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How I Became a Famous Novelist Paperback – July 8, 2009

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009: Steve Hely's satiric novel masquerades as the tell-all memoir of Pete Tarslaw, author of the runaway bestseller The Tornado Ashes Club who's become a lit-world pariah. Two years out of college, Pete still moons after the brilliant Polly Pawson, who dropped him post-graduation for law school. His hygiene and motivation have degraded such that he's accumulating beer bottles next to his bed as convenient substitutes for the toilet. His dubious job transforming the convoluted prose of wealthy foreign students into earnest college entrance essays depresses him, more for its lack of prestige than any ethical implications. When Polly announces her engagement in a gleeful mass email, Pete's desire to upstage her at the wedding inflames his obsession with the fame, fortune, and female attention enjoyed by bestselling authors--clever charlatans, in his estimation. What follows is Pete's exposé of the Machiavellian tactics he employed in creating and selling a maudlin mess of a book. It lands him a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list (hilariously parodied by Hely) and an unwisely candid prime-time TV interview, in which his theories on authors as con artists spark a book-world feud, spike his Amazon sales rank, and force him into a literary showdown at a Texan book festival. Along the way, no one connected to books--writers, writing teachers, lit agents, publishers, critics, book buyers--gets off unskewered by Hely's rapier pen (and readers may wonder, on occasion, if Steve Hely has employed Tarslawian strategies in his own bid for a slot on the bestsellers lists). But out of the irony emerges something that feels like genuine reverence for great books, and for those who write out of honesty. For fellow book lovers weary of tracking book sales trends, Hely's wrap-up might feel like a catharsis. --Mari Malcolm

From Publishers Weekly

Biting, hilarious and improbably affectionate, comedy writer Hely's debut skewers the literary world with a sendup of the quest to write the Great American Novel. Words are Pete Tarslaw's thing, and after watching a bestselling novelist prattle on about the truth, his calling, and other ridiculous ideas on TV, Pete concludes that the sole way to save face at his ex-girlfriend's upcoming wedding is to become a famous novelist himself. His quest to construct a by-the-numbers bestseller is guided by rules like At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals, and where to live (An easy way to get credibility as an author is to live someplace rugged), though the real adventure starts once he bags $15,000 for The Tornado Ashes Club: his dance card is full of one-night stands, dizzying meet-and-greets with Hollywood big shots and appearances at grad schools. Meanwhile, Pete senses his moral barometer plummet as his Amazon ranking rises. Granted, Hely's shooting at some pretty easy targets that have been hit before, but it's hard not to love the way he does it with such merciless zeal. (July)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat; Original edition (July 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802170609
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802170606
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #371,546 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

171 of 179 people found the following review helpful By Richard Hine on July 30, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For anyone who loves (to laugh at) books and the people who write them, HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST offers plenty to enjoy. In composing the fictional memoir of first-time novelist and literary scandal-monger Pete Tarslaw, comedy writer Steve Hely finds ways to gleefully skewer all forms of literary genre and pretension. The spoof New York Times Bestseller List (linked to in the Amazon Best of the Month Review above) is a classic in its own right and sets much of the tone for the whole book. Tarslaw's determination to impress his ex-girlfriend by establishing himself as a famous author in time for her upcoming wedding creates the main trajectory for the novel. The pace is brisk. The laughs come thick and fast. (If you enjoy books by Ben Elton or Mil Millington, then this is definitely one for you.) On occasion, Tarslaw's attitude and observations became too snide and snarky for my liking. But Hely has created a highly entertaining book--a fake memoir with a lot of sad truths about the current state of the book publishing industry.

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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Jesse Kornbluth TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
Steve Hely is one of those annoying guys who not only gets into Harvard, he ends up running the Lampoon and then, after graduation, almost immediately becomes a writer for David Letterman. Now he's written How I Became a Famous Novelist, and the only reason I don't hate this young punk is because he's penned the funniest book I've read all year and I literally laughed out loud at the spooky rate of at least once per page.

How did this happen? Hely went to a bookstore: "Seeing the massive quantities of books of all genres and varieties, I got to thinking, 'What if one book contained all of these?' "

That's what he told USA Today. To The New Yorker, he admitted something closer to the truth: "Walking around huge bookstores inspired me --- there are so many books! And so many of them are so crazy!"

Well, guess what? So is this one --- just in a good way.

Here's the story: Pete Tarslaw's one talent as a kid was writing thank-you notes. Writing his college essay? Cake. So was majoring in English in college. So was scoring a cool girlfriend: "The fetching Polly Pawson first slept with me because it was easier than walking back to her room."

Graduation is a double shot of reality. He'll have to make his way in the world. And he'll have to do it without Polly, who has rejected his career plan for them --- "conning a wealthy dowager" --- and is off to law school.

When we meet Pete, he's living in Boston, working for EssayAides and rewriting college essays for rich kids. He lives in a dump with an equally depressed roommate. He eats sour cream and chives potato chips for breakfast. At night, he watches TV or reads, for no good reason, the Sunday New York Times Book Review --- specifically, the bestseller lists.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
Anyone who has ever wondered, "How did that book get published?" or "Why did that book from James Patterson or John Grisham become elevated to literature" MUST read this book! It is without a doubt THE funniest parody of the publishing industry that I have EVER read.

It all starts out when Pete Tarslaw decides to write a best-seller to gain fame, respect, and copious amounts of money while humiliating his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. Pete -- a writer of college admissions essays for kids that shouldn't ever get accepted to college -- sets up a number of self-imposed rules, including Rule #2: "Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book." His role model is Preston Brooks, who turns out best-sellers one after the other, with prose like this: "Myra turned back to her plate, back to the runny eggs, the bridge of bacon. And that apple slice. The thin slice that looked so much like the place she'd never seen. The slice of earth and sorrow and bravery where her husband had fallen to the earth. And gone back to the earth. The slice called Vietnam."

Urrggh! Surely, Pete feels, he can do better than THIS tripe. He analyzes the best sellers and decides that his must liberate his main character from a lousy job, have plenty of highway scenes, include scenes from as many reader-filled towns as possible (so the independent press will lap it up), include a secret club (Dan Brown?), create characters whose lives are changed suddenly through surprising love affairs, target key multicultural demographics, and include meals and plant names. The result is a book he calls The Tornado Ashes Club, and sure enough, it becomes an almost overnight best seller.

There is plenty here to make any reader double over in laughter.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By H. Laack VINE VOICE on February 13, 2010
Format: Paperback
If ever there was a book that started out strong only to fizzle out way too quickly, this is it. Hely takes a wonderful premise--young author decides the only way to sell books today is to become dismally poor at writing, great at overwriting and completely attentive to "marketing demographics"--but then runs it into the ground. As other have noted before me, this might have been a good short story but, as a novel, it just doesn't make it.

Are there funny moments? Yes, especially the send up of the NY Times bestseller list on page 43, and his comments about book "reviewers" is worth quoting in full, for all us Amazon reviewers to remember:

"Book reviewers 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...Even when being `kindly,' book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. `We look forward to hearing more from the author,' a book reviewer might say. The prissy tones sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more." (page 149)

Bottom line, however, I cannot give this more than 2 stars; the ending is weak and many pages past the time he should have finished. Unfortunately the snark factor, repetitive joke lines, and over the top cynicism overwhelm the humor pretty early on. The plot becomes more and more bizarre until I finally felt like the author was like a stand up comedian who has to take to wearing funny hats and doing acrobatic tricks to somehow keep us amused. Sadly as a result, this critical reviewer is not even ready to throw in a "look forward to hearing more from the author" comment.
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