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How I Became a Famous Novelist

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What Pete Tarslaw wants is simple enough: a realistic amount of fame that will open new avenues of sexual opportunity; the kind of financial comfort that will allow him to spend his life pursuing hobbies such as boating or skeet shooting at his stately home by the ocean or a scenic lake; and—perhaps mostly importantly—the chance to humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. This is the story of how he succeeds in getting it all, and what it costs him in the end.

Narrated by an unlikely literary legend, How I Became A Famous Novelist pinballs from the post-college slums of Boston, to the fear-drenched halls of Manhattan's publishing houses, from the gloomy purity of Montana’s foremost writing workshop to the hedonistic hotel bars of the Sunset Strip. The horrifying, hilarious tale of how Pete’s “pile of garbage” called The Tornado Ashes Club became the most talked about, blogged about, read, admired, and reviled novel in America will change everything you think you know about literature, appearance, truth, beauty, and those people out there, somewhere in America, who still care about books.

First published July 1, 2009

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Steve Hely

6 books116 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 779 reviews
Profile Image for Melki.
6,049 reviews2,391 followers
August 7, 2017
“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.” ~ Christopher Hitchens

Pete Tarslaw spends his days turning crappy themes written by wealthy teens into polished essays good enough for a college application. He never really thought about being a novelist until he sees best-selling author Preston Brooks being interviewed on TV. Pete considers said author to be full of shit, but is taken by the adoring young women shown in the audience at the writer's lecture tour:

. . . their backs arched forward and their eyes expectant, were rows of college girls. Young women in little sweaters and tight jeans, pliant and needy. Their faces yearned with nameless desire, pleading with Preston to fill them with hard truths.

Pete decides to become a famous novelist. He's not concerned with writing a great novel, you understand . . . just a best-selling one. And as we all know, "best-selling" does not necessarily mean "good."

The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book.

And so begins Pete's quest. First, the research. After careful study of the New York Times Best Sellers, he compiles a list of rules for writing a best seller. Here are just a few examples:

Rule 4: Must include a murder.

Rule 9: At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals.

Rule 12: Give readers versions of themselves infused with extra awesomeness.

Under the influence of questionable pharmaceuticals, Pete cranks out a novel guaranteed to enthrall the "book-buying saps," and actually manages to sell the damned thing to a publisher. Now the big question - will it be a best seller?

This was a clever, funny send-up of writers and the publishing industry. In a strange coincidence, last week I happened to win a copy of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel, a nonfiction look at writers and the publishing industry. I'm going to have a jolly old time comparing and contrasting, and as I do, I'll keep in mind the words of Pete Tarslaw:

"The hardest thing about writing was picking which words to use."

Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,051 reviews4,122 followers
March 19, 2013
An uproarious assault on the sorts of manipulative middlebrow fictions that sit, with smug pastel or pastoral covers, on every highstreet booksellers’ bestsellers shelves and shift enough units to keep real writers impoverished for nine lifetimes. Next time you encounter someone talking up The Kite Runner or The Poisonwood Bible, slap them across the head with copies of Hely’s witty novel until the message is received that laziness in book choice kills. Bestsellers should come with warnings on their covers: IF YOU BUY THIS, SEVEN BETTER NOVELS WILL REMAIN UNPUBLISHED. In Hely’s comedy, satirical in a sitcommy way, a smart hack masters the lingo of the earnest southern novelist who toploads his books with clichés and lyrical descriptions until through a careful process of cronyist shimmying, he ends up making a moderate puddle of funds before he is cast adrift into the vast ocean of readerly contempt. Top-flight satire, if a little off-base and kooky sometimes, but bang on-message.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews900 followers
September 27, 2012
From what I can tell, slacker humor, as a sub-genre, is observant, slightly self-deprecating, very ironic, and inherently smart – all without appearing to try. This book’s got that and more. The most important part of the "more" is that it’s very, very funny. It’s a satirical look at the world of books: publishing, promotion, schlock, sensationalism, selling out, and above all, literary pretension. Pete decides that writing a bestseller will be the best way to save face, and to be in-your-face, at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. He gleans what he can from today’s popular choices, adopts a writer’s lifestyle (in Vermont, no less), and waits for the fame he’s convinced will soon come. I believe the operative phrase is, “hilarity ensues”.

The thing about satire is that so much can go wrong. It can crane to silly extremes, it can be too obscure, it can miss the intended target, it can be tin-eared, or simply not that funny. But read this List of Bestsellers that Hely used to inspire Pete and see if you don’t agree he got it just about right. (I still laugh at Guess - An economist analyzes the importance of random choices in everything from investments to choosing sushi to professional bull-riding. I’m glad I never got around to writing its equivalent only to see it parodied.)

The only reason I’m taking one star away is that he did, for a brief stretch, go a wee bit over the top. I know --- it’s a satire --- he’s allowed to indulge. I was just a little disappointed when his near-perfect pitch seemed slightly sharp at some key moments. Hely (and Pete) were soon back on track, though. Ironically enough, his final irony was satisfying for its lack of cheek.

I’m asking you, with all the earnest intention my pre-slacking generation is known for, please read this book. It’s truly a good laugh. If you don’t believe me, wait for my wife to confirm. She’s doped up on Nyquil, but still chuckling at every page. I’m tempted to give back its missing star just for that.
913 reviews409 followers
April 3, 2010
How to Become a Famous Goodreads Reviewer

1. Review a book that lots of people are reading.

Really great reviews of obscure books are often wasted efforts; even if you have a long list of devoted friends and followers, these reviews will not get you as much recognition as will reviews of hot, current reads.

2. Try to choose a book that has pulled on lots of people's heartstrings, a book which you can then rip as emotionally manipulative and mediocre.

