How I Became a Famous Novelist

OK, before you read any further . . . this is a satirical novel.  So if you are a serious writer:

  • Do not follow the advice in this book.
  • It’s equal parts hilarious and depressing.
  • The protagonist is, well, kind of a dick.

So anyway, some backstory.  I ran across this book listed among the literary humor favorites from several (actual) authors and thought I’d give it a try.  The premise is one we’ve all considered:  the main character, Pete Tarslaw, is a frustrated writer and the ex-boyfriend of Polly Pawson.  Polly gets engaged and sends out a mass email wedding invite which includes Pete.  The wedding is a year away and Pete, a slacker who makes a living writing fake college admission essays for foreign applicants, decides to become a famous novelist to enact revenge on his ex via jealousy, envy and regret that she broke up with him.

All right, that’s not the part we’ve all considered.  The part we have all considered is how Pete goes about becoming a famous novelist.  He just can’t believe some of the horrible novels making their way to the bestseller lists (you know you’ve done the same).  So he visits some bookstores, reads some reviews and uses a mental cut and paste technique to come up with his own terrible, Frankenstein concoction of mishmashed plot arcs, sappy dialogue and wooden characters which he titles the Tornado Ashes Club (plot spoiler: the title refers to the main character’s grandmother’s quest to throw her lover’s ashes into, wait for it . . . a tornado).  Pete’s nemesis is Preston Brooks, a weathered cowboy author straight from a Williams Sonoma catalog who writes sentimental tearjerkers Pete is convinced are complete balderdash masquerading as literature.  As a result, Pete becomes obsessed with exposing Brooks, and the story basically follows his misguided attempts to exact revenge on everyone he feels is a shallow, one-dimensional fraud.  Which, as it turns out, is really himself.

What’s interesting is the central theme:  that authors can make bank by writing to trends and lucrative audiences, rather than focusing on craft.  We’re now seeing algorithms devised to forecast bestsellers based on empirical data (see links to Wired and The Atlantic below).  Is writing just one more bowling pin in a 7 – 10 split of humanity, waiting to drop to a computerized Brunswick?  Manufacturing, Amazon drones, autonomous driving . . . maybe it’s just the natural evolution of things.  And maybe I’ll just hide under the bed with a bottle of bourbon and a shotgun until the end of times.  Anyway, author Steve Hely has written for the Late Show with David Letterman, American Dad!, 30 Rock and The Office.  He also won Columbus’s very own Thurber Award in 2010.  Out of 4 thumbs up, I give this a 2.5 overall; again, some hilarious parts, but they couldn’t override Pete being a complete tool.  Keep writing.