You have to pity those poor people who man the security scanners in airports. All they've seen for weeks since the summer holiday season began is copy after copy of Stieg Larsson and Eat, Pray, Love drift across their screens. That, and maybe the odd Wolf Hall, for those who prefer something a little meatier to read on the beach. Give it a month or two, though, and they might start to spot the American actor James Franco's new novel, Palo Alto. Better known for his roles in Milk, Spider-Man 3 and a television biopic of the actor James Dean, for which he won a Golden Globe, the young actor, is, according to the industry magazine The Bookseller, due to publish his first novel.
Set in the eponymous northern California town, it reportedly tells the story of a group of young, hedonistic teenagers. It will be available in the US from October 19 and in the UK next January. Of celebrity children's authors we have heard plenty. Writing 30 pages or so about a bubblegum-pink princess (thank you Kylie Minogue and Geri Halliwell) seems a not insurmountable task. But a novel, complete with engaging, well-structured narrative and credible characters? This, as many writers will attest, is no mean feat. Throw into the pot that Franco is a celebrity (a breed not renowned for their appreciation of high culture) and expectations are rock bottom.
Franco, though, has done his due diligence. Not for him lounging about in his trailer, trying desperately to recall his high school English literature classes (what was it they said about a beginning, middle and end?) He has, according to The Bookseller, spent the past two years gaining degrees in literature and creative writing from UCLA and Columbia, and has been accepted into Yale's English PhD programme. "This is a book to be inhaled more than once", enthuses Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan, in an early review, "with delight and admiration, with unease and pure enjoyment."
At a time when the US celebrity-fiction genre is more commonly characterised by the likes of Pamela Anderson and Lauren Conrad (Anderson's 2004 novel Star Struck is about an aspiring cosmetologist; while Conrad's LA Candy centres on a 19-year-old girl who becomes famous thanks to a reality TV show), Franco's relatively serious subject matter comes as a breath of fresh air. That's not to say it will actually sell, though. Both Anderson and Conrad have enjoyed considerable success from their scribblings, with Conrad's second book, Sweet Little Lies, topping the New York Times bestseller list when it was published earlier this year. (And now Tyra Banks is after a slice of the pie, reportedly hard at work on a trilogy of books called Modelland, a "fantasy" based on the world of modeling.)
Actors, though, tend to like their novels serious. Carrie Fisher's 1987 semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge (which was subsequently turned into a film directed by Mike Nichols), focused on a woman going through rehab. The comedian Steve Martin's 2000 novel Shopgirl and his 2003 follow-up The Pleasure of My Company were both remarkably po-faced. Ethan Hawke has also tried his hand at serious fiction, first with The Hottest State, a love story between tortured youths, in 1997 and then with Ash Wednesday, about a couple on a road trip, in 2002.
In the UK, the world of celebrity fiction is looking decidedly low rent; so much so that the esteemed writer Lynda La Plante chose, at the Crime Thriller Writer's Awards in London late last year, to use her moment on stage to beg publishers to "cut through the dross". Presumably she was referring to the recent spate of novels by the likes of Katie Price and Kerry Katona, both of whom, like their US counterparts, have enjoyed buoyant sales (can there be a more depressing statistic than that which showed that Price's first book, Angel, outsold the entire Booker shortlist in 1997?) The ghost-writing industry has, it seems, never been healthier.
Of course you know where all this started, don't you? With Naomi Campbell in 1994, who allowed her name to be used on Swan, a story about a blackmailed supermodel. She admitted she didn't write it. In fact, some reports claim she had never even read it. Either way, the woman has a lot to answer for.