The Kite Runner and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would be good candidates, although by now the goodreads review industry for these popular titles is probably saturated. But you know what I mean. Exposing books like these as sentimental frauds will get your review a lot of traffic, both from people who cheer you on and from people who take your review personally. If the latter people flame you with nasty comments, others will jump to your defense, hopefully sparking a wide-ranging controversy and bringing you lots of voters.

3. Make your review as creative and funny as possible (but try not to be lame).

Although an intellectual and thoughtful review will appeal to many and get you some votes, nothing makes you popular on goodreads like a review that cracks people up.

Lists like these abound in "How I Became a Famous Novelist," composed by the book's hero, Pete Tarslaw. Pete is a twenty-something loserish guy with a useless degree, a dead-end job, a potential alcohol problem, and a few sympathetic friends. Motivated by dreams of humiliating his ex-girlfriend, Pete decides to write, and actually manages to publish, a mock literary fiction novel. Pete's book makes every literary mistake and shouldn't succeed, but through a series of unlikely events actually does.

"How I Became a Famous Novelist" is actually not a parody of popular literary fiction in and of itself, but rather, the story of what happens after Pete gets published. "Famous Novelist" starts out uproariously funny but becomes more serious after Pete's book gets recognition. Pete ultimately has a change of heart which raises questions for all of us about quality writing and the line between a genuinely touching story and sappy crap. If we think it's crap, does that make it crap? And what about the author's intentions? If we feel the book is crap, does that mean the author was insincere? And is that relevant?

"How I Became a Famous Novelist" is a good story, but what I loved best was its various parodies of popular writing. From the bestseller list on the back cover ("The Balthazar Tablet," by Tim Drew: The murder of a cardinal leads a Yale professor and an underwear model to the Middle East, where they uncover clues to a conspiracy kept hidden by the Shriners") to the endorsements on the inside cover ("'You wish to do more with this book than read it. You must eat it, consume it, make it a part of your physical form, as it is already consuming your mindspace. It must have physical space too. It demands it.' --Susan Freidegger, author of Myopia Dystopia") to the overwritten excerpts of Pete's book, the parodies kept me chuckling even as the story became more serious.

I don't know whether every reader would give this book five stars, but it certainly did the job for me. Even if being this uncritical means I will never get to be a famous goodreads reviewer.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,344 followers
July 23, 2009
This is a sly, often hilarious, satirical takedown of the current publishing scene. An invitation to his former girl friend's wedding pushes Pete Tarslow into an existential funk. He convinces himself that the only way to avoid losing face at the wedding is to become a bestselling author. Based on his examination of the NY Times bestseller lists, he develops a set of rules for writing a blockbuster novel.
A few examples illustrate their tongue-in-cheek nature:
Rule 1. Abandon truth.
Rule 2. Write a popular book. Don't waste energy trying to make it good.
Rule 7. Prose should be lyrical.
Rule 9. At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals.
Rule 15. Must have obscure exotic locations.

The first half of the book is given over to Pete's development process for his masterwork, and is by far the best part. Particular highlights include Hely's wickedly imagined fake New York Times bestseller list:
The descriptions of his process are just as brilliantly on-target:

I took out the folded best-seller list from my pocket, this time looking at non-fiction. Anything people liked. I started writing. World War II. Football. America. The afterlife. Wise lessons learned. Food again. Sex. People accused of crimes they didn't commit. Pursuits. Las Vegas. Natural disasters - earthquakes, tornadoes etc. Gentle humor. Wise old people telling stories. Bargains. Hobos. Bounty hunters. Christmas.

From his outline to "The Tornado Ashes Club": As they dodge bounty hunters, we hear the tale that brought them together, a story of lost love that begins in the hobo camps of the Depression and on mud-stained college football fields, crisscrossing through the fury of World War II France to the islands of the Mediterranean and the kitchens and vineyards of Peru, a saga whose heartbreaking but uplifting end can only come in the swirl of a tornado, sweeping across the milkweed and the bluestem of the prairie on a Christmas morning.

Through a series of serendipitous coincidences, "The Tornado Ashes Club" actually achieves the blockbuster status Pete has dreamed of. The second half of the book describes what happens next. Although Hely has some fun with the arc of success and decline - set pieces on book fair panel discussions, the Hollywood screen treatment, the seriously high-minded writers' workshop, the high-profile TV interview meltdown, public excoriation in the blogosphere - he doesn't quite match the savage wit of the first half, so that the book coasts to a somewhat perfunctory conclusion.

In a previous life, Hely was a writer for David Letterman and Fox's "American Dad" series. His novel displays similar strengths and weaknesses to the humor of those shows -- a series of often very clever, funny premises for which the development is somewhat perfunctory, almost as if, after setting up his various gags, the author loses interest. The book is a little bloated at over 300 pages. But the first half contains enough hysterically funny material to justify your giving it a whirl.

Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,331 followers
February 16, 2010
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

Projects of metafiction (for example, books about authors writing books about authors) are notoriously difficult to pull off, simply because of the large circle-jerk factor involved, and the way such a project can easily spiral down into an endless navel-gazing masturbation session; now add the extra complexities of trying to make such a project a wacky comedy, in that by definition such humor is required to be broad and full of stereotypes, and it becomes easy to see why for every Wonder Boys that exists, we also have a thousand Swimming Inside the Suns. But lo and behold, it's actually pulled off by former Letterman writer and Emmy nominee Steve Hely in his 2009 How I Became a Famous Novelist, even more impressive in that this is his debut novel. I have to confess, it had me laughing so hard this week while out at the cafes, I was getting dirty looks from the people at the tables around me; and that's a rare thing for me anymore, something I always take as a good sign. As with all books of this type, it's not going to be for everyone, and for sure a wide swath of you will end up furiously rolling your eyeballs at it no matter how good it is; but for those who occasionally enjoy a well-done comedy that takes the p-ss out of the publishing industry, this will be right up your alley.

