Elizabeth's Reviews > Palo Alto

Palo Alto by James Franco
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Aug 25, 11

bookshelves: fiction, california, youngauthors
Read from August 23 to 25, 2011

Uhm...am I the only one from Palo Alto that has read this?
I picked it up because I went to middle school with the actor, and it's written about my home turf in the 90s, so naturally, I was curious.

Every story or so is set in the landmarks of the boring town where I grew up--JLS, Gunn, Paly, the Main Library. Blah Blah Blah.

But here's where I started to get upset. There are a lot of elements in this book that are not fiction. The story about "Mr. B" who molested girls at our middle school, the real one (who went by "Mr G." is jail right now). There are the real names of people that I remember from school used as characters in this book. The guy who built a bomb at Gunn, who was Asian and had to do community service--that person is a real person. I could go on, but I won't.

Is this even allowed? Can we call it fiction when someone liberally uses real people and plops them into poorly constructed stories that all sound the same? Is this Franco's joke on us? Is this Franco's joke on the city? Is it Franco best attempt at being creative? I don't know, but it seems like a massive cop-out to me.

To be fair there were lots of lines here and there that I enjoyed and thought, "well that's an interesting and evocative turn of phrase." I don't think he's a terrible writer. I do think every story had the exact same tone, and I often could not tell if the main character was a boy or a girl. (I would have to go flip back a few pages and try and find the name of the narrator.) But if it weren't for the blur between fact and fiction, I wouldn't take Mr. Franco to task, as it is tempting to do. Yes, he's famous, yes he got his book published by a big name publisher, but my real beef is the fact that I don't consider it creative writing when you do this.

Also adding things like "East Meadow" and "Juana Briones" don't evoke a sense of place unless you give us more.
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Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Wow, I can't wait to get my hands on this one. Thanks for the recommendation!

message 2: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Do you remember him from JLS?

message 3: by Gucchi (new)

Gucchi have u books of enid blyton

message 4: by Brian (new)

Brian you will write us a review.

message 5: by Mike (new)

Mike You're on point with this review. I grew up in the east bay,In very similar situations as these stories. This book didn't feel as much creative writing as it felt like edited journal entries. Overall he captures suburban teen life pretty well.

message 6: by Brian (new)

Brian interesting. is there no room for people who fictionalize their memoirs (thinking Frey and A Million Little Pieces, vilified for being fictional while claiming to be fact...now accepted(?) as a fictionalized memoir), or is it just when it's not explicitly mostly true but altered? every first-time author goes a little autobiographical anyway, no? just a matter of degree. ;) but yeah, i guess we should expect more for someone with an MFA in creative writing. heh.

so should we outsiders read it? at least to catch up on the PA gossip of the 90s?

message 7: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Hey Brian--I was curious to hear from the creating writing experts about whether or now this is considered okay to do. When I interviewed an author recently, they suggested that you never, ever use real people when you are writing fiction because, among other things you can really offend people. I just thought it seemed so close to reality (names, exact situations), that I wondered if it was one of his "jokes," kind of like his Young and the Restless project (that was the soap, right?) last year.
As for recommending it, Brian, I wouldn't recommend that you spend time on it. If you're interested in what P.A. is now, there must be something more relevant. It's a book about disassociated youth, and I think there are lot of other books out there that do it better.

Mike--I'm glad you liked my review. I think I was a bit excited when I wrote it.

message 8: by Rob (new)

Rob I'm not keen on recycling real events, particularly having known some of the people involved, but if the point is to peel back the image of Palo Alto as picket fence hell, I'm all for it.

Palo Alto may not have been Seattle or Manhattan, but any place where you could see the young Stephen Colbert perform in Second City one year, and a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in another ranks pretty well next to the vast majority of places to live. After a year in Mid-York, I'm counting my blessings.

message 9: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth I remember that Gorby speech. I named my car after him after I went to that...

message 10: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Rob--are you liking the professor thing? I still can't believe you became one. Like father, like son.

message 11: by Rob (new)

Rob Well I'll like it more when I line up a tenure track job, but I'm looking forward to getting my own book into print by sometime in 2013.

Actually my grandfather Milton Rakove was also in the biz (in poli sci).

message 12: by Michael (new)

Michael Pfyl I also went to school with Franco so I was curious and picked it up. I disagree - he's a pretty terrible writer.

message 13: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Elizabeth, I remember the events you're talking about and know some of those people, so like you and others I probably would find it too surreal an experience to read a fictionalized account of them. The larger question of, is this allowed is a complicated one and will keep me thinking about it for awhile.

message 14: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Phoebe wrote: "Elizabeth, I remember the events you're talking about and know some of those people, so like you and others I probably would find it too surreal an experience to read a fictionalized account of the..."

