29 December 2009

Books: How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (2009)

Pete Tarslaw has had it rough, or so he thinks. Stuck in a dead-end job writing college essay’s for spoiled rich kids so they can get into those prestigious colleges, he is surprised one day to get a mass email from an ex-girlfriend who is getting married. Soon after this surprise, Pete’s employer folds, laying him off. Depressed even more, he then sees an interview with popular best selling author Preston Brooks, who writes books that everyone seems to like (his current one is called Kindness to Birds, described in a faux New York Times Book Review as a story about “a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life.”)

After seeing this, Pete decides he can write a novel, that he can have the fame and respect of people like Brooks, can have the same financial freedom to do anything he chooses (boating, skeet shooting). That he can have a mansion by the ocean (or a scenic lake), but mostly, just to humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding.

From there, author Steve Hely (who wrote for David Letterman and the TV series American Dad) takes us on a wicked satire of the publishing industry and its insatiable desire to find and produce the same winning formula over and over again (James Patterson, anyone? Hello, Nicholas Sparks). I mean, take a stroll through the fiction area of your local Borders if you think Mr. Hely is making any of this stuff up as he sets the rules up for how to write a popular book. Hely also pokes fun at the readers who buy this stuff, but also airs a cautious argument between what is literature and popular fiction.

The book, however, runs out of air towards the end. In the final pages he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaded humor. Still, Mr. Hely deftly clobbers the popular-book business. By taking aim at lucrative “tidy candy-packaged novels you wrapped up and gave as presents,” the kinds of books that go “from store shelves to home shelves to used-book sales unread,” his complaints about such books hit home and are very funny. They’d be even funnier if they weren’t true.

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