I was recently shocked to find out that something I'd read on the Internet was fake.
Yes, I know. But it seemed so believable at the time. It was that argument on an airplane between Elan Gale, the creepily bearded producer of ABC's reality show The Bachelor, and a rude woman named "Diane" who was supposedly sitting a few rows ahead of him on a U.S. Thanksgiving Day flight home to Phoenix. Their fictional spat, which Gale live tweeted to his 169,000-plus followers, took place in the form of expletive-laden notes that were not particularly witty or original. What made it interesting was that they were real notes in a real fight, happening in real time. Except, of course, they weren't.
So when Gale tweeted his admission of the spoof (by posting a twitpic of "Diane" as an empty chair) we were all supposed to feel a bit silly, and then pay the dude some respect. Because it's cool and postmodern to blur the line between fact and fiction, isn't it? After all, Gale is a television producer, so he knows all about creating "real" drama out of semifictional smoke and mirrors.
In today's fragmented digital world, where everyone is constantly sharing bits of themselves with the public, including celebrities who perform roles for a living, the line between "true" and "fabricated" has disintegrated and what's really interesting is the space in between. Right?
Wrong. Because it's actually pretty easy to dupe people. What's difficult is getting an audience to willingly suspend disbelief, and this brings me to the subject of James Franco.
The superstar actor is also a director, writer, artist and creative-writing instructor – as all his bios go to great lengths to point out. Interestingly, they fail to add "perfume model," but he does that, too.
Anyway, Franco, whose publications include Palo Alto, a tepidly reviewed collection of short stories in 2010, now teaches a creative writing course at UCLA, and has just come out with his first novel, Actors Anonymous.
But the weird thing about Actors Anonymous is that it isn't a novel at all. Instead, what it seems to be (and admittedly, I am grasping here), is a handful of dreary short stories about stars, wannabe stars and star-worshippers, padded out with the contents of Franco's personal notebook – in which he makes observations that are so powerfully clichéd and tediously repellent I defy any fan to read this book and not be deeply put off.
For example, here's Franco pontificating on one of his favourite subjects – young women: "When they have great bodies they don't want to show them, but when they're older, and they're no longer pretty, they do."
Or Franco on cinematic genre conventions: "In comedy you can get away with subject matter like masturbation, rape and death much easier than in dramas where the material is used for its disturbing aspects." (Because rape comedies, as we all know, are where the money's at in Hollywood at the moment. Um, yeah.)
In these first-person observations – pages and pages of them – Franco takes the time to brag that he has slept with most of his female co-stars and to take pot shots at other actors and directors including Daniel Day Lewis, Jack Nicholson and Quentin Tarantino. When questioned about these admissions in interviews to promote the book, his responses have been predictably opaque. "When I was writing, I had to tell myself, this isn't exactly me," he told a British paper recently. "I mean, it's a book of fiction. So it's not my pure beliefs. Then again, I'm sure most people will take it that way. And maybe I'm just fooling myself."
There was a time when I would have been willing to let this go. When I might have even thought there was something interesting about an author whose entire life is a postmodern art project blurring the lines between the authentic and the projected (I very much liked Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's mockumentary I'm Still Here, for example and also Sheila Heti's novel How Should a Person Be?). But with this book, James Franco has lost me.
What Franco doesn't seem to get is that it takes far more to create a work of fiction than simply slapping the word "novel" on the cover. In the same vein, if Gale's Twitter hoax had not been missold as being true, it would have evaporated without a trace.
Like many people, I am sick of being duped – whether by Twitter-happy reality TV producers or self-regarding actors who publish substandard books on the back of their fame. Because really, what is the point here?
It certainly isn't the rigorous creation of art. It takes genuine craft and skill to truly divert people – to create a narrative that transports and transcends – and yet all it takes to perform postmodern trickery of the Franco/Gale ilk is the precondition of fame, an out-of-control ego and a laptop. The deeper problem with Franco's book, the reason why it depresses rather than merely irritates me, is not its simple lack of substance, but the narcissism of which it so plainly reeks. In it, Franco reveals a desperate need for an audience whom he treats with childish contempt.
This is not just a problem with James Franco, of course, it's a problem with the culture of social media and the digital landscape as a whole. When people construct their identities from the outside in, we lose track of what's real and what's not. In this bleak new landscape all the world's a hoax.