“How I Became a Famous Novelist”

On the heels of reading Denis Johnson’s new novel, I read “How I Became a Famous Novelist” by Steve Hely.

I’d read a review of it on NY Times and looked it up at my library. I was #14 on the waiting list. Doesn’t meant the book is good, just that it’s popular. Which is exactly what the book is about.

Before I got a chance to crack it open, my husband, who is also a writer, started reading it. I couldn’t pry it out of his hands, nor could I go anywhere in the house without hearing his laughter. He was so enthralled, he finished it in two days and finally I could have it.

Without spoiling the plot,the book is about a couch-potato kind of guy who decides to write a popular novel that will get him money and girls and out of having to actually work. So he examines the best seller list and figures out the elements of a popular novel (versus a literary novel), such as the word “club” in the title, and your main character taking a road trip. He puts them all together and writes a book.

The book was hilarious. Hely is a former comedy writer so he knows what he is doing. Each laugh, however, was followed by a groan, as what he writes about is uncomfortably true. That popular sells (look at Da Vinci Code) even if it’s horribly written. And only a few authors of ‘literary’ fiction can hope to earn money from their writing (Alice Munro comes to mind).

I admit I read the Da Vinci Code from cover to cover in one sitting (about 2 hours). It was a page turner, half because he made you turn the page to find out what was next, and half to see for myself how truly poor the writing was. But that begs the question, one of which Hely raises in his book.

Does the reading public (mostly Americans) actually think this is good writing? Do they care? Or are they reading it just because everyone else is? Is it popular because it’s easy to read – like TV delivered on paper? Does the majority of people want to read three word sentences and three sentence paragraphs rather than having to strain to read multi-syllable words and long paragraphs?

I feel disheartened thinking about this because while I know I have an audience out there, I know it’s not sizable. I probably won’t ever be on the best seller list. But then I remember that isn’t my goal. My goal, unlike the main character of Hely’s book, is to write. Publishing, and heaven forbid making money, would just be gravy.

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