Because that's what this basically is, a complete and utter indictment of nearly every aspect of the publishing industry, tackled one sector at a time; for, see, the entire thing is seen through the eyes of our "anti-villain" main character Pete Tarslaw, a bitter slacker who writes fake college application essays for ignorant rich high-schoolers for a living, and who was born with a natural gift for mimicking the writing styles of others. Pete randomly decides one day that he wants to have a bestselling novel, simply as a way of showing up his ex-girlfriend at her wedding, coming up in another six months; and this is where Hely starts his cynical look at the industry as well, by poking holes in the careers of such bestselling hacks as Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Mitch Albom and Nora Roberts, not to mention adult-education writing workshops and the tittering female fans of Victorian erotica who populate them. But if this was all the story consisted of, it'd be worthy of not much more than a short at McSweeney's or the like; the book only gets truly brilliant after Tarslaw actually gets the book signed, at which point we enter the world of tired, jaded, pencil-pushing editors at the mercy of their corporate overlords' marketing departments, which serves as just the starting point for the universe of dysfunction Tarslaw enters once his book is actually out.

That's the biggest thing I want to emphasize today, that the main reason Famous Novelist works so well is that Hely has a complex understanding of just how the publishing industry works, displaying a wide range of hatred instead of just concentrating on easy targets like so many metafictional comedies do -- by the time the story is over, he has offered up vicious parodies of such diverse character types and institutions as oversexed academes, televangelists who manipulate bestseller lists through their cash-flush congregations, trashy afternoon talk shows designed for New Age soccer moms, earthy Vermont lesbians, Brooklyn-dwelling hipster douchebags, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Entertainment Weekly, product placement specialists, the ABA BookExpo, and pretentious non-producing MFA students, not to mention such easily recognizable real people as Lindsay Lohan, Harvey Weinstein, Barbara Walters, James Frey, Michiko Kakutani, Harriet Klausner, Jessa Crispin, Miss Snark, and yes, yours truly*. And that's the real key to a book-length metafictional comedy working, is that Hely makes his skewering both expansive and specific, not only working hard to come up with as much stuff to parody as possible, but making many of these parodies so obscure that only the truly dedicated will get them, even while leaving in enough broad references to Stephen King and Danielle Steele that a general audience can enjoy it too.

But the final key to Famous Novelist being so successful is something almost the opposite of all this, and is why so many metafiction projects end up falling flat on their face, which is that Hely injects a healthy dose of sincerity and heart into the story as well, ironically showing us by the end why storytelling is so important to society in the first place; and in a twist so ingenious that I wanted to jump out of my chair and scream "FREAKING BRILLIANT!," Hely accomplishes this through an episode of Oprah, using a premise typical of her show as an entirely snot-free example of why people bother reading books to begin with, despite the thousand headaches and fools he just got done describing in the 300 pages previous. Certainly a metafictional project doesn't need to have such a non-ironic element in order to be a success, but certainly Famous Novelist is much better than other such novels for it, and is the detail that will have you continuing to think about this book long after you're done reading it.

Now, make no mistake, an author can only get away with one book like this in their career, and it's still to be seen whether Hely has the chops to write another novel this solid once getting away from highly gimmicky concepts; but at least this book is nearly perfect for what it aims to be, high praise from a guy who usually can't stand such self-referential tomes. It comes highly recommended to my fellow erudite book lovers, and especially those so mired in the industry that they will get all of the dozens and dozens of jokey references made within.

Out of 10: 9.4

*Well, okay, he doesn't mention me specifically; but he does have this whole brilliant rant about nihilistic, overeducated, self-hating litbloggers who maintain websites with arcane and meaningless names, a category I fit into as snugly as a hand into a glove.
Profile Image for Lee Klein .
812 reviews880 followers
October 13, 2013
Funniest thing I've read in a while. Innumerable chuckles, chortles, snorts, and lots of LOLs. Recommended for writers "sick of all this lit shit." Read it thanks to reviews on here. Never heard of it. Gulped it down in 100-page days. Unputdownable. Perfect reproduction/satirization of craptastic literary styles, not to mention book expos, MFA programs, Oprah, author interviews, Hollywood types, Tom Clancy types. So many funny similes, asides, setups. And just when you think it's becoming too jaded/sarcastic, there's a change of heart. Lightly touches on themes of sincerity and authenticity. Loved the execution of the formulaic novel form (pathetic guy motivated by pathetic lovelorn urges concocts pathetic/brilliant plan, goes from rags to riches, but not without consequences or learning something true). Loved authorial attention to narrator's likeability. Loved how it plays by its own explicitly stated rules for writing a bestseller -- for example, including specific meals at specific restaurants in as many cities as possible that include likely readers, or having parts in cars because people listen to audiobooks while driving. Loved that when I wondered why he was taking shots at Yale I googled the author and read that he'd been president of the Harvard Lampoon. He writes for The Office, too. A recommended springtime refresher for all.
Profile Image for John Martin.
Author 25 books177 followers
February 28, 2012
I was going to detail what I liked and did not like in this book.
But then I reached Page 147.
I quote:

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. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.
Book reviewers live in tiny studios that stink of mothballs and rotting paper. Their breath reeks of stale coffee. From time to time they put on too-tight shirts and pants with buckles and shuffle out of their lairs to shove heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwiches into their faces, which are worn into permanent snarls. Then they go back to their computers and with fat stubby fingers they hammer out “reviews.” Periodically they are halted as they burst into porcine squeals, gleefully rejoicing in their cruelty.
Even when being “kindly”, book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks.

I'm pretty sure the author wasn't talking about me - but just in case, I'm playing it safe and saying nothing.

