Thursday, June 9, 2011

How I Became A Famous Novelist: Literary Con Job

There are your boring, everyday cynics, and then there is Pete Tarslaw, the slacker and faux-novelist who weasels his way into the literary discussion in Steve Hely's hilarious publishing-industry satire How I Became A Famous Novelist. Pete, who works at a company that furnishes admissions essays for rich college kids and Asian businessmen who want their MBAs, is convinced that literary novelists are nothing more than talented con artists and readers are deluded idiots. He forms a begrudging respect for the former because it takes one to know one, and he plans to exploit the latter. How? He'll simply write a novel — so he can become rich and famous, so he can have a "stately home by the ocean (or scenic lake)" and, most importantly, so he can "humiliate Polly (his ex-girlfriend) at her wedding." His literary intentions are as pure as the driven snow, as you can tell.

So, aided by an experimental drug that helps him concentrate, he commences work on his novel. He bases his plot on an examination of the common characteristics of the (fake) NY Times Best Sellers list. His list of rules for what his novel must include (Christmas, food, cross-country trips, murders, etc.) and the justifications for why these are in novels is one of the hilarious highlights of this book. For example, "Rule 15: Must have obscure exotic locations" because "Americans trust knowledge acquired evidenced by their love of Andrea Bocelli and the Olive Garden. Even kids like Chef Boyardee."

Hely: Nerdy, but funny.
The fake NY Times Best Sellers list Hely includes is, other than the fake blurbs: "America's Cervantes has appeared," my favorite part of the novel. It's clearly intended to illustrate how silly we readers are for reading the  novels we do. Even though the names and titles are fake, you'll recognize a few real people/novels (Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich) here. It'd be immensely worth your time to use Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to read page 43 (or better yet, just buy the book— it's $5.60 right now!). An example: The Lavender Willow, by Thomas Quinn — On Nantucket, a beautiful nun who's given up on love finds herself attracted to a psychic man who may be a dangerous arsonist.

So Pete's novel is published. It's panned by serious critics, but embraced by readers, aided by a series of serendipities. From there, the second half of the novel is a bit predictable and not nearly as well-written or funny as the first part (except for the part when Pete has a tryst with a cougar novelist he hates). But it's a short book, so it's easy enough to cruise through this to find the answer to the key question: Will Pete get his comeuppance? 

At the heart of this satire is the idea that publishers really don't know what's good and what's not anymore. Pete's friend Lucy, who is an assistant editor at a publisher, has a drunken rant to this effect. "I just can't tell anymore," she says. And readers don't know either. They're happy to be spoon fed

You're not going to like Pete, but you're going to like this novel. If you're interested in publishing, if you have a cynical streak in you, and if you like good satire and sharply funny writing (see below for example), this is for you.

(Thanks to Brenna at Literary Musings for recommending this. She was right: I DID like it.) 

My favorite quote from novel: "That false-hearted overcapitalizing strumpet was welcome to marry whatever Pacific Rim lout would call her missus." 


  1. That's a great review and this book looks hilarious. I'm a very big fan of cynical humor (so far, I've found Chuck Palahnuik's Pygmy to be the sharpest and funniest of this kind of book) so I'll be looking for a copy of this.

  2. I just added this to my TBR list. I wanted to read this even before your review and this review just makes it clear I need to get to it soon

  3. Great review, Greg. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I knew you would.

    I'm a little relieved that you pointed out the second half of the novel wasn't as good as the first. I read the first in one sitting before bed one night - and stayed up a little later than normal to read more - then read the second half over the next few days. I thought I was overlooking some of the jokes he made over the first half just because I didn't read it all at once. It almost felt like something was missing compared to the second. Now I know that wasn't the case.

  4. Thanks Greg, I was wondering about this one.

  5. I always think about the actual agenda that people/artists have, and more often than not, it can be traced back to some desire for security,self-preservation & the avoidance of pain. Not an absolute dichotomy by any means, but I guess the human condition is a sort of battle between selfless and selfish action. Even seemingly selfless actions can have hidden (even from the person enacting them) selfish agendas. On the other hand there is the ability of people simply to be and do without too much thought whatsoever, making their actions almost accidental and ineligible for true criticism. Very interesting stuff.

  6. Do you think it's something we should be concerned about that publishing houses don't know (or care) what consists of a good book anymore? Or do you think it's a positive thing that we even have the right to read mediocre and bad novels?

    I could both ways on the argument, but I do think it's a travesty that many readers can't seem to recognize when they're reading a bad novel (regardless of enjoyment factor).

  7. @Pete - I don't think I've ever read anything with a more cynical character than Pete Tarslaw is. Most people won't like him, but I kinda did!

    @Red - Based on some of your reviews and your taste, I think you'd really like this - the first half of it, at least.

    @Brenna - Yeah, the second half seemed a lot more rushed and a lot less clever than the first. But overall, I still really enjoyed it. Thanks again for pointing it out!

    @Man - It's good - give it a try!

    @n.piper - If you say so. ;) The motivations of Pete in this novel were fully selfish - nothing the least bit artistic about it.

    @Amy - I don't think it's a matter of publishers not knowing what's good and not, I think it's a matter of them being waaaay too concerned with what will sell and what won't. Obviously, what's good and what will sell are often two very different things. And I do think it's a positive thing to read (or have the right to read) bad books - you gotta read the bad to be able to better appreciate the good!

  8. Fun, interesting review Greg. Probably won't read the book, but glad to read this.

  9. I love giving the publishing industry a hard time (big fan of THIEVES OF MANHATTAN), I've heard supes-fun things about this one, it'll go on my Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa like TBR pile.

  10. Stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Party.


    Love your blog.


  11. It was a cute book, but should have been a short story. I lost interest quickly and quit reading it.