Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist [2009]

I really couldn't stop myself from reading a book about a guy who decides to become a famous novelist in order to completely humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding, the aptly titled How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. Pete creates his best-seller, The Tornado Ashes Club, by assembling every hackneyed convention and tired metaphor he can muster and meshing it all together with overpoweringly "lyrical" prose. Pete's list of rules for best-sellers (hastily assembled during a research trip to Barnes & Noble) include: "Abandon truth," "At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals," and "Evoke confusing sadness at the end." Hely primarily uses Pete's transition to author to provide a searing criticism of the publishing industry. Publishers are portrayed as having no idea how to recognize quality writing:
You know like when a kid is just screaming and screaming, and the mom just keeps throwing toys at it, but the kid keeps screaming, and it looks like the mom's about to cry, too? . . . That's what it's like! The editors are the mom! Readers are the kid. And the editors just keep throwing stuff at them, but they don't know what to do!
Readers buy poorly written books by the millions, and literary masterworks are consigned to the pulping machine. Hely opens almost every chapter with an example of wince-inducing prose from a "best-selling" author.

In retrospect, it probably would have helped if I'd been able to identify the real bestselling authors that no doubt are represented by the broad caricatures with whom Pete finds himself interacting. However, I've read enough books to be amused by the faux bestseller list (including A Whiff of Gingham and Pecorino: On a hilltop villa in Sicily, an American divorcee finds new love with a local cheesemaker involved in a blood feud.), and these lines alone made me laugh out loud (after Pete expresses his views on the "con game" of writing on national TV):
"You might have to apologize to Oprah."
"What'd I do to her?"
"She's just--that's who you apologize to."
Although the book didn't hang together as well as it could have, and ended with a whimper rather than a bang, it was worth a few laughs as a reminder to appreciate literature (but never take anything too seriously).

Grade: B-

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