Profile Image for Dan.
10 reviews11 followers
August 9, 2009
When I was eleven and saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" at the theater with my family, we all enjoyed it so much that when it ended we stayed in our seats until the next screening and watched it again. For the first time, I have done the equivalent with a novel -- I got to the last page and started right over. "How I Became a Famous Novelist" is the funniest, most enjoyable book I've read in a very long time.

Steve Hely's satire of the modern book-publishing industry is acutely observed. The crazed desperation exhibited by the editor character may seem like a cartoonish exaggeration, but will ring true to anyone who reads industry blogs. The book also contains excerpts from made-up novels, written in the styles of various genres. These parodies are executed with such precision that, despite their absurdity, they seem completely real.

"How I Became a Famous Novelist" is a light read, certainly, but it isn't fluff. In the same way that comedies rarely get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it's easy to dismiss a humorous, fast-paced book like this as being nothing more than a beach read. But if you do, it'll be your loss.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
542 reviews38 followers
April 8, 2010
The Set-Up

To impress his former girlfriend at her upcoming wedding, Pete Tarslaw decides to become a famous novelist. Figuring it couldn't be all that hard, he spends an afternoon at a bookstore studying bestselling books. His studies reveal the keys to a successful book:

Rule 1: Abandon truth.
Rule 2: Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book.
Rule 3: Include nothing from my own life.
Rule 4: Must include a murder.
Rule 5: Must include a club, secrets/mysterious missions, shy characters, characters whose lives are changed suddenly, surprising love affairs, women who've given up on love but turn out to be beautiful.
Rule 6: Evoke confusing sadness at the end.
Rule 7: Prose should be lyrical. (Definition of lyrical: "resembling bad poetry.")
Rule 8: Novel must have scenes on highways, making driving seem poetic and magical.
Rule 9: At dull points, include descriptions of delicious meals.
Rule 10: Main character is miraculously liberated from a lousy job.
Rule 11: Include scenes in as many reader-filled towns as possible.
Rule 12: Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness.
Rule 13: Target key demographics.
Rule 14: Involve music.
Rule 15: Must have obscure exotic locations.
Rule 16: Include plant names.

He then churns out The Tornado Ashes Club (click on link for an entire fake website set up to promote this entirely fake book), which eventually becomes a bestseller, leading to Pete's subsequent rise to fame and an eventual showdown with his nemesis, Preston Brooks (another fake author), at a book conference. In the end, Pete realizes the truth about good writing (it can't be manufactured) and the book publishing industry.

My Thoughts

I can't see why anyone who likes to read wouldn't want to check out this hilariously funny, spot-on satire of popular fiction. I was cracking up throughout the book. Mr. Hely's jokes and parodies are spot-on—from the fictional Entertainment Weekly review to excerpts from his "novel" to his skewering of pop author stereotypes. (If Pamela McLaughlin isn't based on Patrica Cornwell, I'll eat an entire pack of Thin Mints by myself.) There are so many good parts that I could do an entire review with just excerpts. But that would probably be illegal in some way so I'll settle with just a few.

Being lazy about research: I had no intention of spending my nights on ride-alongs with homicide cops, or mapping magical empires and populating them with orcs.

On literary fiction: But becoming a professor called for a particular kind of book, a "literary" book. These books can be identified in two ways. One: at the end of a work of literary fiction, you're supposed to feel weirdly sad, and perhaps cry, but not for any clear reason. Two: The word "lyrical" appears on the back cover of literary fiction.

On reviewing his work: That night, after a dinner of leftover salmon, I reviewed the work I'd done. A lot was garbage. There were strange repetitions. The word taciturn was used four times in one sentence. Genevieve was thrice described as robin-throated. The Black Hills were said to "rise from the land like the calluses and corns and warts from God's own foot."

On guessing the plot of Preston Brook's new novel: I played a game of trying to imagine what new heights of sentimentality and emotional prostitution he'd reached: little children going to look for long-lost brothers with hobo satchels over their shoulders. Two orphans falling in love and trying to raise a child the way they'd wished they'd been raised. A veterinarian who travels the country healing the hearts of old worn-out dogs. But my wildest flights of shamelessness could not outdo the Master. Preston Brooks's new book was called The Widows' Breakfast. Amazing, right there. He'd beaten me with the title alone. But the subject was five widows-yes, one of them was black. They meet in 1942, when their husbands are all training to be pilots in World War II. And starting in that year, they have a tradition of getting together for breakfast on the morning after the funeral, anytime one of their husbands dies.

If any of these excerpts or the rules of a successful book excerpt made you smile, I'm here to tell you that there is TONS MORE of this in the book. This is a comedy goldmine (as it should be as Hely is ones of the writers for the very funny sitcom 30 Rock). If you don't read it, you're just missing out on the best satire I've read in ages. Seriously, you need to read this book.

