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Is an Ironic Review of James Franco’s Poetry the Best ‘The New York Times Book Review’ Can Do?

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, the poetry columnist David Orr writes an excellent piece on James Franco’s poetry. Orr reviews Franco’s newest collection, Directing Herbert White, released by Graywolf Press in March — and instead of judging Franco’s work through the scrim of the cult of celebrity, he takes it, generally, at its worth: “Directing Herbert White is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea.” He compliments the good wordplay: “‘This despair is nice': The tone is neatly judged,” and he goes in on the bad lines: “He’s prone to phrases that sound good at first but collapse under scrutiny (‘Webbed by a nexus of stone walkways’).”

It is a good review, and at the end, Orr discusses the feelings that Franco’s vigorous pursuit of the arts inspire in the average struggling poet. Franco’s book is not getting reviewed due to merit, it is getting reviewed because he is “James Franco,” a celebrity, and that’s worth the weight of an 800-word review. Orr notes, correctly, that Franco’s success in getting publicity for his poetry has nothing to do with the fact that other poets languish in obscurity, or that Franco’s attention comes at the expense of others.

Orr writes, “Attention withheld from Franco’s poems will not instantly devolve upon some worthy but obscure poet; it will go to another actor, or singer, or commercial nonfiction writer, or memoirist — or even to James Franco in his novel-writing incarnation.” A spin through the Book Review in 2014 bears that idea out. Only eight or so articles about poetry books have been deemed worthy of coverage, with four coming from a feature in this week’s issue, the other the result of covering “books in verse” and some children’s writing. That’s very few poets getting the honor of a full-sized New York Times Book Review consideration, something that fell to Franco quite easily. You may even call it irony — a review criticizing its mere existence and reason for being in the middle of a review that, oh, is on the cover of the Book Review on Sunday, an honor usually reserved for books you must read.

And yet, it’s not as if Franco is hurting poetry. In fact, he’s probably introducing some lonely kids out in the world to poetry with his efforts, arguably a good thing. Bestselling poet Jewel did it for a generation raised on A Night Without Armor, so why can’t Franco have his turn with his verse?

But I wonder, for the writers and critics charged with taking Franco’s art into consideration on a professional basis, whether there’s something they can do to right the karmic balance. It’d be nice to see more lists of other working poets in addition to the popular kids, or maybe it would have been nice if Orr mentioned fellow Graywolf Press poets like Matthea Harvey and Fanny Howe, up-and-coming poets like Saeed Jones, or another poet wrestling with the cinema, A. Van Jordan.

Despite the fact that it is not James Franco personally who makes being an artist difficult in today’s economy, it will, forever be frustrating to see the space in august publications being taken up by reviews of his work that are well aware of the celebrity futility of reviews of his work. Maybe it’s the pace of Franco’s work that’s so frustrating for the average artist, or the fact that he’s quickly turning into the Woody Allen of his many passions, just putting out books and books and movies and movies, at a speed that makes it feel like he may not be giving his heart and soul to his art — but whatever he does, he’s still heads and tails above other people’s efforts in the economy of attention.

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