The Penn isn’t Mightier: the dos and don'ts for actor-authors

Sean Penn isn’t the first actor to swap the limelight for prose and he won't be the last. We check out six other movie star scribes and see what lessons Penn might learn from them

Feature by John Bleasdale | 06 Apr 2018
  • Sean Penn

Having sort-of announced his retirement from film acting, Sean Penn is busy promoting his first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. It has not gone well. “Repellent and stupid on so many levels,” wrote the Guardian. “Penn delivers prose as if he were gunning for a prize from the American Alliteration Association,” complained The Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, declared in its headline that the novel “Doesn’t Deserve a Considerate Review”.

Originally trailed as a shorter work which Penn claimed to be the work of Pappy Pariah, an author he’d met, Sean Penn’s biggest mistake was to shed his pseudonym. But say you too are a film star looking to make the leap to the literary world; what lessons can you learn from past filmstar follys? Here are a few we've picked off the shelves.

James Franco – Don’t give up the day job

Hate him or hate him, James Franco certainly has a work ethic. If he isn’t acting in blockbusters or soap operas, writing and directing films, he’s doing art installations, music projects, modeling or hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway. In 2010 a book of short stories – Palo Alto – appeared before his debut novel Actors Anonymous in 2013. The first was filmed by Gia Coppola in 2014 while the latter was trailered as if it were a movie. The reality wasn’t great, and when accusations of sexual misbehavior were levelled at Franco, some of the ‘edgy’ material began to seem more incriminating than candid. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for this later infamy, the book would have been quickly forgotten in the endless deluge of Francophinalia. And that would have been fine.

Tom Hanks – Keep it short

Penn’s first foray into literary waters came in the form of a novella, which even then was a little long. Other actors prefer to dabble in the short form. Jesse Eisenberg has written several short stories for the New Yorker which are eminently skippable. Woody Allen’s short story collections rank alongside his ‘early funny’ films as the best things he’s ever done. More recently, Tom Hanks published an anthology of short stories, Uncommon Type, which got mixed reviews – one noted he wrote like Forrest Gump – but at least with short stories you can dip in and out. Unfortunately, Hanks and his publisher made the error of not weeding out the weak: the book is 400 pages long! Fortunately, the best of the bunch, Alan Bean Plus Four, is available at the New Yorker.

Gene Hackman – Keep it separate

“Gene Hackman, the star of The French Connection, The Conversation and The Royal Tenenbaums writes novels!?” we hear you collectively yell at the top of your lungs. Yes, he does. Has done for years. But he doesn’t go on Late Night and force Stephen Colbert to pretend that he’s read them. Hackman’s novels are manly genre pieces – historical, crime and westerns like Payback at Morning Peak. Some he co-wrote with friend, neighbor and marine archaeologist Daniel Lenihan; some solo. Sean Penn might see Gene as a role model, envisioning his own retirement in the same way. On Hackman’s author page over at the Simon and Schuster website we learn Hackman “lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife and two German shepherds.”

Pamela Anderson – Get someone else to write it

Pamela Anderson’s first novel Star (2004) tells the story of a young waitress who becomes the ‘star’ of a TV show called Lifeguards Inc. Except she didn’t ink the book herself. Eric Shaw Quinn, who gets credited on the flyleaf, did. So Anderson has it both ways – she can cash in, and doesn’t have to take the blame for the description of how her breasts ‘tenaciously’ grew. William Shatner has a bunch of Star Trek and Tek Wars novels all written ‘with’ – for which read ‘by’ – other authors. Similarly, autobiographies are often credited “as told to [professional writer]”.

Carrie Fisher – Write a book that’s actually good

Following her mega-fame as Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher’s acting career stalled, her iconic status transferring into bit parts. In 1987, she staged a comeback via her own literary talent with her debut novel Postcards from the Edge. Susanna Vale is a struggling actress with addiction issues, watching her career slide from under her. Garnering praise for its candor, the book was favorably compared to other novels of LA alienation by Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. Fisher went on to write three more novels and a series of entertaining memoirs.

Vincent Price – Write a cookbook

Our favourite actor-turned-writer would have to be Vincent Price. Along with the usual memoirs, Price spent his downtime from Roger Corman horror films writing a series of creditable cook books with his second wife Mary. Price was a man of many sides – an art expert and collector as well as a gourmet chef. Like Penn, he would go on The Tonight Show to promote his product: here he is cooking a salmon in a dishwasher with Johnny Carson. And there we might have the answer. Sean Penn figures himself a renaissance man: actor, journalist and now writer. Couldn’t his new book be called Bob Honey Who Just Cook Stuff?