I don’t make a habit of telling people they need to read certain books. Chacun a son gout, I always say, which, roughly translated, means something about how gout is a genetic disease you can pass on to your son.
Seriously, people’s tastes are so drastically different you have to know your audience. My father told me to read Elegance of the Hedgehog because he loved it, so I borrowed Kim’s copy. When I returned it to her, admitting I had given up halfway through because it was so much NOT my kind of book, she laughed and said, “You’ll notice I didn’t tell you you should read it. I didn’t think you’d like it.” Kim knows me well enough to know what to recommend to me–and what not. For instance, every good friend or relative of mine knows never to tell me to read a book where a child gets bullied or abused in any way, because I won’t sleep for a month, and I’ll blame them.
And I know Kim doesn’t share my love for graphic novels or fantasy, so I wouldn’t go around telling her to read any of my favorites, although I will rush to tell my sister or my oldest son about any new good one, since they love that stuff too.
But I’m reading a book right now that I think anyone who’s into books at all would enjoy. It’s funny, for one thing–and who among us can’t use a good laugh right around now? Can’t think of a soul–but even more importantly, it has insights about publishing and book-writing that are so unbelievably on target, it’s basically a primer in how to write and sell books.
The book is How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely. (Full disclosure: my husband’s met Hely a few times and they have some mutual friends, which is why he read the book in the first place and passed it on to me. But I’ve never even met the guy and, sadly, I don’t get any commission or recognition for recommending his book. Of course, if Steve reads this post and wants to send me a muffin basket, I’ll be all “STEVE! BUDDY!” so I hope someone sends it on to him and he feels inspired . . .)
Most of this book is laugh out loud funny–when Rob was lying on the bed, reading the book to himself, I got annoyed at how often he’d chortle. I think that’s rude if no one else can share the joke, don’t you? (Note: it isn’t rude when I do it.) Pete, the protagonist, is stuck in a dead-end job, but when his former girlfriend invites him to her wedding, he realizes he needs to become a success before then. He decides he’ll write a best-selling book and sets about figuring a formula that will work for him.
And that’s the part I love: he breaks down the different genres and gives you sample pages from various authors (yes, they’re fictional, and, yes, you will be able to tell almost immediately which real-life bestselling author they’re based on). He even offers up a mock New York Times bestsellers list with book titles that are so close to the real thing, I was tempted to try a few of them on my agent and editors.
The book wouldn’t work if it were too broad, if Pete’s ideas were silly and implausible. No, they’re silly and very, very plausible. And the “excerpts” from various different writers’ works are dead-on accurate, which makes you wonder how hard it really is to do what Dan Brown does, especially when Hely’s outline of a published book called The Darwin Enigma offers up about as convincing a storyline as anything Brown writes.
As the main character breaks down–scientifically–what you need to include to have a bestseller, you realize how most bestsellers today really have fallen into a genre-trap and can easily be quantified. Pete does pay a visit to some “serious” writers, who are teaching or getting their masters at a place that sounds a lot like Iowa and reading their overly detailed and gently nuanced stories to one another. Hely does a pretty good job of capturing that world, too (and the kind of writing it encourages). As he points out, why bother with that when you can just hammer out a bestseller? He’s not actually contemptuous of these people, though: Pete comes away with a vague sense that maybe they’re trying to do something more honest and less cynical than what he’s doing.
Hely does an amazing job of dissecting the story and creative elements of successful detective novels, thrillers, memoirs, and philosophical ruminations along the lines of a Life of Pi kind of thing.
In Hely’s book, book editors have no idea what they’re doing and spend their lives terrified they’ll reject the one book that will go on to be a bestseller for someone else. Success is dependent on luck, and when his own book starts to pick up steam, it’s for no merit of its own, but some weird confluence of events that brings it unexpected attention. We should all be so lucky.
Anyway, my point is: this book is brilliantly accurate. So much so that as I read it, I kept saying, “Actually, that’s a really good idea. That’s a great title. Wow, I’d watch a movie with that scene” (Oh, yeah, Pete also has a stint in Hollywood, meeting with a brilliant, crazy screenwriter who’s got a movie about chess and Russian mobsters that I swear could get greenlighted tomorrow if someone pitched it for real).
Let me leave you with one example from Hely’s New York Times bestseller list parody:
“EXPENSE THE BURBERRY, by Eve Smoot (Simon & Schuster, $23.95.) A young woman in Manhattan spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.”
Expense the Burberry. Why oh why didn’t I think of that title first? There’s bestselling gold in this book. Too bad Hely’s only interested in satire.