My Recommendation

There is just no way to go wrong with this book! It is laugh-out-loud funny satire of popular fiction and publishing. C'mon, what more could you, as a lover of books, want? Unless you are so reverent about books that you cannot bear to have them made fun of, I think this book would make you laugh. I loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly. Just remember: Take nothing seriously. It is all fake, but there were times when I got totally sucked in because the parodies are just so spot-on. I'm giving it 4.5 stars. I guarantee you'll never look at the best-seller list quite the same way again. And you have to love an author who goes to the trouble of creating a fake web site and fake blog for his fake author's fake book.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews633 followers
September 23, 2016
A former liberal-arts major and professional washout, Pete Tarslaw decides to write a bestselling novel in order to upstage his ex-girlfriend and pick up women at her wedding. Realizing that writing a plotty thriller is "exhausting," he decides to write a literary novel since "with literary fiction, you can just cover everything up with a coat of wordy spackle." He comes up with a book called "The Tornado Ashes Club," which is about man falsely accused of murder who drives off across America with his grandmother in order to find a tornado and release his grandfather's ashes into it (or something). The book also includes WWII flashbacks, researched from Wikipedia. We're given a brief excerpt of Tarslaw's prose:
In strewn banners that lay like streamers from a long ago parade, the sun's fading seraphim rays gleamed onto the hood of the old Ford and ribboned the steel with the meek orange of a June tomato straining at the vine. From the back seat, door open, her nimble fingers moved along the guitar like a weaver's on a loom. Stitching a song. The cloth she made was a cry of aching American chords, dreamlike warbles built to travel miles of lonesome road. They faded into the twilight, and Silas leaned back on the asphalt, as if to watch them drift into the Arkansas mist.
As someone who has read literally reams of similar drivel, I found Hely's observations about how to write a bestselling literary novel (based on insights gleaned from a spot-on satire of the NYT bestseller list) absolutely hilarious. Tarslaw's whole cynical attitude towards writing is also a funny contrast to the platitudes offered up in defense of literary fiction.
Writing a novel--actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs--is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV's so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it's damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.
The fun here is in Tarslaw's perverted yet totally accurate worldview; the plot seems more or less beside the point. If you have a publishing background or even just follow the NYT bestseller list, this book is not to be missed.
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book349 followers
March 13, 2010
This book is an exceedingly funny send-up of the various problems with modern publishing. Pete Tarslaw is a twenty-something slacker who decides to write a best-selling novel to make a newly engaged ex-girlfriend jealous. The process by which he goes about this, and the fact that he actually succeeds, is sadly nowhere near as far-fetched as one might think.

As Pete relays his "creative process," he skewers formulaic books, cruel critics, numbers-obsessed publishing execs, earnest graduate students, Hollywood screenwriters and undemanding readers. He does all of this with writing that is extremely smart and very funny. A discussion of how writing literary fiction is so much easier than writing an airport thriller because you can cover up any problems with a thick layer of "wordy spackle" is still making me smile, as is a conversation with his editor about how he needs to apologize to Oprah, whom he’s never met, because "She's just – that’s who you apologize to."

While the first half of the book takes deep digs at the modern publishing process, the latter half contains a more thoughtful discussion of the very real power of books to impact people. The author ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide whether emotionally manipulative and formulaic commercial fiction deserves the success it achieves, but there is no question he believes in the power of fiction itself.
Profile Image for Luke Devenish.
Author 6 books51 followers
December 27, 2011
Such a wicked piece of chicanery. Loved this. Very funny and very naughty. The spot-on lampooning of bestsellers and all the seemingly cynical formulae behind them was a scream, and all too horribly accurate - so much so, that I now feel positively enlightened! It's ruined them for me! The faux New York Times list was a riot. I wish I'd read this before I started writing books myself - I think I would have stolen a few of hero Pete's very well considered tips. His St Paul on the Road to Damascus moment near the end, although right for his emotional journey, I suppose, didn't quite convince me half as much as all the cynical revelations he had along the way. They made a far bigger impression because - good God! - they were ALL TRUE! Come back to the dark side, Pete, you were right! Dotty old Preston was a brilliant con artist indeed. And I just loved the idea of a university English course focusing wholly on commercial successes - I'd gladly enrol in that RIGHT NOW.
Profile Image for Trin.
1,847 reviews567 followers
August 15, 2009
Hilarious send-up of the current literary “scene.” Hely’s protagonist, Pete Tarslaw, concludes, not unreasonably, that most acclaimed novelists are just big faking fakers who fake, from the James Patterson thriller types to the earnest, sappy Nicholas Sparkses. (Or rather the very funny fictional equivalents whom Hely invents.) But Pete takes it one step further, and decides to emulate them: he will crank out an intentionally bad—but sellable—“literary” novel and thus make big bucks, attain fame, and get back at his ex-girlfriend.

The excerpts from Pete’s “masterpiece,” The Tornado Ashes Club, are as side-clenchingly funny as that title suggests (I mean, c’mon—I’ve read some good novels about clubs and societies, but SERIOUSLY, that naming trend needs to stop. Along with “The Whatever’s Daughter/Wife”). Hilarious too are the made-up bestseller listings and other fake documents (fauxuments?) Hely includes. But Hely is never malicious—in the end, he’s actually a bit nicer to the writers he’s parodying than I would be. Crafting the perfect blend of poetry and meanness is a delicate bit of mixology to maintain, but for the most part, I think Hely manages it.

Subsequently, I have enjoyed recommending this novel to customers, thus earning it a place on our store’s bestseller list. ;-)
Profile Image for Brian.
646 reviews250 followers
March 17, 2011
Gimmick novel about gimmick novel-writing

Not a top recommendation, but a funny quick read; but be prepared to roll your eyes.

Steve Hely's novel is funny and entertaining, though I feel that the novel is far more autobiographical than he'd want to admit. I obviously can't know that for sure, but I get the feeling that he may have even originally planned to write his own novel and thought about what might sell. Giving up on that, he used his thoughts as fuel for his character's aspirations to get famous in time to show up his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. His other book so far (The Amazing Race or something like that) was just a stunt to get a publisher to pay for the around-the-world trip. I also got the feeling that he used tricks to extend the novel to hit the 300-page mark...such as inserting blank pages between chapters to ensure that each chapter began on the right-side page, and included many excerpts from fake works mentioned in the novel that usually ran over a page. He also overused the bullet pointed list, disrupting the narrative. It somehow reminded me of the style of Bridget Jones's Diary but much less sincere.

