How I Became A Famous Novelist
by Steve Hely
Published in: 2009
Synopsis: In this blistering evisceration of celebrity culture and literary fame, a roguish loser sets out to write the bestsellingest bestseller of all time. When he actually pulls it off, he winds up tearing like a tornado across America's cultural landscape.
All Pete wanted was to check off four simple goals. He wanted fame (a realistic amount), financial comfort (i.e. never have a job again), a stately home by the ocean (or scenic lake) and to humiliate his college sweetheart at her wedding. Actually, if he's being honest, the only reason he wants to meet the first 3 points is so he can succeed in the final point. And by succeed, he really wishes that the first three points will make the ex regret every decision she's ever made since leaving him and just give up and live an unhappy existence in a garbage dump. Simple enough aim right? So how's he going to accomplish it? Well, he'll write a bestseller novel to beat all bestseller novels and tick all four boxes before the end of the year (hopefully).
How I Became A Famous Novelist is a funny and slightly absurd book about the book industry. Stuck in a shitty job (he writes college applications for rich kids), in a shitty apartment with nothing much going for him, Pete is kicked into action when he hears that his ex-girlfriend is getting married. As you can imagine he isn't quite over her. Not that he necessarily wants to get back with her, but he wants to be better than her, so since she's a successful lawyer about to get married, he's got to one up her by arriving to her wedding with a successful novel under his belt, and a film adaptation in development if he's lucky. What unfolds is the fictional autobiography of Pete's ascent from slacker to author and the many things he learned, made up, cheated through, and sullied along the way.
A couple of days before I started reading this I watched an episode of 'First Tuesday Book Club' which is a book review TV program here in Australia. As it so happens, the first book they were discussing was this book, and one of the regulars said she didn't like it because she felt like it was "cynical and mean" about the book industry. To be honest, if that's what she thought then she mustn't have gotten past the first half, because while that certainly is the case at the start when Pete is looking for a quick and easy way to become rich, famous and ruin his ex's wedding, it soon evolves to much more than that. He soon realises that even the dodgy bestsellers aren't simply some guy or girl looking for an easy way up in the world. Bad though the books may be, the authors are honest in telling their stories. The last two pages thoroughly, thoroughly demonstrate this. If anything, this book is a cynics rediscovery of the magic (cue soap opera music) of literature, and the possibility for any book, regardless of genre, to be brimming with honesty and make you race through the pages because the story captivates you so whole-heartedly. And it is this journey from his simple beginnings as a slacker, all the way through to the complicated process of publishing a book and onto the fame filled arena of book festivals and movie deals that provides the most interest in the novel.
It's a funny book, but at times the humour felt a little forced or contrived. Not enough for me to be totally turned off, but there were occasions when I wanted to skip ahead to whatever would happen next. I've read reviews where people have said it fails completely to be funny, but I think if you know the book industry (as a reader, you don't have to work in it) you're more likely to get the humour that centred around those shockingly bad books you see on the bestseller list (but can't understand why) and the authors who write them. It was hard not to see the authors that Hely was making fun of in his fictional creations of literary colleagues for Pete. In fact, that's part of the fun of the book, trying to work out exactly who the female mystery/crime writer who is past her physical prime but still oozes sex appeal and is hands on in the actual crime world (working alongside cops). In some cases, the fictional authors appear to be an amalgam of several bestselling authors, and in others they're a generic cardboard cut-out which can be replaced by the latest Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown to hit the market place.
Cynical though his approach may be at face value, Hely neither favours literary or genre fiction. He takes a stab at each of them because neither are perfect and neither contain only good or only bad authors. As Pete demonstrates, it can be far easier to fill your word count with vapid prose than research what type of food rations is typically provided to MI6 personnel when they search for the Easter bunny in Antarctica. Along with busting some of the "being a writer is romantic" myths surrounding being an author (there's an interesting segment where he lists quotes by famous authors saying how much they hate the writing process), Hely really rips into the commercialisation that inhabits the book world. I mean, you only have to take a look at all the Twilight clones on the shelves to realise how true that is, but I think perhaps most importantly, he shows that if the author is honest in their intention (i.e. not just trying to make a quick buck) then their writing has the ability to reach out and impact readers, regardless of the genre or writing style or whether it ends up a bestseller or not.
Overall, I thought this was a great novel that provided some interesting and somewhat harsh insights into one of the toughest and most bizarre industries in the world. As you'd imagine from a writer of 30 Rock, it's funny, and satirical and a little bizarre at times, but it also has a great deal of heart and guts to it.