Stephanie's Reviews > How I Became a Famous Novelist

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
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's review
Aug 08, 11

bookshelves: humour, mainstream
Read on August 06, 2011 — I own a copy

Ah, the great American novel. Many have tried, many have failed. History is littered with those who have come off a little worse for wear for having attempted such a thing: shattered marriages, flabby livers, unfortunate shotgun accidents and, well, plenty more flabby livers abound. Creating a novel that will touch the hearts of the everyman is a lofty goal, and it takes a certain amount of passion and skill, and a rather liberal addition of je ne sais qoi to succeed.

Unless you’re Pete Tarslaw. Embittered by a soul-destroying career writing university entrance applications and shattered by the news of the upcoming marriage of his ex-girlfriend, Pete sets out to turn that shruggable “I dunno” element of Great Fiction into a paint-by-numbers affair–and a profitable one at that. The key elements of his plan for literary world domination? To show up smarmy pseudo-literary author Preston Brooks, and to show his ex exactly what she’s missing.

The planning component of Pete’s literary fervour involve stalking Borders patrons and flicking through the Lifestyle channel for tear-jerker topics (widows, WWII, and abandoned dogs), must-have settings (Vegas! France! Peru!), and elements required for bookclub consumption (clubs and societies! baking and muffins! a depressing and/or ambiguous ending!). It’s hilarious, but painfully so, because I’m quite sure than in the past year or so I’ve reviewed plenty of such books (high-concept YA and secret society thrillers I’m talking about you).

Hely continues his teeth-grittingly accurate depiction of the writing process (procrastination, junk food, and an over-reliance on non-prescription medication), and of course the publishing process (“if we’d turned down the books we’d accepted and accepted the ones we’d turned down we would probably be in the same situation”). It’s unflinchingly rude and cynical, and it’s a riot. But the novel really gets going when Pete’s novel starts to climb the Amazon charts–an occurrence that’s about as transparent as Ulysses. Pete’s unashamed hubris and his vindictive motivations start to give way under the combined pesky forces of insight and conscience, and he slowly begins to realise that he’s dressed about as appropriately as the proverbial emperor.

Like the hilarious Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch by Richard Hine (see my review), How I Became a Famous Novelist is a spot-on satire of both the publishing industry and those who populate it. Although Hely’s approach does occasionally veer more towards condemnation than critique, there’s more going on here than a railing-against-the-establishment furore. While no publishing stone remains untouched (book reviewers cop quite a clout!), there is a certain warmth here: the novel, for all its bilious ardour, is also a frank assessment of the power of story and the costs of cynically manipulating it for financial gain. Tarslaw may not be the most easy character with whom to sympathise, but the emphasis on situational (and systemic) humour will keep the reader chuckling away.

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