Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Report: (Some More Words about) How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Some time ago I posted that I was reading How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. I finished it yesterday. To recap, the book is about a twenty-something kid, Pete Tarslow, who writes college entrance essays for a living. He finds out that his college girlfriend, Polly, a. k. a. "the one who got away," is getting married and is so heartbroken that he decides to write a best-selling novel to upstage her at her own wedding. Shortly after hatching this plan he's laid off from his job and starts working on the book in earnest. But he doesn't want to tell a good story. He wants to make money. And possibly become a professor so he can get paid to do nothing and date students. So, he writes a list of rules for ensuring this happens. Here are a few of them: "Rule 2: Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book" (Hely 46), "Rule 3: Include nothing from my own life" (Hely 49), "Rule 9: At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals" (Hely 53), "Rule 10: Main character is miraculously liberated from a lousy job" (Hely 53), and "Rule 12: Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness" (Hely 54). As a writer, I thought this was nuts. I usually just get an idea and start scribbling. But then again, (as with my art), I rarely stop to worry about whether people will like it or not. Which may be my problem. I was reading all of this, thinking Pete Tarslow was a deplorable idiot. Then I read the outline for his proposed novel, The Tornado Ashes Club:

"After a murder at the Las Vegas hotel where he works, Silas Quilter is accused of a crime he didn't commit and is forced to turn to the only person he has left - his grandmother. She makes him a bargain - she'll help him stay ahead of the law if he'll help her on a mysterious mission to bring a soul to the afterlife. Together they embark on a quest along America's highways, drawn along the way by the haunting sounds of a beautiful country singer. As they dodge bounty hunters, we hear the tale that brought them together, a story of lost love that begins in the hobo camps of the Depression and on mud-stained college football fields, crisscrossing through the fury of World War II France to the islands of the Mediterranean and the kitchens and vineyards of Peru, a saga who heartbreaking but uplifting end can only come in the swirl of a tornado, sweeping across the milkweed and the bluestem of the prairie on a Christmas morning.

A stunning literary debut, told with lyrical prose, gentle humor, and an artist's eye, The Tornado Ashes Club is a novel for anyone who's had love or lost it, learned a wise lesson or a dark secret, or felt the magic of the story that is America."

After reading this, I didn't know what to think. It sounded exactly like the back cover of a book I'd pick up and then immediately buy. Words like "saga," "haunting," "heartbreaking," and "sweeping," would scream sensitive literary book at me, sucking me in. I would think that the book was special and noncommercial, the work of a serious artist instead of a top-selling bodice ripper or mystery by armies of ghost writers. Not that I didn't enjoy reading stuff like that sometimes. But I never expected as much from it. I couldn't help but wonder if this meant that every "good" book I read was really a piece of junk cobbled together by a charlatan trying to make money. Or that books weren't "the only place anyone could really be honest" (see my previous post tagged How I Became a Famous Novelist for more on this) after all, but just another product crafted to lure consumers. Or maybe it just meant that I was gullible and writers like Pete Tarslow knew exactly what they were doing.

I read on as Pete and his book became noticed, praised, ignored, defamed, debated, and so forth. Pete does not become immediately or hugely famous as the book's title would suggest. What really puts him on the map is a TV interview in which he admits that his book is a fraud and cites one of America's best-loved novelists as an even bigger fraud. After that, blogs explode with commentary over whether Pete's scum or some sort of genius or maybe just a guy manipulated by the system. Finally, he's invited to be on a panel with the writer he ripped apart. The whole thing is a train wreck, with the audience siding with the other guy. It seems like it's over for Pete. But then an unconventional lit professor who teaches only "popular" books seeks him out and persuades him to write a memoir capitalizing on his notoriety, which he does with spectacular results. He ends up making tons of money.

So it seems like he gets what he wanted. And that there really is a method, a trick, to writing stuff that sells and that that's what writers should do. I would've finished it thinking just that if it weren't for this closing sentence describing Pete's reaction after reading a critically acclaimed but unpopular novel:

"I can't even describe it right. And I won't bother excerpting it here. Go find it. I wish I'd written something that good" (Hely 322).

The entire book is turned on its head. It seemed to push the commercial envelope, to laugh at people who were trying to write something real. Yet all along it was using Pete as a kind of symbol. You're not supposed to root for him. You're supposed to feel sorry for him and read his exploits as a cautionary tale. This was a comfort to me, the lover of truth and books. Even so, a few things continued to niggle.

Like, even though Pete was a jerk, his antics put him on the map. So, if he wanted to change his ways and write and publish a "good" book, he'd have the connections to do so. In a weird way I admired Pete for at least wanting to do something. Sure, he was dishonest and went about writing ass-backwards. But at least he wasn't just sitting on a couch watching his life pass him by. That's the kind of guy he was when he was dating Polly. His lack of motivation, in fact, was the reason she left him. But her getting married catapulted him into action, however misled. It changed his life. If he hadn't written an awful book, then maybe he would never have discovered that he wanted to write a good one.

Or maybe I'm being a sap again and giving this guy way too much credit. Either way, it's something to think about.

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