and says it, we won’t know for sure) that Franco might start in the slush pile, but as a reader pulls him out he’s sent directly to the editors. Is that wrong to do, when including such a big name assures views and commentary? Is it just a childish assumption that all people are playing by the same rules when it comes to getting work published?

Same Field, Different Game

Perhaps not, but it’s certainly hard to believe that Franco is playing by the same rules. Comparatively to other poets and writers playing the game, Franco could buy and sell many publications if he willed it. So maybe he’s not exactly using his full weight to get work out and into the world–but I doubt that his name has no affect on whether he gets an acceptance or rejection.

Does this mean we should feel even more outrage or disbelief at Franco’s unbelievable luck? No, I don’t think so. I see it as a strange offshoot of vanity publishing. His work (which, again, I find deplorable) is published because the places he sends it to know publishing it is good for getting eyes on their pages, perhaps, not necessarily because there is much merit in it.

So as Franco continues to get pieces accepted and, presumably, wins a Nobel Prize in literature sometime soon, you and I can take heart knowing that he’s not playing the same game we are. His is one where he (or publishers) put his name first, whereas the greater majority of us are putting our work first, our names coming along for the ride.


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