Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Ironically, How I Became a Famous Novelist is very funny, and starts very strongly -- but it's not, in the end, a successful novel. (Sadly for the author, Steve Hely, it's not yet famous, either, but it's still got plenty of time to achieve that.)

Famous Novelist is narrated by Boston's own Pete Tarslaw, an underachieving twentysomething who spends his days writing college entry essays for idiots with money and his nights in a dingy apartment with a med-school roommate. Pete is sent into a fit of pique as the novel begins by the news that his ex-girlfriend Polly is going to get married -- and so Pete determines to become a famous, successful novelist before the marriage, so that he can lord it over Polly. (This is only the first jarring note -- Hely doesn't really provide a justification for why Pete would be that obsessed with Polly, never providing any substantial flashback scenes of Pete and Polly together or otherwise giving the reader a sense of their relationship.)

On the other hand, the fact that Famous Novelist's view of the publishing world is utterly unrealistic is the point -- when Famous Novelist is successful, it's as a biting satire of publishing and bestsellers -- so Pete's ridiculous career goal is quite achievable. He studies the works on the fiction bestseller list -- particularly a horrible, maudlin "touching" book called Kindness to Birds by one of those salt-of-the-earth, kicked-around-by-life older Southern men called Preston Brooks -- and comes up with sixteen deeply cynical (and quite funny) rules for writing a bestseller. The central, unwritten rule, is, of course, to pander shamelessly to the audience. Pete then hacks out a piece of deliberately "lyrical" dreck called The Tornado Ashes Club, sends it to a college friend who is now a low-level editor at the New York publishing house Ortolan, and finds himself on the path to success.

Famous Novelist is great for the first half -- funny and cynical and knowing and zippy -- as it follows Pete's ascent. In the second half, though, it loses track of its shape and point, as if the novel (or Hely) is unsure whether to be a black comedy (ending with Pete being hugely successful, and ever more successful the more cynical/cruel/heartless he becomes) or a story of redemption (with Pete learning that there actually is such a thing as a good novel, and moving on to try to write one) or a fable of comeuppance (in which Pete is exposed and dashed on the rocks of his own ambition). Hely instead mixes elements of those three potential novels almost randomly, lurching from one to the other as if he had a list of publishing/writerly ideas he wanted to get through and only a limited number of pages to check them all off.

(Hely is a TV writer -- or perhaps a former TV writer -- so I couldn't help wondering if this was written during the writers' strike a few years back. If so, Hely's needing to return to other work could possibly explain the unfocused ending.)

How I Became a Famous Novelist is very funny, even late in the novel, when Hely's losing control of every other aspect of the book. And it's brutally cruel about publishing, in the way that insiders will love and appreciate. (If you can find a copy, turn to p.43 for Hely's version of the New York Times Book Review bestseller list; it's a gem.)

Let me give you a sample, from p.73, when Pete has concocted his rules and is settling down to write:
Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV's so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction. It's damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hanging, should get very little credit.
I can't quite recommend Famous Novelist widely, but -- if you work in publishing, or ever did -- you really should read it. It's set in the version of the publishing world that we all fear is true on that five-meeting day, when our babies are all dying and some piece of crap is selling massive quantities for that other publishing house.

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