how i became a famous novelist

How I became a Famous Novelist - The Manifesto by Nathan Carterette

Steve Hely's 2009 novel "How I became a Famous Novelist" tells the story of a pathetic bachelor, Pete Tarslaw, who games the New York Times best seller lists to crank out a trashy, pseudo-literary novel, a pre-fab best seller awaiting movie rights. 

 "A Reader's Manifesto" is an article by BR Myers published in 2001 in the Atlantic (I thought originally anonymously, but can't confirm) ripping to shreds techniques of "literary" best sellers like Proulx, Auster, McCarthy, delillo and others.

going back to the manifesto after several years I'm totally convinced it was the source material for Hely's novel. All the literary pretensions are appropriated by Tarslaw: the vague metaphors, the assumed wisdom in all things rural and folksy, the unrealistic high falutin language that would never sound good read aloud (as opposed to real southern grandiloquence), the pointless repetition, and so on. The novel is like a dramatization of Myers complaints. 

Here is Myers quoting David Guterson as an example of "generic literary prose" from "Snow Falling on Cedars:" 


On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife—now dead—and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight.


Here is Hely quoting from Tarslaw's fictional "Tornado Ashes Club:"  


 "do you remember when we went to the old Presbyterian church?" Grandmother said. "The church up in Gethsemene? Up in that notch of mountains that they called a village?" yes, said Silas. I remember. I played in the rhododendrons. Pretended they were a cave. Pretended they were a pirate's cave and I was burying treasure... He remembered. Remembered the touch of old sorrowful hands, pressing against his scalp. Remembered the sight of somber nods, passing one another in the pews and aisles. Remembered the taste of maple syrup, poured over pancakes at a mournful breakfast.


the pancakes at the end are a particularly delicious touch. Once again it's all there: wise old characters, too much pointless description, non-dramatic repetition, and non sequitur at the end. This is perfect literary parody worthy of George Saunders in "My Chivalric Fiasco."  

Tarslaw reaps all the self-perpetuating awards noted in Myers essay, but becomes more and more conflicted as earnest people see his commercial success as literary merit, rather than the hodge podge he knows it is. His character does have sincerity, established in the opening paragraph which is essentially an apology for his actions (we find out at the end this is his confessional memoir, another cliched pulp genre),  but succumbs to envy and perhaps the corrosive effect of capitalism on art. He is left particularly dispirited after encounters with a soulless mystery novelist and a high powered Hollywood producer, only searching for the bottom line.

his big insight is the melding of "art" prose with this bottom line, personified in Preston Brooks and his insufferable books. But he is crushed in a debate with Brooks, who puts him in his place as a cynical upstart unworthy of the world of letters.  He does that by pretentiously reciting a litany of human pain that he himself never experienced. Tarslaw's downfall is actually his sincerity. Brooks knows enough never to give up the game.