Critics Divided On James Franco's "Raw, Unsettling" Short Stories


“Reads like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho fell into a Catcher in the Rye remix” or “A collection of beautifully written stories”? When it comes to James Franco’s fiction debut, Palo Alto, the critics just can’t agree!

One can’t argue with the bona fides of the blurbs, which are glowing.

  • “These quotable, unsettling stories stay with you; they seem to change the ions in a room.”—Amy Hempel
  • “James Franco’s stories are raw, unsettling and delectable… They are both really scary and fun to read.”—Darcey Steinke
  • “Franco’s talent is unmistakable, his ambition profound….This is a book to be inhaled more than once, with delight and admiration, with unease and pure enjoyment. As a writer, he’s here to stay.”-Gary Shteyngart
  • “Franco’s intense artistry swarms all over this gripping book. Think Bret Easton Ellis, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker. Or better yet, just think James Franco.”-Ben Marcus
  • “James Franco is a writer of skill and sensitivity whose depiction of cruelty and neglect, of amusement and loneliness, of longing and being lost—of the pains and chaos of adolescence—is original and impressive.” — Susan Minot

And when they’re good, they’re very, very good:

  • “The stories are raw and funny-sad, and they capture with perfect pitch the impossible exhilaration, the inevitable downbeat-ness, and the pure confusion of being an adolescent.” —Elle
  • “Franco’s stories are impressive: crisp, spare, depressing…. A collection of beautifully written stories.” —Kirkus, starred review
  • “Franco writes with such deep empathy and affinity that one has to wonder if he lived this life.” –USA Today

When they’re bad, they’re…well, see for yourselves:

  • “The author fails to find anything remotely insightful to say in these 11 amazingly underwhelming stories…The privileged, borderline sociopathic eighth-grade consciousness into which stories like “Killing Animals” and “Tar Baby” consign us is saturated in first-wave Nintendo games and an egregiously gleeful dosage of homophobia and puerile race-baiting that is exhausting, even in a collection where the average story is 10 pages long.” —Publisher’s Weekly
  • “James Franco’s debut story collection, “Palo Alto,” is a thin, hackneyed affair, not downright disastrous, but too amateurish and undercooked to carry any real force.” —Washington Post
  • “The 11 stories in this collection read like an amateur tribute to Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver.” —Wall Street Journal
  • “They read, separately and together, like precisely what they are: the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detain but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance.” —L.A. Times
  • “One can imagine the multi-degreed Franco, who’s currently studying English at Yale, laboring mightily over these stories. In fact, they began five years ago as an undergrad thesis and were worked on as he matriculated from university to university. But all that intensity has, curiously, polished the prose to a brittle sheen whose surface overwhelms its depth.” —Mercury News
  • “The best thing I can say about Palo Alto is that it is occasionally competent.” —NY Press

And then there’s the meh:

  • “Snark is the default response but not, I am sad to say, the honest one. Because to the question of “Can James Franco write?”, the short answer is yes. And so is the long answer, but with the qualification that a writer’s subject is as important as his method and that, having dwelt so lovingly and hatefully on his boyhood, James Franco may now be advised to leave it behind.” —Salon

And in case you were wondering about the author:

About the Author: James Franco is an actor, director, screenwriter, and artist. His film appearances include Milk, Pineapple Express, the Spider-Man trilogy, Howl, and Eat, Pray, Love. On television, he starred in the critically acclaimed series Freaks and Geeks. Franco has presented his visual art at the Clocktower Gallery in New York, and his writing has appeared in Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, and McSweeney’s. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College and has studied in the creative writing MFA program at Columbia and the film MFA program at New York University.

Palo Alto

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