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Charlie Kaufman’s Novel: When Is Medium Crossing Okay?

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

Man, am I curious to know what Charlie Kaufman’s novel is about. Aren’t you? Have you seen his films? Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation are three of my favorite movies of all time. I mean, you want to talk about mindblowing meta-fun. Mr. Kaufman is dependably eccentric — even when he’s not on his game. (Synecdoche, New York had me watching cartoons for about a week just to wash my brain out.)

So, anyway, Mr. Kaufman is branching out into the literary arts. My best guess for what this will be like is if Mark Danielewski (of House of Leaves fame) and the late David Foster Wallace got together, did a bunch of acid, and talked about memory, the nature of reality, and existentialism…and then wrote down their conversation verbatim. So, in other words, it’s going to be awesome.

Of course, Kaufman’s medium-crossing isn’t new. Cormac McCarthy is writing a screenplay. (We Book Rioters had a lot of fun earlier this year trying to guess what that will be like.) Actor and musician Steve Earle published a novel last year titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Reviews were pretty good. (Speaking of Earle, if you haven’t seen the HBO series Treme yet, please, do yourself a favor and beg, borrow, or steal the DVDs. It’s phenomenal — very high-quality story-telling.) James Franco’s short stories, while somewhat simplistic and amateurish, still are better than I can do. Even Steve Martin’s novel An Object of Beauty hasn’t been totally crucified. And there are a million other examples.

Of course, our natural inclination is to be skeptical of these cross-medium artists. And I’m not even talking about the insipid celebrity-ghost-penned novels (Snooki, Tyra Banks, Newt Gingrich, and Nicole Richie: You can all ram it). After all, it’s really, really difficult to write a good novel. And so part of our skepticism comes from jealousy. At least for me, the thought process goes something like this: How can this guy who is such a talented screenwriter and director also be a talented novelist? It’s not fair! He’s probably just trading on his well-known name. I’m not reading this garbage. Wait, this “garbage” has about a 95 percent chance of being really good. Dammit. It’s still not fair.

Let’s pretend for a second that Barthes was right — that the author is dead. Is it possible to judge these cross-medium projects solely on their content? Whew — that’d be tough, wouldn’t it? But there should be at least some sort of line in the sand for whom we treat seriously (because they have a genuine interest in the craft of writing a novel and are actually good at it) and whom we understand to be frivolously trading on their brand (yeah, Lauren Conrad, that’s you).

How do you know which is which? That’s the question I leave for you, Book Riot reader. Are there examples for you — like Kaufman’s novel for me — in which you were supremely excited about a cross-medium project? Why were you excited about it? What are some of the better other-artist-penned novels out there?