Yes, it's a gimmick novel about gimmick novel-writing, so it could've been "so meta" or ironic, but mostly felt insincere to me. He certainly was good at inhabiting his character in trying to justify his despicable behavior to the reader, but it all felt very false and insincere despite the fact that his character was false and insincere.
Profile Image for Jenny.
1,426 reviews23 followers
September 24, 2009
Pete Tarslaw's college girlfriend broke up with him on graduation day, and, several years later, he's still not over it. So when he gets the email announcing that she's engaged, he realizes he can't go to the wedding and tell people that he writes college entrance essays for idiots for a living... So he decides that he's going to become a famous novelist. After analyzing the NYT bestseller lists, he creates a list of 16 rules for bestselling books and starts writing.

I made it 80 pages into this book before I had to put it down, and I only made it that far because I desperately wanted to like the book. It was supposed to be funny, sarcastic, and witty! It was supposed to mock the formula bestsellers that America consumes without any thought or literary taste! Instead, we get the pathetic moanings of a deadbeat prat who is so desperately insecure that he needs to one-up his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. *sigh* Perhaps the book gets better... but I have no patience for these sorts of narrators.
Profile Image for Mykle.
Author 15 books281 followers
November 1, 2010
OMG! I LOLed so much I ROTFL'd! WTF?

Ok, srsly ... Steve Hely has a golden ear for bad writing, and for how writers behave in all their awfulness and charm, and his narrator is so malignantly cynical that even I, Mykle Hansen, more than once needed to put this book down and handle a kitten. The comic timing starts out good and gets better and better. The send-ups of recent bestsellers may seem dated in another ten years but right now they are like comedy crack. And then, folded into this bundle of snark, cynicism, binge drinking and general bad behavior is a vicious denunciation of the vapidity and blockbusterism of the bestseller list.

Highly recommended for writers, publishers, and booksellers on the upper floors of large chain bookstores in major east coast cities. And probably for all of Goodreads; if you're that much of a book nerd, this book is for you!

Pity about the cover design. Lemonade, anyone?
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,120 followers
September 9, 2010
I read a few reviews before writing my own, and wonder if people really thought this book was that funny, or they know it is supposed to be so that's how they talk about it. That would actually fit right into Pete Tarslaw, the 'hero' of the book, has discovered about the publishing industry - it is a farce! All you have to do is discover the magic formula, and you too can have a home in the Hamptons.

Some of the book was clever, one part in the beginning made me smile, but ultimately I won't remember it past next Tuesday. At least the writing style with bullet points and fake writing excerpts kept me from getting bored. Another Tarslaw trick. I feel manipulated. :)
Profile Image for Mik.
Author 3 books82 followers
September 28, 2013
This might be the book that reveals my true nature, though I sincerely hope it’s just a bad light. I believe in reading and I believe in writing, and I’ll argue up and down that if you write, you’re a ‘real’ writer. This might be book the book review, though, that exposes me for the literary elitist I am.

This is the book that I want to be required reading. There are a few books I feel this way about: To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451. Forget banning books; Literally force people to read this book. Make a book report mandatory as part of credit card applications. Force the masses to prove they’ve read these books before they’re allowed to have internet access. Include literature tests along with drug tests when applying for a job, or at the very least, before running for political office.

Most of the books I include in these rants are the well-known classics that teach something about social and economic issues in our world; something of which I feel people should be aware before they go around sharing opinions, or, God forbid, voting. But the issues Steve Hely deals with are not economic or even social; they are literary.

Narrator Pete Tarslaw decides to become a famous novelist so he can upstage an ex-girlfriend at her wedding, which is probably as good of a reason to write as any. Besides, he’s got loads of experience in professional bullshitting, thanks to his day job manufacturing academic essays for students who are just as slacking as he. His redeeming quality is that he is probably the most observant bastard ever to walk the earth, which is what allows him to succeed at his lofty goal– and what allows the reader to benefit from his literary endeavors.

Tarslaw dives head-first into the incestuous and phony world of big publishing. From the formulaic plotting of his path to success to an Adderal binge in the woods to the dinner with the desperately confused publishing professionals. The genius– or disappointment– or this book is that it is so hilarious, so entertaining, that a reader could fail to realize how poignant it is. Hely hits the nail on the head, exposing an industry so desperate to turn a profit that it has no qualms about presenting the work of a professional plagiarist as fine literature.

This book comes highly recommended, not only for its merit as a lesson in contemporary literature, but also because it accomplishes merely as a footnote what most books set out with as their primary objective: It entertains. The difference between this book and the ones it criticizes, however, is that those cookie-cutter novels exist only as a diversion, as way to spend time; How I Became a Famous Novelist exists to say something of value, but refuses to waste your time while doing it. They ought to force you to read this book before you’re allowed to start a book club or work at a library.
Profile Image for Carolyn Kellogg.
26 reviews42 followers
November 11, 2010
Reviewed in the LA Times
August 16, 2009

If you love books, or know a little about the publishing industry, here are 10 reasons why Steve Hely's first novel, "How I Became a Famous Novelist" (Grove Atlantic/Black Cat: 322 pp., $14 paper), will hit you like "This Is Spinal Tap." In fact, in honor of Spinal Tap, let's crank that number to 11.

1. Hely has written for David Letterman and has a dry, sharp wit.

2. If anyone can write a rollicking satire of the publishing world, this is the guy.

3. Hely's protagonist, Pete Tarslaw, is an underemployed, underwashed liberal arts slacker who cooks up the idea of becoming a famous novelist to make his soon-to-be-married ex-girlfriend jealous. Could there be a worse reason to go into writing? If so, I have yet to see it.

4. In preparation for his opus, Tarslaw atomizes the genres and conventions of today's bestsellers and literary prize winners with striking clarity. He makes a lot of lists.

5. Tarslaw's Rule 5: "Must include a club, secrets/mysterious missions, shy characters, characters whose lives are changed suddenly, surprising love affairs, women who've given up on love but turn out to be beautiful."

