I recently noted that James Franco was in town to read from his new book of poems. Immediately I wondered, “Does Ian Belknap know about this?”
You see, Belknap is a sometime comedian, actor, writer, and recurring element in Chicago’s cultural milieu lately known for his one-man show, Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull. His involvement in such noteworthy goings-on as Write Club, Paper Machete, and Live Lit are now overshadowed by his Franco-fueled vitriol.
I cannot blame Mr. Belknap. I watched this video and became nearly apoplectic. I didn’t make it all the way through Actors Anonymous and agreed with the reviewer who stated that it “would be best read as a work-in-progress in a creative writing class.” I am not sure, however, that I would have the boldness required to call for somebody’s head, much less threaten to use it as a cooking vessel, in a public forum. Bravo, Ian Belknap. Bravo.
For the record, Belknap knows what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to writing. I mean, the man can write. Here’s a recent passage from his blog I found particularly striking:
The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.
So when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.
Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.
Ian Belknap has been writing a lot longer than I have, and I’ve accumulated enough rejection notices to wallpaper a small room. Many of us take them as a badge of honor. The rare occasions when my name makes it into print above something I created, I feel I’ve earned the fleeting pleasure it gives me through patiently undergoing the emotional turmoil of repeatedly being shot down as a writer, if not as a person. I don’t know how Belknap feels about his rejections, but I’m sure he has a few, whereas James Franco got published because he’s a famous actor. The time between his first short story collection and his second one (referred to often as his novel) was brief enough that many writers would not have had time to write and prepare a manuscript and have it back from an editor, let alone see it accepted and in print. Of this “Hollywood people can do anything they damn well please” phenomenon, Belknap says:
Franco is the biggest distillation of this tendency, because he is doing so any things simultaneously, then has the feverish insistence we pay attention to his every move. I just zeroed in on the worst practitioner. His “body of work” — air quotes so vigorous my knuckles are breaking — occupies this annoying place where he is making unimaginative work in every discipline even as he is insulating himself rhetorically from any criticism by saying he is “working in forms,” “not speaking literally” — all hollow art-speak justifications.
I think a lot of writers (and readers) are deeply annoyed by this aspect of James Franco’s writing career, regardless of however much they (or I) respect his acting or laughed riotously during Pineapple Express. Few of us, however, express that annoyance as well as Ian Belknap.