I first approached How I Became a Famous Novelist with some trepidation. Like many other humourous books, this one is very committed to its humour in a very meta-fictional way. Everything from the back cover to the epigraphs is part of the commentary the book and author Steve Hely are making on the state of writing and publishing in contemporary North American society. The book and its main character are extremely self-aware and self-possessed. Books like this tend either to impress me or to get on my nerves. How I Became a Famous Novelist averaged out: the book impressed me, but Pete Tarnslaw got on my nerves.
Hely's style and the meta-fictional nature of the book remind me a lot of Douglas Coupland. And as a general rule, I consider Coupland a god among men when it comes to witty insights into this postmodern melodrama we call life, so by garnering such a comparison, Hely has both earned implicit praised and set the bar quite high for the rest of the book. Unfortunately, How I Became a Famous Novelist never quite reaches the highs of my favourite Coupland-esque scenes and schemes; for that I blame mostly Pete Tarnslaw, because he got on my nerves.
I love the premise of this book. It's simple, and to some extent it feels true (isn't that ironic?). Pete is a disaffected twenty-something, and when he learns his ex-girlfriend is getting married, he vows to become a famous novelist so he can show her up at her own wedding. Having watched a vapid interview with a bestselling author, Pete decides he has figured out the "rules" to writing a bestseller. And he succeeds, for a little while. Then he gets on my nerves.
Pete is just insufferably whiny and entitled. And I think that is intentional; when we sympathize with Pete, it's not because he's a nice guy, or even because he's an underdog. Rather, the source of our sympathy comes from Pete's chosen target: the publishing industry. Pete sets out to game the system in a very deliberate, cynical way. In so doing, Hely pokes fun at both the industry, the types of writers Pete is emulating, and the types of writers who emulate Pete. Yet I have a very difficult time enjoying Pete's enjoyment of his success. I have an even more difficult time enjoying Pete's discomfort as Hely subverts his con game to foist upon Pete an epiphany about writing and the meaning of literature. As much as I like Pete's snarky comments and the caricature secondary characters floating around each chapter, very little of this book actually sticks.
For regular readers, for book reviewers, and for writers (I am all three), I think this book has a special resonance beyond what the general public may feel. Pete has unkind words for all three categories of individual (more on that later), and of course, all three of these types of people have good reason to be interested in the health and attitude of the publishing industry. How I Became a Famous Novelist really works, especially for this audience, because it is embedded in its time. That is not in and of itself bad—many well-regarded classics benefit from a knowledge of their contemporary period—but it does amplify that transitory quality. Nevertheless, I think this book will remain relevant for a long time, because the Dan Browns and James Pattersons of publishing are not going away any time soon. And wherever you find a thriller writer, you'll find Pete Tarnslaw and Steve Hely, pulling back the curtain.
As a voracious reader, who is also a bit of literary snob, and who has made it his mission to review every book he reads for Goodreads, I loved Pete's invective toward book readers. It really captures how good Hely is at representing the ecosystem around book publishing in a Dilbertine way:
I try not to hate anybody. "Hate is a four-letter word," like the bumper sticker says. But I hate book reviewers.
Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people's work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.
Book reviewers live in tiny studios that stink of mothballs and rotting paper. Their breath reeks of stale coffee. From time to time they put on too-tight shirts and pants with buckles and shuffle out of their lairs to shove heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwiches into their faces, which are worn in to permanent snarls. Then they go back to their computers and with fat stubby fingers they hammer out "reviews." Periodically they are halted as they burst into porcine squeals, gleefully rejoicing in their cruelty.
Even when being "kindly," book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. "We look forward to hearing more from the author," a book reviewer might say. The prissy tones sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more.
But a bad book review is just disgusting.
Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of "telling people how bad different books are"? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
The above picture, unfortunately, is not at all accurate: I hate mayonnaise. Yet we reviewers often require authors to develop thick skins, so isn't turnabout fair play?
Beneath all the jibes and jests, Hely is raising a serious question; this is where the "meta" part of the book comes into play. Firstly, he observes that the way we, collectively, value books is very arbitrary. The books that sell well in their day do not necessarily become literary classics; the converse is also often true. Pete likes to cite Moby-Dick as an example. He also has an interesting conversation later in the book with a professor hired to teach at his old college; the professor is an advocate of judging books based on their "free-market" value, so he only teaches bestsellers of the day.
So that is the paradox that readers, writers, and publishers all face: we can't really know what makes a book "good," nor can we predict how long a book will be revered or scorned by the public before the tide turns. This problem appears any time quality is entirely subjective, whether we are talking about books, music, or art. And the reason why this is a big deal is simple: it scares us.
This paradox runs counter to the entire individualist philosophy that has permeated the twentieth century. It tells us that we have no power in determining our legacy or the legacy of our culture. Furthermore, this is not just a matter of time, but of individual versus society. Although some individual future critics might shape future public opinion, for the most part that opinion will shift collectively. And because our minds don't have the capability to comprehend such numbers, we don't really understand how our individual preferences contribute to that collective change. It is a little boggling, and thus a little scary.
So sometimes it is easier to believe in a conspiracy, to believe that writing is a racket and there are easy rules to follow. Or, equivalently, to believe that the general reading public are predictable sheep who will buy the same formulaic drivel over and over. On some days, days when I see pyramids of Dan Brown novels with "#1 bestseller" stickers plastered over their covers, I truly believe that is the case. But that is the cynic in me rearing his head; I do know better. Or at least, I am smarter than Pete, because this his hamartia: he calls the public ignorant to its face, and the public doesn't like that. We see this during the climactic conversation with Preston Brooks, where Brooks harnesses that discontent with the way Pete baldly insults his audience's intelligence. It is OK to believe the collective is stupid; just don't say it aloud. Or don't say it too loudly; the Internets can hear you!
It all works out for Pete in the end, of course, because controversy is great for driving sales. And that's all that Pete wants; he just wants to be a "famous novelist." He has lost his faith in the integrity of literature as anything more than a money-making business. As Preston Brooks put it: "You're always looking for falseness in everything. You're used to falseness. You grew up with that lie machine, the television." While I don't agree with all of Preston's, "Yarr, your generation has never had it so hard; I'm an old man but I believe in writing!" speech that wins over the crowd and hands Pete his ass on a platter, I do like that one line. Just look at the so-called "reality television" on the schedule grid—do you remember the days when TLC was actually "The Learning Channel"? Fundamentally, I don't think the masses have changed all that much through the generations—we are wired, evolutionarily, for spectacle. But television has just made it so easy to deliver spectacle, cheap spectacle, to those masses. And the novel, as a much more ponderous medium, is having a hard time competing.
I don't really think it should compete in that sense, and I could digress into a rant about how we should probably be raising our kids as readers if we want them to read more. Or I could talk about how all good things come to an end, and maybe it's true that the novel, as a literary form, has reached its expiration date. But I think it's time we return to the book.
How I Became a Famous Novelist is rather funny, very clever, and definitely entertaining if you like reading books about people writing books. The main character got on my nerves, and for that reason alone, this book never quite reaches the heights it could have. Still, I have to admit this book was better than I expected it to be, and Hely's criticism of the publishing industry is both humourous and accurate. The finale is touching, if a little trite, and overall this book made me think more about reading, how I read, and how I write reviews. So not too shabby, Hely.
But holy wow, did Pete get on my nerves.