Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Last summer, I came across a review for How I Became a Famous Novelist in The New York Times, and it sounded fabulous–a snarky parody of the book industry, especially bestselling fiction that boils down to nothing of particular merit. I finally got around to picking it up recently, and though it’s not aging particularly gracefully, I enjoyed it enough that I put it at the top of my priority list for an afternoon.

How I Became a Famous Novelist follows the rise and fall of Pete Tarslaw, a very cynical slacker who, after watching an interview with pre-eminent literary author Preston Brooks, concludes that best-selling authors are all con artists and that he can do it too. Almost immediately after, his ex-girlfriend, Polly, invites him to her wedding, and Pete’s idle thought becomes a consuming passion–he sets out to write a hackneyed best-selling novel to garner fame, women, and, most importantly, show up Polly at her own wedding. But as Pete gets further and further into his own con, can he keep his head above water?

The most important thing to know about How I Became a Famous Novelist is that Steve Hely, the author, is first and foremost a television writer. He’s written for The Late Show with David Letterman and American Dad, and currently writes for 30 Rock. This, I feel, is something to keep in mind, as it informs both the humor and the structure. It’s quite funny, with most of the humor stemming from parodying all aspects of the book industry, but it has its laddish and immature moments, much like American Dad, especially Pete’s encounter with a Hollywood agent who wants to make a movie out of his book. Hely takes swipes at authors of shocking crime novels, military thrillers, and literary fiction. (After an afternoon of research at a bookstore to see what’s selling, Pete concludes literary fiction needs be only two things–it must be “lyrical”, whatever that means, and make you feel sad for no specific reason after.) It also ties up everything so neatly at the end that it almost feels like a magic trick, which undoubtedly comes from writing sitcoms. I almost wanted there to be a loose end or two, so that Pete’s life would feel a bit more like reality than a parody, but at least there’s a reason for it being like it this, though I don’t like it. It feels a little too light and ephemeral; this a book that’s quite easy to breeze through.

My first note for Pete is “ah, unlikable protag”. Pete is a very cynical guy, and, at first, I was worried he was going to be misogynistic, which is dispelled when we meet his friend and publishing connection, Lucy–after we meet her, you get the feeling Pete would have been just as passive-aggressive towards Polly if the genders were switched or the same. (He sadly recalls the day Polly revealed she was going to law school and breaking up with him, rejecting his plan of conning a wealthy old woman to provide for them both.) He doesn’t particularly believe in sentiment, and thinks all writers–all successful writers, that is–are con artists churning out material that appeals to the lowest denominator. After he cobbles together The Tornado Ashes Club from all the best-selling ideas he can glean from the Top Sellers rack at a local chain bookstore, Pete heads into the publishing industry, confident that every author he meets understands that selling books is really just a con. It’s downright telling that the first thing Pete does when he gets hold of a book is cracking the spine in two. But along the way, Pete encounters readers and authors who love and respect books and stories. While he initially brushes them off, the book, when it’s not a very funny parody, is the story of Pete’s comeuppance for trying to corrupt the art of storytelling for his own gain and, really, for being such a cynic, from whence that idea sprang. I quite liked that, as it made for a satisfying ending when Pete and Preston Brooks, the man who inspired him, go head to head on public cable about his motivation for writing his book. Still, Pete can make the beginning of the book a little off-putting, but once he starts churning out The Tornado Ashes Club, it picks up immediately.

As a parody of the book industry, How I Became a Famous Novelist works quite well, tackling everything from the bestseller lists to self-absorbed authors to, yes, even book bloggers. (One such blogger attacks his book as an amalgam of everything wrong with bestselling fiction; Pete takes it as a compliment.) Pete only views his terrible novel as a way to riches and fame, daydreaming about the trailer for the movie of his book and leaving things in so his editor, his friend Lucy, can deal with it. While Pete isn’t very sympathetic, Lucy is; an editor whose small publishing company whose carefully handpicked and beautifully written novels never sell as brainless shlock sells millions, hence her decision to take a chance on Pete’s novel. As Pete goes through the book, he contemplates the book industry with his callow, cynical outlook, leading to conclusions like Dickens shouldn’t be respected since he had nothing to distract him from writing. The humor can be quite broad, and I wish it was a little sharper, though it’s still funny and enjoyable. Above all, this is a parody that will be appreciated by readers the most, who are familiar with the bestselling authors, author readings, and, perhaps, book expos that Pete finds himself encountering and doing.

Bottom line: How I Became a Famous Novelist is a parody of the book industry that readers will enjoy; the humor is fresh and witty, though there’s moments of immature humor. However, it can feel a bit light and fluffy due to its readability and how neatly everything is squared away at the end. Worth a read.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist

  1. “An amalgam of everything wrong with bestselling fiction” — that’s a good one. I recently read The Thieves of Manhattan which also took on the publishing industry. It was interesting but I think reading one book haranguing the publishing industry a year is enough.

  2. You’re right, I can totally see how this is like Adam Langer’s “The Thieves of Manhattan.” Interesting that Pete is trying to write blockbuster fiction, while Ian (from Thieves) turns to a fictional memoir for his piece of the literary pie. It would be interesting to read them both and compare!

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