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

message 15: by Drew (last edited Jan 05, 2012 04:25PM) (new)

Drew "Is this allowed" and "is this considered okay" are a weird way to phrase it. Because in non-fiction, there are rules, or at least one rule that I know of: you can't include things that are patently untrue. Or you're not supposed to. But the converse, that you're not allowed to include true things in fiction, isn't necessarily true. And how would it be enforced? You can fact check non-fiction, and people do. But you could write a whole novel that was 100 percent autobiographical and true, and as long as your life/the material was obscure enough, nobody could call you out.

There's a whole genre of novel you could call "thinly-veiled autobiography." Shantaram is a good example of this, where the author takes his own life and spices up the boring parts. I'm not usually a fan of this, but some people love it. Thomas Wolfe wrote supposedly classic novels all based on his own life.

Obviously that's not what's going on here; I mean the classic part, anyway. Franco, whose main (pre)occupation is not even writing, probably doesn't have the time or the chops to do the research that would be required to write a novel about anything other than being a young Palo Alto kid. And that's fine...but you're right, dragging people into the spotlight who never expected to be there does start to seem a little unethical. It's common, though. There are tons of examples of authors stealing characters and experiences wholesale from real life, though of course I can only think of comparatively obscure ones at the moment.

So is it against the rules? I'd say no, because there aren't any rules in fiction. Is it in bad taste? Yes, at least when the rest of your book isn't good enough to force the reader to forgive you.

message 16: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth I like your point that it's in "bad taste" I think that's what offended me most deeply.

message 17: by rivka (new)

rivka Drew wrote: "There's a whole genre of novel you could call "thinly-veiled autobiography.""

Isn't it usual to at least change all the people's names? To avoid libel suits, if for no other reason.

message 18: by Drew (new)

Drew I guess the short answer would be yes, in most cases. If the people referred to are no longer alive, I think there's a little more leeway. If they're still alive, I assume most authors do change names. But they may only change them a little bit, such that the similarities are not legally actionable but are still obvious (no less illustrious a figure than Michael Crichton has done it that way), which may be what's going on here. I haven't read Palo Alto, nor will I now that I've seen a couple of these reviews, though, so I couldn't say. I should probably note too that I have no real knowledge of libel law or publishing, so this is all speculation.

Also...I hope this doesn't blow your cover, if you're under cover, but are you Rivka Galchen??

message 19: by rivka (new)

rivka No, I am not she. In fact, I don't believe I'd ever heard of her before, but her novel sounds fascinating.

(We actually have over 50 members named Rivka. I'd guess none of them is Dr. Galchen, but anything's possible.)

message 20: by Drew (new)

Drew Damn. I was aware of the possibility of multiple Rivkas, but I clicked on your name and it said 'rivkag,' so I thought with it potentially narrowed down that much it was worth asking.

Though I really should have known already; in the novel you mention, she actually uses a character from real life, name unchanged!

message 21: by rivka (new)

rivka You may not be aware just HOW common the name Rivka is. It's the original Hebrew of Rebbecca, and among religious Jews worldwide, and Israeli Jews religious and non-religious alike, it's consistently one of the more common girls' names.

In my high school class of about 25, I was one of 4 Rivkas. And that doesn't count the two others whose middle name it was.

Lolly Thanks for the inside info, it's a little disappointing to hear the stories have been lifted from real life with little polishing or embellishment (signs of talent). I have enjoyed the stories so far, particularly his style. Now I'm wondering how much this info will effect the rest of my reading...

Dylann If you can't write from real experiences, where in hell do most authors get their material? look to many of the greats of short stories...Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Wells Tower, you will realize it is not a problem.
He's not playing a joke on Palo Alto. He's writing from life experiences. As most writers do. The only joke here is that he is not a great author yet has attended reputable MFA programs and workshops and has a legitimate publisher.

message 24: by Gina (new) - rated it 2 stars

Gina Durst While I didn't think this book was well-written or exciting, if did come across to me like Franco was writing about his own childhood. It's probably not completely legal to pretend this is all fiction, but I think he'll get away with it.
In any case, must have been pretty surreal for you to read!

message 25: by Lynn (new) - added it

Lynn Thank you virtually confirming what I felt upon wasting my time reading this drivel. It felt as if I was reading a spoiled rich kid's diary entries--bragging it up about he and his friends wasting all their spare time drunk/high/loaded/strung out, whatever term you wish. The only reason I read it? I was still working at Borders and it was a chosen feature, can't remember as a "make book" or "fiction expert pick," but one of the two. I was nothing but angry and disgusted that I'd wasted my time and rarely ever have. I felt that way about a book! Proof your name and "fame" can get a publisher's attention and backing, in my opinion. Just my impression. I would never recommend it to anyone for any reason... Again, thank you!

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