Delicate things: creative vs critical




I recently read James Franco’s essay in Vice magazine on Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby, and my friend Quintessentially Quirky’s brief take on it made me stop to pause. I do hope she won’t mind me quoting her words:


James Franco’s review of “The Great Gatsby” for Vice reads like your 9th grade English essay with some graphic personal details. This is what it takes to be a Yale PhD candidate, ladies and gentlemen.


What seems to be QQ’s issue with Franco’s piece was that it was very poorly and awkwardly written. You can go and take a look at it if you like and probably you’ll come to the same conclusion she did. It feels repetitious, occasionally jarring, and the arguments aren’t strongly put enough to hold up a washing line of slightly damp socks. I don’t particularly want to write a long post on Franco’s talent or lack thereof. But what I did disagree with was QQ’s last line ‘This is what it takes to be a Yale PhD candidate’.


To be honest, it’s because it stung me. As you might know, I have a PhD in English literature. The journey towards getting that PhD was one of the hardest I’ve ever made. And not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think – that the work itself is hard, mentally wracking.  Which it was, but. This was not a science-based PhD. There was no theorising formulas. No collation. No ethical ramifications. My PhD was 80% novel writing, 20% essay. And while I threw myself into the novel, while I cried and fought to make it as good as it could be (and for nearly a year, failed utterly, before turning it around), it was that last 20% that was the worst.


There is a difference between writing fiction and writing criticism. For some people, there is a huge and unexpected disparity between their ability to write creatively and their ability to write a sharply-tuned, intelligent essay. Just as a writer might be unable to manage their personal finances, or work out how to succeed in business, or (as the stereotype goes) act on reasonable health advice regarding alcohol consumption, or even spell words correctly, so they might be unable to point to a story, any story, and say eloquently what is going on there and how and why.


There is a difference between being able to construct a cogent argument on the worth of a film and being able to write and direct a film. There is a huge difference between being able to read and get a lot out of, say, Wide Sargasso Sea and being able to enlighten someone else’s mind on what you found so wonderful there. I can’t speak much to Franco’s talent, or his particular PhD programme (nor on the American system, which holds PhDs out of the reach of so many through outrageously expense, unlike here in Scotland). But I can say this – it doesn’t take a genius to do a practice-based English PhD. All it takes is drive, and openness to the criticisms of others, and a willingness to find out which criticisms to take into account.


And something else  – I did a PhD because I still needed to learn. Franco, given all his bouncing around and taking up of various degrees, clearly feels the same. A passion for learning. For the process of discovery that he is afforded. Taking a PhD, being accepted by a programme, does not mean you know, nor can enact your thoughts as clearly as some people who will never take a degree. Some people are by inclination critically minded, articulate, devastatingly smart. Some of the rest of us, not particularly.  We might be trying very hard though.


Sometimes I feel awkward mentioning my doctorate. I’ve been given so many opportunities in life, and this is one extra. But more than that, I feel that my lack of eloquence lets me down in the eyes of others. I feel that my talents are not in areas that people expect. I struggle to read theory. I occasionally struggle with my book reviews, when I want to say more than how the text made me feel or what textures and tastes it had, the swirl of believability and linguistic verve. And although I am an ESL teacher, I might not always speak in clear full sentences, because my mind is slower to run with critical analysis. That, and my introversion, and the sense of distraction I have: If I’ve just come out of a cinema, or a theatre, my mind is blazing with imagery. Anything I have to say will take time to come out. Rush, and it will be just as awkward as Franco’s essay. With more pauses and umms.


It takes a rare spark to be both a writer of fiction and an excellent critic. That’s why there is a place and a need for both. A need for someone to create – and that someone might not be the best person to talk about their creation. A need for a critic, many critics, who can draw out all the threads and make them clearer. Enrich the text in a thousand different ways. Personally, I loved journalist Sady Doyle’s take on The Great Gatsby, in which she shows that Luhrman uses the space of his film as a kind of critic of the book. At the same time, I also enjoyed this interview with Franco, and am looking forward to his version of As I Lay Dying when it comes out.


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6 responses to “Delicate things: creative vs critical

  1. I think the universities who accept James Franco are doing so because of who he is instead of the work he has produced. I haven’t read any critical writing of his, but unfortunately, his fiction is sub par. Perhaps, his output would be different if he focused on something. I do not have a PhD but I have a Masters and doing one graduate degree alone is a test on one’s mind and stamina.

    • I can’t comment on why the universities accepted Franco, and I’m not really looking to do that – more to ask for a hesitation in condemning him off the bat. But I understand a lot of people will disagree with me, given the opportunities Franco has had.

      • I know what you mean. I always read his writing first instead of making a snap judgement. Truthfully, I really wish that his published work was exciting but, unfortunately, that is usually not the case.

  2. I also have a PhD (technical, not liberal arts), and I’ll be the first to admit that many PhD holders I’ve met won’t be winning the Nobel Prize in Awesome any time soon, myself included. On the other hand, I don’t appreciate the reverse snobbery, either. Any PhD takes hard work and perseverance, and those are qualities that should be valued more than they are.

    I couldn’t read Franco’s essay. It read like he was either drunk or asleep when he wrote it. But I liked the Gatsby movie; I thought it captured the spirit of the book (kind of like Mishima captured the spirit of the Noh Plays he adapted). And I liked that the voiceover captured the last lines of the novel, which I always loved.

    • I don’t like reverse snobbery either – which I feel is at play against Franco’s enthusiastic (if not accomplished) swinging through various systems of education.

      • Now I remember what was tickling the back of mind — it was this:

        I don’t pay much attention to actors; I didn’t know anything about Franco, except that his thumbnail bio in the corner of this essay said he was an actor. The essay isn’t deep, I suppose, but it’s readable, if a bit rambling, and seemed like an appropriate subject for an actor/writer. So I was shocked to see the bile in some of the comments. Now I get it.

        Though the sycophantic comments were annoying, too.

        I do wonder if people would hate him so much if he were a homely actor racking up degrees, instead of a pretty one.

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