Dear James / Issue 2

Dear James: Issue 2 and Black List and Ideas of Failure

Dear James(es),

Starts rolling out March 30th

Starts rolling out March 30th

I’m writing to you a few days before the launch of Issue 2 with poetry edited by Maisha Z. Johnson, fiction by Aaron Counts, and nonfiction by Maya Sonenberg. I don’t know whether you can change a whole system of publishing and reading through The James Franco Review’s approach, but with Issue 2 I can state an answer to the question: Will each issue have a very different feel due to changing editors?


Issue 2 is voice driven and from the gut with first time publications and first publications in a long time; a teenage poet beside a poet published in The New Yorker; triggering fiction and essays that beat your heart and I can’t wait for you to start reading on March 30.

Fiction editor Aaron Counts noted that he read many excellent submissions that dealt with mental health. “It was a point of growth for me to reconsider the voice of mental health concerns as a voice in need of amplification.”  In my exit interview to the editors, I asked each of them what it would mean for this project to succeed and what it might mean for it to fail.

Maybe that sounds bleak but there’s a reason I’m thinking about all of this.

Have you heard of the Black List in Hollywood? Not the one from the 50s, the one from 2005, started by Franklin Leonard that shifted the idea of what made a good script a good script in Hollywood. An anonymous email was sent out to 75 Hollywood executives that asked for the names of scripts they loved from the past year that weren’t going to be in theaters. Two of the highest rated scripts on that first year’s list were Juno and Lars and The Real Girl—two films that as a result of being on this list, got produced and went on to be nominated for the Oscars. It’s gotten a bit weird and agents clamor to get their client’s script on The Black List, still, it’s revealed and transformed the industry.

Not the 50s! 2005.

Not the 50s! 2005.

I read about the Black List in Sarah Lewis’s brilliant book The Rise, which is about the art of failure. Since The James Franco review went public in November, I wake each night around 3 am worrying about all the ways this project could fail, if it’s even possible for it to succeed; success meaning new voices, diverse literary visibility of underrepresented writers, and a journal that transforms from issue to issue.

Is it possible to actually change all the processes that created a lack of #diverselit? Is queering the publishing structure enough?

Nonfiction editor Maya Sonenberg reminded to continue expanding what it means for something to be underrepresented, and to not limit what underrepresentation could mean. Aaron Counts and I discussed finding alternative outreach methods that might expand the reach to writers outside of the traditional creative writing well.

I started The James Franco Review out of a frustration of how limited literature was, with a significant lack of diverse stories, characters and writers, particularly from writers of color and queer writers. I thought two things: If typically underrepresented writers, nobodies, submitted their work as you, James Franco—a man with an open door— imagine the surprise at the kind of stories we might get to have access to. And, if the editors change out constantly, and there’s no one dictating to them what is supposed to be full of literary merit, what will they choose?

From The Rise I learned about psychologist Solomon Asch who created the Asch test, which demonstrated how, without knowing it, we tend to abandon our own opinion under two conditions: 1. When we anticipate our opinion differs from the group; and 2. when we have to state our dissent aloud. We very quickly give up on ourselves when faced with holding a minority opinion, and often don’t even know we’re doing it.

Though this speaks to the film industry, I think our literary universe has quite a few similarities. What is the difference between an editorial board discussing the literary merit of a story from the producer determining the commercial success of a script, based on how it conforms to past films?

Sarah Lewis wrote that by taking away the group, by giving editors the chance to just choose based on taste and question their tastes, it takes away both elements of the Asch test, as did the Black List—which simply asked producers which scripts they had loved, not which ones would be successful. What we have in The James Franco Review then, in each issue, are simply stories, poems and essays the editors loved—no favors to fulfill or an agent’s insistence or a writer’s fame leading the way. Someone loved the poems and stories you will get to read in this journal purely. Perhaps you’ll hear something you love too.

As for all the other ways success and failure will be defined for The James Franco Review? We’ll have to see. I’m grateful for the many journals devoted to exploring how to make a sustainable shift happen such as the brilliant Apogee. There are new journals committed to creating more space like the highly visible journal The Offing, and journals who are changing their methods such as Southern Humanities Review, making the switch to blind submissions. This is our own collective durational art project.



Mustache and Teeth

Mustache and Teeth