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- Aside from providing inspiration, James Franco has nothing to do with the James Franco Review.
This week, local author/educator/Furnace Reading Series cofounder Corinne Manning announced a brand-new project with an eye-catching title. It's a literary magazine titled the James Franco Review. Let's be clear up front that Franco has nothing to do with the Review that bears his name. Franco is a symbol for Manning of a problem with publishing that she'd like to address: the issue of visibility.
Manning describes the invention of the Review as a "cumulative process," the result of a lot of thinking she's done about inclusivity in literature. A few years ago, Manning was warned by an editor that a novel she was working on "was edging into LGBT genre territory," that if she wanted to save the book from being ghettoized into the gay subsection of the bookstore, she should make it "about an unusual family navigating their way in a quote-unquote normal world," rather than about a family being accepted by the LGBT community. She stopped working on the novel and now admits that "it's a book I'm not proud of anymore." Since then, Manning has been interested in the idea of what are and are not considered "mainstream narratives."
The literary world's whole-hearted embrace of dilettantish actor James Franco inspired in Manning a certain line of thinking about privilege, about celebrity, about opportunity. She insists that she has "nothing against James Franco as an artist," but she's interested in "doors that swing open for the name James Franco." She and a friend started wondering "What if a hundred people all submitted work as James Franco to the New Yorker?" From there, Manning started thinking "what if there was this James Franco review and everybody [published in it] was James Franco? How would that change the kind of narratives we see in print? Would it change at all?" That thinking became the James Franco Review, and Manning explains "the intentions" behind the naming of the Review "were earnest." She quickly adds, "I also thought it was funny."
It's important to note that this is not a work of satire.
In fact, it has very little to do with Franco's privilege and more to do with making that privilege available for everyone. This mission statement at the James Franco Review's website says it about as eloquently as possible: "We seek to publish works of prose and poetry as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention." Here's how they'll do it: "All submissions received are submitted as James Franco and are read by a roving cast of guest editors who choose based on their tastes as readers." It's recasting Franco as a kind of Spartacus figure, expanding his umbrella of celebrity to protect the lowliest of all life forms on the publishing ladder: the aspiring author, the blind submitter. Debut Review fiction editor Erin Sroka calls the Franco conceit "an escape. Instead of being some woman, willing yourself to stay focused for a few hours before or after your job each day, even though you are underpaid and exhausted, you can just skip ahead and be James Franco."
The rotating two-month guest editor spots (one each for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) were an important part of the process to Manning. In part, the choice was made for practical reasons: "With really short stints, the burnout rate would be lower," Manning says. Plus, "there's an opportunity for a little more care in their reading, and it gives a chance for different kinds of readers to come curate what comes out on the site." She asks her editors to make "room for what isn’t supposed to happen, characters you don’t always get to see."
The debut poetry editor for the Review, Rochelle Hurt, agrees that the short-term editor plan is "a great way to prevent the journal's aesthetic from calcifying," to keep it "a living, changing entity." Hurt says she's "going to try to choose work from a wide range of styles," but she acknowledges that "we all have personal tastes—that's not something we can deny, but it is something we can manage through conscious efforts toward inclusivity." What did Hurt think when Manning first presented the idea of the Review to her? "At first I thought it was cheeky, which was attractive," she says. But "now I think it's quite earnest, which is even more attractive." Hurt was charmed by the "About" section on the Review's site, which admits "we don’t know why some stories and poems get published while others don’t, or what it means for something to be right for a magazine." She explains that this is "a bold statement because it refuses the cynicism that can result from seeing the same voices 'rise to the top' of the submission pile again and again." She says "this statement is one of radical naïveté—a way of trying to clean the slate and start from a sincere place of excitement about new writing."
Submissions are now open for the debut issue of the Review through their site. The submission guidelines refer first to a dictate by novelist Edwidge Danticat: "Create dangerously for those who read dangerously.” Hurt says she's "trying not to enter into this editorial role with an ideal poem in mind, because I think that can lead to exclusivity." When pressed about what she's looking for she can admit "that I think musical language is an incredibly important aspect of poetry, but I can also say that I love hybrid genre work that troubles my notion of poetry altogether. In short, I'm looking for a challenge." Nonfiction editor Nancy Kim explains her criteria by describing the physical effect that a good piece of writing has on her. "I’ve had the fortune to read things that make me walk crooked afterwards. I’m serious. Like there’s something vaguely traumatic about it, but in a good, incredibly vibrant way," Kim says. She thinks the anonymous submission process helps defuse some of the prickly power dynamic between editors and authors. "I think as writers (and just human beings) we can think antagonistically toward those who reject us; but even though we are not all in the same boat, we are at least in the same ocean."
Tying the Review to a celebrity does carry some risks. Manning says she thinks about how the name is "pulling off of a pop cultural item that can go away at any second. Not that [Franco will] go away, but this interest could be a flash in the pan." Still, the submission process has only been live for less than a week, and Manning says she's already seeing some benefits. Unlike the editors, she can see the names and cover letters of the authors submitting to the Review. One of the cover letters "said that submitting to this journal felt like a really empowering act." Just hearing that makes Corinne happy. She loves "that for someone it's funny and political to submit something to the James Franco Review."
This post has been updated since its original publication.