This weekend, David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of people begging James Franco to “just stop.” Generally speaking, I couldn’t care less about Franco (he was awesome in Spring Breakers), although using Indiegogo in a pretty hypocritical fashion to raise money to film his own short stories is a bit of egotistical circle jerking that does make me cringe.
But back to David Ulin’s piece. His ire comes from the introduction that James “I’m Going to Do One of Everything” Franco wrote for Damion Searls’s recent retranslation of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which is available from Penguin Classics.
It makes total sense that Penguin would ask a James Franco to write an intro for this book—since everyone knows Franco, whereas 98% of people under the age of 25 have never heard of Hesse1, and anything to sell books.
What Ulin take umbrage towards is how self-indulgent and pointless this introduction is, a reaction that I can totally get on board with. (As can most people who favor quality over celebrity.)
His foreword, brief at less than three pages, highlights his discovery of the novel, as a 19-year-old UCLA dropout.
“Working at the North Campus eatery,” he writes, describing his own alienation, “I was serving the students who once had been my classmates.” He cannot explain to them why his decision to pursue acting over academics is so important, so elemental, but in the pages of Hesse’s novel, he feels understood.
To be fair, the situation Franco describes is one many readers will have experienced, that of finding one’s self in a book. It’s similar to the way I felt at the same age about On the Road, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Camus’s The Stranger (and, yes, even, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha), as if in their pages, my inner life had somehow been written into being.
Franco, however, never pierces those surfaces, never explains to us his love for Hesse’s novel and what it means. The closest he comes is to observe that “Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art.”
Yes, yes, I want to say, but give me some insight on your relationship with the book. At its best, after all, what Demian has to offer is an abiding sense of conflict, of a character caught in the middle, between what’s expected and something more undetermined and wild. This, though, is a conflict Franco doesn’t seem to recognize.
Part of the problem is that Franco insists on writing about himself rather than Hesse’s novel, which leaves him unable to see the book on broader terms. Yet whatever the reason, his pat and superficial foreword is little more than a distraction — the very thing, in other words, that Hesse and Demian argue against.
David’s totally on point with his critique, but just to give you an example of just how bad this intro is, check out this paragraph:
After a couple of months [working at the North Campus eatery] I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once I’d taken my exit, I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of passion because of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt as if I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like an immature kid who had quit his job.
I’m not sure which bit is better: “I’m not sure if there was a connection” or “a girl I once had flirted with.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
So, I just actually read the Penguin Classics (“Because what you read matters.”) press release until right now. Here’s the header:
Featuring a Foreword and Cover Art by James Franco.
Cover art! See—one of everything! Oh, that Jimmy. Aside from the fact that both faces sort of look like Franco himself, the cover art isn’t bad.
The back side of the press release is killer though. There are bios for all the players: Hesse (who, mind you, won the Nobel Prize in 1946 and, for a time, was one of the most popular and respected writers in the world), Damion Searls, Ralph Freedman (professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton), and James Franco. There is exactly one photo on this back page . . . this one:
That’s right! Hermann Hesse! Oh, nevermind. Not sure if you can see in this pic, but Franco’s bio is also twice as long as Searls’s and about 18X Hesse’s.
Thank you, Penguin Random House Worldwide DominationCorp for making my morning with this shit. It’s hard to come slave away for literature that’s respected by a core group of readers’ readers when it’s so nice outside and no one is on campus. But the amount of true gut laughter I’ve experienced this morning reading Franco’s intro and this press release is so therapeutic. Totally mitigates the interior existential malaise at the fact that quality means to little to so many people these days. And that by criticizing the Franco Technique, I’m sure people will label me as an elitist, instead of someone who cares about literature and the value of thought. (Is there a difference though, really?)
I’ll end with the immortal words of
Riff Raff Alien, the best character Franco has ever played: “SPRING BREAK FOREVER, BITCHES!”
1 This is a verifiable fact.
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