Famous Person Gets Story Published

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tom Hanks has a story called “Alan Bean Plus Four” in The New Yorker this week. It’s also available online and there’s an audio version read by the actor/author himself in his dramatically trained voice.

It’s not a very good story. Set in the near future, it’s a first-person-narrated account of some friends’ attempt to orbit the moon in a homemade rocket. So there are app-based technologies and social media concerns and pop-culture currency, not to mention a very strong and unlikely conscientiousness with regard to the short history of space travel. And it is delivered with a waggishness meant to amuse the author:

The Americans who went to the moon before us had computers so primitive that they couldn’t get e-mail or use Google to settle arguments. The iPads we took had something like seventy billion times the capacity of those Apollo-era dial-ups and were mucho handy, especially during all the downtime on our long haul. MDash used his to watch Season Four of “Breaking Bad.” We took hundreds of selfies with the Earth in the window and, plinking a Ping-Pong ball off the center seat, played a tableless table-tennis tournament, which was won by Anna.

It even not-so-subtly makes allusions to Tom Hanks lore, including Apollo 13, but not the movie Apollo 13.

Naturally, people are criticizing The New Yorker for the decision to publish Tom Hanks’ fiction. The gist of the gripes being: he’s not a writer, he’s a famous guy who happens to have written something. “Couldn’t get James Franco to submit anything?” wrote one Facebook commenter. Not that The New Yorker has been an equal-opportunity for platform for emerging writers in recent years. And it doesn’t help that Tom Hanks is white and male.

Famous people publishing their stories is nothing new. If anything, the work rarely has staying power. I was working in a chain bookstore 15 years ago when John Travolta published the slim fable Propeller One-Way Night Coach, about a boy’s first journey on an airplane. It was supposedly written to amuse the actor’s friends, until someone decided to publish it. I don’t think we sold a single copy—Entertainment Weekly said, “there’s not a moral to be found in 42 pages of untrammeled, possibly unedited starry-eyedness”—and I doubt John Travolta was torn up about it.

And perhaps that’s the heft of the objection: the suggestion that Tom Hanks and John Travolta get opportunities to wade into the publishing scene without concern for critical fallout, much like a protected billionaire investor wading into a new industry, while the rest of us nobodies place full emotional investment and risk into our projects, the only things that offer us a chance to rise above the mundane. How do we know how much soul was spilled here? How can we know how important “Alan Bean Plus Four” is to its creator?


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