6. "The Tornado Ashes Club," Tarslaw's novel, is designed to bring joy to lonely middle-aged women who devour baked goods. That's almost how things turn out.

7. That Hely can keep readers from throwing the book against the wall while reading Tarslaw's calculatedly awful prose is a significant achievement, facilitated by his decision to keep such passages very, very short.

8. Hely, by contrast, writes taut, funny sentences, such as: "Writing a novel is pathetic and boring. Anyone sensible hates it. It's all you can do to not play Snood all afternoon."

9. As almost every aspect of publishing -- bespectacled young literary geniuses (Jonathan Safran Foer, anybody?), the post-publication influence of Oprah -- gets satirized, true insiders may wonder about who escapes unscathed: notably, powerful agents. Perhaps Hely's is too big to annoy.

10. I found this entirely charming, but I am a book geek. Then again, who knew about the Westminster Kennel Club before "Best in Show"?

11. It is possible to write a good book about writing a bad book; Hely has done it.
Profile Image for Helen (Helena/Nell).
138 reviews114 followers
June 21, 2011
I bought this at an airport in a two for one deal. I bought it because I liked the idea of what it said on the back jacket" "A gleeful skewering of the publishing industry and every cliche of the writing life."

I like gleeful skewerings. But EVERY cliche? Maybe that was a wee bit too ambitious.

I think the book might have been very funny. It wasn't very funny. It had bits of wry and bits of amusing and bits of quite clever, but not very funny. Also I wasn't dead keen on where it went in the end, which was almost insightful but not quite, not really.

However, I particularly liked pages 124-125 and I thought it was worth reading the whole book for thereabouts. This is where Pete's friend, assistant editor Lucy, spills the beans. When it comes to choosing ace manuscripts, she "can't tell anymore...", can't tell "if they're good or bad or what." She would "find these incredible, touching books, and . . . say how great they were, and the editors would toss them. Or they'd publish them, and they'd sell like fifty-four copies. Literally. Fifty-four copies." And what's worse, the bad ones "ones that don't even make sense and have adverbs everywhere and made-up words -- they sell ten million copies and they make movies out of them."

This, I can believe. That sometimes people just don't KNOW any more what is good or bad or just saleable. However, this particular airport book comes somewhere in the middle. It is not bad. It is quite clever. It is medium entertaining. It is NOWHERE near as good as the volume of Kazuo Ishuguro short stories that I bought as part of the two-book offer, even though those short stories had their own dissatisfactions.
Profile Image for David.
198 reviews21 followers
January 25, 2010
This was the funniest book I’ve read in a long while. Jilted Pete Tarslaw cooks up a plan to write a blockbuster novel, just to show the woman who got away. And heck, also to attract a fresh bevy of ardent bibliophiles, just like his adopted mentor, Preston Brooks, who is sort of a cross between Nicholas Sparks and Robert James Waller, and whose saccharine oeuvre includes “Kindness to Birds.” Tarslaw goes to work studying the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves, recording his astute and funny observations of devastatingly hilarious renditions of what flies off the shelves – such books as “Cumin: The Spice that Changed the World” and “The Jane Austen Women’s Investigator’s Club.” Bennett Cerf once looked at the bookseller list and decided that the perfect formula for a bestselling book would be one called “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.” Hely updates that formulation brilliantly, finding such sure things as “World War II, coffee, dogs, weather, Christianity, babies, plant names, secrets, promises, faintly heard songs and blue collar touches.” First he goes for the obvious lucre by mimicking James Patterson, but finds the pace of thriller writing too draining. Eventually Pete writes his claim on literary fame with “The Tornado Ashes Club.” Just try to imagine the tearjerking plot that would garner a title like that. I don’t know if everyone will laugh as hard as I did at this sharp satire of the publishing game, but just about everyone I know will. Then again, I don’t know anyone who isn’t a librarian or a bookseller.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 4 books107 followers
August 30, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Susana.
64 reviews5 followers
August 3, 2013
Review written in October 2009, and I hated it with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.

Sometimes, bad reviews are more fun to write than the good ones. Case in point: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely.

It’s not that he doesn’t get the ridiculous fiction masquerading as literature—he does. And it’s not that he doesn’t get that so many genres have so many ridiculous conversations—he absolutely does and he skewers them with a nice touch.

No, my problem is more with the motivation that drives Hely’s hapless hero, Pete Tarslaw, to become said famous novelist. Are you ready for this? It’s because his ex-girlfriend is getting married. In one scene, Hely describes Tarslaw’s agony at having lost the wonderful Polly Pawson (who is actually presented to us as slightly devious and unkind when first introduced):

I hadn’t cried since the days after Polly left, when I rolled around on a mattress like a helpless seal pup.

We’re never really told why Polly’s still so important to Tarslaw, just that she was a brilliant slacker, like he was, in college. However, she wised up and studied for the LSAT; Tarslaw goes on to write admission essays for lazy, terrible or incomprehensible students-to-be. Tarslaw strongly reminded me of a sort-of-ex who would extol the virtues of his actual ex from high school and go on and on about how much he loved and missed her. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you,” he would say. I can imagine him rolling around in agony just like Tarslaw and you know what? Ugh. And that’s the reaction I have with Tarslaw throughout: Ugh. Why would Polly want someone who can’t handle a fundamental truth of life: something you love will sometimes not return to you, no matter how much you will it to happen while rolling around on your bed? Why wouldn’t Polly want something more than afternoon naps and drunken nights? (Not that afternoon naps and drunken nights are bad, but that’s all there is to Tarslaw. Again. Ugh.)

