Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What made me buy this? A good review in a broadsheet a month or so ago? The author’s credentials as writer for David Letterman and The (American) Office ? Or the sneaking, inadequately suppressed and probably best not shared suspicion that it might actually contain some nugget of information that will lift my own novels out of the six-figure doldrums and into the Amazon top 100? Because the aftermath of publishing a novel isn’t only, as one might expect, the joy of finally seeing oneself in print; it’s also the time-consuming and soul-sapping anxiety that so few other people have, and what this might mean to the chances of the next book, and the book after that. I came across a comment recently (and forgive me for not being able to credit it), made by an author when her publisher mentioned her sales figures: ‘I write the books. You sell them. They’re your sales figures, not mine.’ Quite. So how do you do it, Steve? Spill the beans.

Well, the book does and doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s been described as a laugh-a-minute satire on the world of publishing, and that might be true if the reader knows absolutely nothing about that world, has a passion for airport novels and thinks that deep sentiment is necessarily alliterative. Otherwise, maybe not. It has some very clever parodies indeed of various kinds of popular fiction, but the general thrust of the book doesn’t seem to qualify as satire because the world it’s describing isn’t sufficiently far removed from this portrayal of it. Satire exaggerates for its effect, and I’m not sure Hely exaggerates quite enough. Dan Brown, it’s been pointed out a thousand times, is beyond satire and Hely’s piss-take, funny though it is, actually feels like an act of literary recuperation, as though Brown’s (non-) style were being helped to get back into shape by a generous personal trainer. The underlying assumptions about what makes people write, of course, are anything but generous, and the general odour of snake medicine Hely detects pretty much everywhere confirms a widely-held suspicion that fiction is guff, and meretricious guff at that, which may be true in part, but it isn’t a part I want to recognise as mine. Still, what might seem shocking to people who aren’t themselves practitioners of the noble art of fiction, such as the hero-narrator’s squalid and demeaning motives for wanting to write a best seller in the first place, doesn’t seem so much like parody as the outing of a small, partial and rather guilty secret. Carlo Gébler has some useful, and chastening, things to say about this here. It’s all very well to say that writing is one thing and the business of publishing another, but it looks as though the line between them isn’t always etched that finely. Motives bleed across it, like ink or its equivalent on Kindle.

Still, it’s a good read and does have some wonderfully exhilarating moments, although these might be more appreciated by American readers – I’m thinking of Oprah, but the book’s full of culturally sharpened axes to grind and straw gods to see them wielded against. And it does, finally, acknowledge that, deep down, beneath all the bestseller lists and publishing house accountants’ angst, and the chat shows and TV interviews and image building, there’s also the business of making a book that works, in the real sense. It’s a comforting thought, but, in some ways, it also feels a little like a cop out, as if Kafka had written The Truman Show.

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