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How I Became a Famous Novelist Paperback – July 8, 2009
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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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This book was very snarky and satirical. It was written in 2009, but it has some jokes that are surprisingly current: "Your boss getting shot might sound like a comic dream—for instance, if you work for Donald Trump." I laughed out loud several times, but ultimately I found the snarkiness irritating after a while. I did like how the whole thing wrapped up at the end. Having said that, I don't this I would have chosen to read it if I had it to do over.
Steve Hely seems to have conjured a flimsy plot just for the sake of lampooning the publishing industry. I wonder why he bothered with the pretext. The ex-girlfriend motivation was occasionally funny but largely uninteresting because the reader isn't made to care about Polly individually or the pair's relationship. Pete's boorish behavior at the wedding reception was completely predictable and the scenario is vastly overused elsewhere. The subplot involving Pete's boss' business ventures had no substance whatsoever. Everything not directly relevant to the exercise of writing the bestseller and its outcome was unnecessary filler. Even the frequent excerpts from other faux-bestsellers were more nuisance than entertainment.
Setting those things aside, however, the critical and cynical examination of popular fiction and publishing was humorous and occasionally poignant. His scathing portrait of book reviewers was hilarious (of course, one assumes it only applies to those with negative opinions). He illuminates truths that would-be novelists should consider: not all writers, even successful ones, make fat paychecks and the quantity of books sold to qualify as a bestseller is paltry compared to other entertainment numbers. His consideration of coincidental or random factors that may contribute to sales is also telling. Good fiction doesn't necessarily equal bestselling fiction. The reverse is also true. He adroitly points out that there are writers and works that are highly lauded today that didn't receive acclaim or financial reward in their day. Works now long forgotten outsold the "classics." What's an aspiring writer to do?
The author stops short of demonizing anyone (except book reviewers!) despite his sharp caricatures of pop-novelists and editors. In fact, Pete Tarslaw experiences something of an epiphany in the final pages that seems to soften his cynical views. Perhaps it was a bit of a cop out. Or perhaps it is merely an acknowledgment that there are undoubtedly opportunists as well as genuine articles out there. Who are we to judge between the two? Whichever writers or works are "true," it is certainly true that publishing and commercial success are fickle bedfellows. The author demonstrates that with abundant humor.
I think about the only nuance he might have missed seems to be that nothing today can be published that isn't part of trilogy. I'm sure that in pitch meetings these days the first question that is asked of any good idea is - can it be broken in to three books instead of one? I'm so tired of seeing what should be one really great book - drug out over three mediocre ones. The same way Hollywood can no longer greenlight a movie they can't see sequel potential in - publishers want to to feel the continued revenue of a three part series.
But back to this book. It's a biting satire about how today's publishing industry really works and how books with little to know literary value become best sellers and authors like Patterson or Grissom or Sparks get away with publishing the same story over and over again.
It's laugh out loud funny and it's not like anything else you've read this year.
Read it for that factor alone.
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