Tarslaw, though, spends the entire book fantasizing about how his novel, the sort of bestselling The Tornado Ashes Club (written in the overly florid style of so many tear-jerking bestsellers today), will make Polly realize that she’s chosen wrong in her selection of a life mate, regretting on the very day she’s married that it’s not Tarslaw standing next to her. And to this, I roll my eyes. Tarslaw fits many descriptions of the reviled Nice Guy in feminist language: he clings, he thinks he’ll never find another like Polly, Polly is at first presented as a cold bitch, he worships Polly, and he imagines that her fiancé is a huge jerk, who could never be as sensitive, kind or refined as he is. Insert eyeroll here. I know this isn’t the larger theme of the novel (the skewering, as I have mentioned, is pretty apt), but the ridiculous amount of vitriol aimed at Polly really wants to make me veer toward the intentional fallacy, and I don’t want to do that. But I have my suspicions.

And now it's time to turn away if you don’t want spoilers.

And here end the spoilers and my rage.

Sort of.

Listen, I love send ups of contemporary literature. Hell, I love send ups of classic literature. But not at the expense of a good plot, and definitely not at the expense of women.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 15 books16 followers
October 24, 2020
Ha! Lest anyone think I read this as a "how to"--this is seriously just satire on the publishing industry. Sometimes felt a little too true.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
Author 38 books3,008 followers
August 26, 2011
The bad [books]! These bad ones - terrible ones, ones that don’t even make sense and have adverbs everywhere and made-up words - they sell ten million copies and they make movies out of them. I used to cry every night, literally… because I thought I must be stupid. I had these dreams, every night, where everybody speaks some foreign language and I don’t know it.


It is impossible to say how much I enjoyed this send-up of modern literary trends. I recommend it for everyone in the publishing business. If it doesn’t make you laugh, you are probably making too much money.

It is true, though, that the book drags a bit toward the end, especially as the narrator, Pete Tarslaw, completes his spiral dive into becoming a complete and utter certified jerk. And considering that Pete *is* a certifiable jerk, I also feel Hely sold out a bit by having Pete decide “I wish I’d written something that good.” Yes, great literature is great, but there’s an uncomfortable amount of truth in Pete’s original, less popular view that “The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book.” It almost feels like Hely, the real author, is backpedalling, worrying that some of Pete’s ugliness will wash off on HIM. Nabokov is not Humbert, you know? I wish Hely had let his antihero stick to his guns with “THE EMPEROR IS NAKED” rather than, “well, the emperor’s not wearing any clothes at the moment, but he does have some REALLY NICE CLOTHES.”


Writing a novel would be easy if it wasn’t for the frills. Take, for example, the scene early in The Tornado Ashes Club where Luke parachutes into Normandy a month before D-Day. The local resistance fighters find him, and together they celebrate his arrival over a bottle of calvados in a Bayeux root cellar.

This scene took me
two days. Lots of Internet research was required to find out pesky details like what they drink in Normandy, and the name of a town, and what kind of parachute they used in the Second World War…


here’s me thinking I’m the only one who spends TWO HOURS getting the name of a single WEED right or trying to discover if continental Europe was on daylight saving time in 1943… I always think it must be so much easier for those of us making up our own magical vegetation.
Profile Image for Julie.
90 reviews13 followers
August 6, 2009
Brilliant, biting satire. This was one of the funniest books I have read in as long as I can remember, and it made me think long and hard about what I read, why I read it, and how those books make me feel. Through his main character Pete Tarslaw, Hely nails and skewers the modern literary industrial complex. One look at his mock NYT Bestseller List will have you rolling on the floor, or snorting up water on the subway while getting dirty/jealous looks from fellow passengers.

Protagonist Pete Tarslaw is a conscienceless yet likeable underachiever that happens to have a knack for writing by the rules. He makes a living taking unreadable admissions essays written by foreigners and crafting them into well-written, formulaic, trope-y packages. Until the news that his college girlfriend, Polly, is getting married awakens him to his mediocrity, and he vows to avenge himself by becoming a famous novelist by her wedding day.

Pete's "research" into the James Freys, the Dan Browns, the Nicholas Sparks' of the literary world is so dead-on accurate that it will bowl you over. Hely also blew me away in his crafting of a protagonist: self-absorbed, horrible at times, yet hilariously, devilishly endearing.

What truly really makes the book work, though, is that it offers us more than a nihilistic rejection of writing for money. Ultimately, Hely gives us a story of growth without forcing our biting, honest protagonist to swallow a "lesson learned" pill. This was the kind of book that I did not want to end, which is quite rare for me.
Profile Image for Sarah.
252 reviews3 followers
August 13, 2009
This book was so unbelievably funny that I've been trying to think of ways to describe it for several days. Laugh-out-loud funny? Hysterical? I rolled around on the floor in glee while reading it? So aptly satirical that at times I was frightened? I'm not sure if I've gotten it right, so I'll just leave it at: damn funny.

If you have any familiarity with books that are on the bestseller list (Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, Sue Grafton) this novel will kill you. Or if you've ever read a "book club" book. Or if you've read any of Oprah's picks. Or if you've gotten your MFA. He skewered the Iowa Writer's Workshop in such a painfully honest way, all while making me laugh, that I felt a little guilty afterward.

The plot: Pete Tarslow gets an invitation to his ex-girlfriend's wedding, and decides the best revenge wold be to publish a best-selling novel and thus steal the lightning from her at her own wedding. He goes into Barnes and Noble and makes a list of things that best-sellers all seem to have in common: secret clubs, murder, WWII, ancient ruins, star-crossed lovers, and so forth. Then he gets his roommate, who is a med student interning at a pharmaceutical lab, to sneak him some newly developed drugs for ADD. He then locks himself in a cabin, overdoses on the pills, and walks out with a novel at the end of a week. The rest of the novel just gets funnier and funnier, as he navigates the world of publishing and literary fiction.

Good stuff.
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