Onyx reviews: How I
Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
What better way to humiliate and upstage your former girlfriend on her
wedding day then to become a best-selling novelist? This isn't Pete Tarslaw's
only reason for seeking this goal. He also thinks that it will make him famous,
financially comfortable and will lead to a cushy teaching job at the English
department of some respectable college where he will loll around, smoke pipes
and seduce affable young coeds. Live the good life.
Pete's scheme sounds
like a good one. Of course, Steve Hely's novel wouldn't be interesting if
the scheme went exactly as planned.
It's two years since Pete graduated from university and was taken by surprise
by his equally lackadaisical girlfriend, Polly, who suddenly acquired
aspirations and a goal: to attend law school. Pete is content to work for a
shady company that turns illiterate college
application essays into works that aren't so good as
to create suspicion but which are head and shoulders above what he started with.
Polly's unenthusiastic invitation to her wedding in a year's time goads him
into action. Once he decides to write a bestseller, he realizes he needs to do
some research, having never written a novel. He's not concerned with writing a
good book, he simply wants to write one that will become popular. To that end,
he studies the bestseller list and the books that are on prominent display in
the chain bookstores he visits.
He distills the elements that make them popular into the roadmap for his
book. It must contain a murder, a conspiracy, a secret club. The prose must be
lyrical. It should contain extensive descriptions of food and include scenes in
as many reader-filled towns and exotic locations as possible. These are but a
few of the nearly twenty rules he derives, and he sets about cramming all of
them into the ungainly faux-literary bookThe Tornado Ashes Club.
Of course, he discovers that there's more to writing a book than simply
outlining it. There's the annoying bit where the writer has to sit down and put
words on the page. To accelerate this process, he avails himself of trial
pharmaceuticals he cons his roommate into providing, a speed-like substance that
sends him on binges where he writes thousands of words in a single setting.
It helps that one of his old college friends reads the slush pile at a
reputable publishing house, so he doesn't have to go through the ordeal that
most writers face: waiting months or years for a response. He also discovers the
dirty secret of the publishing industry: nobody knows what book is going to be
successful. Everyone from the lowliest reader to the most illustrious editor
lives in perpetual panic that someone will discover that they don't really know
what they're doing.
In any case, to keep a long novel short, Pete's road to publication is
smoother than normal. The first review is devastating (and accurate), but
subsequent reviews are kinder and his book actually makes it to the fringes of
the NY Times bestseller list. After that, The Tornado Ashes Club starts
treading water, destined for the remainder table after a brief flirtation with
success. Pete can honestly present himself as a bestseller, but he's more likely
to attract looks of sympathy than awe, and he hasn't exactly become rich or
famous from his novel.
As Pete brushes elbows with the literary establishment during a book tour
that takes him from well-attended book expos in California to tedious
appearances at Creative Writing workshops in Montana, Hely skewers well-known
popular authors. Does crime writer Pamela McLaughlin bring to mind Patricia
Cornwell or Danielle Steel? Is high-tech military writer Nick Boyle a thinly
veiled version of Tom Clancy? Tim Drew = Dan Brown? And what about Preston
Brooks, Pete's undeclared nemesis, a man he has grown to loathe because of the
self-serving platitudes the man spouts about the truth and sanctity of writing?
Perhaps intended to conjure up thoughts of Cormac McCarthy?
When he goes off message during a high profile interview and says some ill
advised and controversial things about his own work and that of other "talentless
writers" (taking particular aim at Preston Brooks), he inexplicably
finds his star rising again, as well as his Amazon sales ranking. His publishers
are at first aghast, discussing apologies and damage control, but they soon
realize the truth of the adage: no publicity is bad publicity. He ends up
participating in the literary equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral only
to discover that his weapon isn't loaded and everything he thought he knew about
writers was wrong.
To complicate matters, some of the freelance work he did for his former boss—filler
text for financial prospectus documents—has come to the attention of
federal agencies. "When state police guys seizing your computer is only the
second-worst thing to happen to you in a given week, that's a bad week."
The book is padded out with overlong extracts from fictitious novels,
including The Tornado Ashes Club and works by McLaughlin, Boyle and
Brooks, along with humorous extracts from the NY Times bestseller list and other
reviews. It's not quite as funny as it might have been at first, but Hely picks
up speed as the book develops and his targets come into clearer focus.
Book reviewers aren't spared Hely's scathing commentary. According to Pete,
they 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." He goes on at
length, describing their poor hygiene, their ill-fitting clothing and shuffling
gaits. It's good medicine against bad reviews, since any reviewer who pans his
book can be written off as overly defensive.
The success of How I Became a Famous Novelist is predicated upon the
reader's relationship with Pete Tarslaw. He is a superficial, lazy, unmotivated
and cynical young man, but as he gets swept up in events, he becomes less
shallow and more likeable.
The novel is simultaneously critical of the effete literary establishment and
a love song to books. Pete comes to understand that it is readers who make books
popular because an author has touched them. "Fictional characters that only
exist in words on a page somehow seem to know better than I do how to live your
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