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Famous first words

Celebrity is more important than skill when it comes to scoring a book deal these days

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James Franco is a busy man. An actor-director-curator-Gucci model-Oscar host-drag queen-grad student-General Hospital guest star-conceptual artist, he keeps collecting those hyphens. His most recent add-on is "novelist."

Now, maybe Franco is just an extreme example of the new reality, where everyone seems to be juggling jobs and gigs in a multitasking, multimedia universe. The guy has Napoleonic sleep habits -- a couple of hours a night -- and an irrepressible creative energy. But still, a book deal?

What about the non-famous writers, the ones with just a few hyphens -- the writer-dishwashers, the writer-bookstore clerks? Their manuscripts are languishing on slush piles while Franco signs a deal with Amazon to publish his first novel.

It used to be that your creative writing teacher told you that you had to write, write, write. You had to write every day, even when you didn't want to. You had to send your writing out, and keep sending it out, and learn to live with rejection. That's how you got published.

Now it's clear that what you really have to do is go out there and get famous for doing something entirely different. Become a movie star or a pop singer or a supermodel, and then maybe agents and editors will return your phone calls.

Celeb lit can be illuminating. (Take Newt Gingrich's 1995 alt-history novel, 1945: "His had been a strict and starchy upbringing, and his marriage had not been born of love but of political opportunity, though his wife didn't know that.") But it's hardly ever good.

Franco's debut short-story collection, Palo Alto, got mostly hostile reviews. ("American Psycho fell into a Catcher in the Rye remix." "Makes Ethan Hawke look like Melville." "A crush-killer.") Franco even got grief from another celebrity scribe, Peaches Geldof, who called his work derivative. (Peaches' own upcoming saga will examine "the woes of being.")

Celebs who release confessional celebrity books -- like Snooki's "novel" A Shore Thing -- aren't really competing with regular people. But celebs who release angsty bildungsromans -- or whimsical children's book, another favoured genre -- are an issue.

And it's not just publishing. The whole notion of celebrity seems to colonize more and more territory every year. Fame trumps competency, as people who are rich and renowned for doing one thing feel compelled to do everything, invading furniture design and cookbook writing and winemaking and fashion merchandising and lifestyle blogging and parenting advice.

Because of fame's highly visual culture, an offshoot of this trend is an unusual emphasis on good looks. That's why it's particularly cruel that celebrities are muscling in on the print medium, which was one of the last strongholds of the homely. Seeing gorgeous James Franco in the pages of Publishers Weekly might make you sigh for the old days, when books were written mostly by average-looking potato-faced people who could be glimpsed only in small, grainy black-and-white dustjacket photos.

The working title of Franco's novel, which is said to be loosely autobiographical, is Actors Anonymous. As the rich, famous and beautiful attack the book world, let's spare a thought for Writers Anonymous.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 E3

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