Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 18, 2011

Reading: ‘How I became a famous novelist’ by Steve Hely

Sad, mad and hilarious – the serendipity of becoming a famous writer.  How I became a famous novelist is about an aspiring writer, or rather, an aspiring famous writer, and brings it home that becoming one is as much due to luck as it is to being that special or that much better than anyone else is.  Most manuscripts end up on  the slush pile, editors don’t always know why they pick one manuscript rather than another.  But we knew all that. 

Pete Tarslaw the aspiring novelist has no other reasons for wanting to write the bestseller novel than wanting to impress his ex-girlfriend who is getting married and he wants to become rich and famous so that she will be wildly jealous of him when he is admired by all and everyone, especially beautiful women.   Having googled all information he might need, made a checklist of scenes and writing rules, outlined the kind of story he is going to write and decided it will be a literary novel because a thriller requires too much imagination, he convinces his flat mate, a rather dull medical student, to supply him with enough Reutical, a little grey pill that keeps him hyper enough to continue writing and finish the book.  

When his book, The Tornado Ashes Club, is published it initially receives a devastating review by someone called Charles Meredith. 

‘Charles Meredith is something of an institution at the San Fransisco Chronicle.  He writes a weekly column called, with appropriate pretension, ‘Of Books’. In that space, for seventeen years, he has issued jackass pronouncements in an obnoxious high-English patois of his own invention.’

Ouch, some hometruths for reviewers and it does not end there.  Pete Tarslaw considers it fair, since Meredith picked on him unprovoked, to pick on Meredith in return.   If you google him, he advises, you will find a picture of an unattractive man with ‘folds of fat forming oceanic heaves and swells through his turtleneck’.  Besides:

‘Why should Charles Meredith care if I wrote a bad book? Why go out of his way to point it out to people? Maybe he has some psychological problem.  Maybe when he was a kid, the cool kids used to call him ‘fattyfattyboomballatty’

Makes you think about writing book reviews of books that you don’t like.  I swear I will never do that, better to ignore the book and pass on to the next one that you do like.  Tarslaw is right: why should anyone, that is any book reviewer, try to spoil it for writers who have in fact managed to get through to the attention of an editor and who have been lucky enough, and worked hard enough at it,  to get their book published?   Charles Dickens was simply lucky.  There are masses of unread manuscripts that were discarded but just as good – we’ll just never read them.

Well, I’m not trying to do anything of the kind,  that is writing an unpleasant review of this book: I’m thoroughly enjoying it and it puts all aspiration to write in perspective: trying to write a bestseller is going to be a  murderous enterprise, completely dependent on getting a break, having a bit of good luck, as much as it will depend on writing something quite special and different. 

I have not quite finished the book but even if Tarslaw has now got his (crappy) book published, he does not, I think, achieve the kind of fame and richness that he aspired to.  That would take the kind of long and hard work, the graft, that most people have to put in in order to be successful at any job.  Nevertheless, the swipes at the publishing industry, the fame of bestselling authors, the reviews and meetings with famous authors are wonderfully constructed. 

For a much more extensive review, read Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times, which I have just come across.  I now also realise that this book has been out a long time in The States where it was first published in 2009.   Here, the paperback came out in March this year, hence coming across it in reviews in the Sunday papers recently.



  1. This sounds like a really nice book. I wanted to be a famous writer, too, although I gave uup. Stil, this should be good fun to read.

    I’m putting it on my wishlist!

  2. I think we all want to become writers, if possible famous writers. I’ve got half a novel in the drawer and a couple of others outlined…. This book makes you realise that the best approach is to take yourself with a pinch of salt and not expect too much. It is a very funny book if you have ever attempted to write THAT novel and somehow never quite made it (yet) 🙂 Put it at the top of your wishlist.

  3. Well I still want to be a writer (but am realistic enough to realise that I’ll have to do other work for the rest of my life too). Yesterday I read Liz Gilbert’s words of advice on the subject and found them pretty encouraging (the piece is on her website). One of the things she says if you want to write then you must just write (and do it every day if possible). She also says that discipline is less important than forgiving yourself for writing badly!

  4. Pete- good to hear from you! The advice you quote is spot on: there is only one way to be a writer and that is discipline. Hely’s book is funny in a painful kind of way: it makes you realise, as I said in my blog, the haphazourdous nature in which some books become bestsellers while others never make it. In fact, the fictitious author grudgingly admits at the very end of the book his admiration for ‘good writing’ as opposed to his own attempt at making a quick buck.

  5. Well, you’ve done it again! Here I am at my desk, trying for some lofty thoughts and took a peak at this review and I am mad to have a look at this book! Which means the library or bookshop…where to work it in today? How could I not know of this one?
    And I must already concur: success in anything is sometimes based on luck! luck of knowing someone, being in right place, and timing timing timing.

    Thanks for this recommendation – will pursue…later today!

  6. Hope you got hold of a copy, somewhere. It’s a good sanity check, however, don’t let it put you off your writing ambitions!

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