Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist
2009, 322 pages, paperback, $14
YOU MAY NOT know Steve Hely by name, but it’s possible he has already made you laugh. Hely is a TV writer. He currently pens for 30 Rock; in the past he has written for David Letterman, American Dad, and Last Call with Carson Daly. But don’t let the broadcast resumé fool you. Hely is also capable of being incredibly, riotously, self-consciously hilarious on the page. His 2009 novel How I Became a Famous Novelist is 322 pages of wit, self-effacement, and scarily ‘oh-my-god-he’s-so-right’ writing—about writing.
It would be an understatement to say that writing a novel about a writer is difficult to pull off. Such stories invariably descend into clichés, the protagonists are universally sensitive and brilliant and misunderstood, and the whole thing usually ends up feeling like a cop-out. But the brilliance of How I Became a Famous Novelist is that Steve Hely knows all of that. He has a piercing and unforgiving understanding of the publishing industry, the “writer’s psyche” (if there is such a thing), and the reading public. And this knowledge makes it all the easier for Hely to create a dishonest narrator who is somehow as adorable as he is despicable, as Hely entices us to actually follow this narrator through a novel littered with postmodern lists and emails and story lines all poking direct fun at the business of writing novels.
How I Became a Famous Novelist kicks off as our narrator, Pete Tarslaw, gets a particularly nasty group email one morning while at a job he hates: his ex-girlfriend is getting married (the actual email is included in the book, in email format, so that we readers can be as horrified as poor Pete). Pete then makes what he considers the logical next step and embarks on a mission to write a best-selling novel in order to humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. Pete does not want to write a good novel, nor a deep one. He just wants a best seller.
The book (that is, Hely’s, not Pete’s) is chock full of pithy diatribes and commentary on writing and publishing clichés formatted in subheadings and emails and especially lists—lists much funnier than any Letterman Top 10. There’s the list of “Goals as a Novelist.” One of four bullet points under this list: “Fame—realistic amount. Enough to open new avenues of sexual opportunity. Personal assistant to read email, grocery shop, etc.” There’s the numbered list of rules he sets out for himself. (“Rule 4: Must include a murder.”) And then there’s the list of “writer-y statements.” The list of writer-y statements is essentially a collection of bullshit selling points for his own work that Pete jots down on the subway in preparation for a meeting with an agent. On the list: “Every morning, before I wrote, I’d read a page from Leaves of Grass. Whitman speaks in such an American cadence,” and “Writing, to me, isn’t a hobby. It isn’t a job. It’s as necessary to who I am as breathing.” Pete’s lying through his teeth, and we’re rooting for him every step of the way.
Throughout How I Became a Famous Novelist, Hely displays frightening intimacy with the lunacy of publishing, writing, writers. Especially for any readers who are writers or know writers, his words will likely produce as much cringing as they do laughter. And though the book does lose a bit of momentum in its third act, the humor and intelligence and joyful mischief with which it is written make every minute of time invested in reading its pages worthwhile.