Sunday 4 December 2022

Novelist As a Vocation by Haruki Murakami Review

Novelist As a Vocation is a collection of 11 nonfiction essays by Haruki Murakami that are part memoir and part writing manual that was published in 2015 and has been translated and published into English for the first time this year. And I’d like to say it’s a cracking read - because I’ve been a Murakami fan for years, I’ve been looking forward to this one in particular for months and I read and loved Stephen King’s On Writing when I first read it years ago, which this book is basically Murakami’s version of - but unfortunately it’s not. Novelist As a Vocation is as dry and uninspiring to read as it is titled.

Right away in the first essay - Are Novelists Broad-Minded? - I found myself disagreeing with the author. He says that anyone can write and that writing a novel requires no training - just pick up a pen or keyboard and off you go. Which, in a technical sense, is true, but misleading to anyone who’s actually tried this and found that initial burst of enthusiasm peter out after a couple of days. Trying to wing it is an amateur mistake and I’m surprised a writer as experienced as Murakami would put this out there for wannabes to pursue as it’ll only lead to numerous dead-ends for who knows how long.

But then Murakami is only putting forward his own approach to writing, it turns out. And this aspect of the book is interesting, as any Murakami fan will find. Beginning with his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami can apparently just start writing and a novel will fall together in the draft, with no planning or outline or anything. Then the penny drops: he does a TON of rewriting, which makes sense as there’s bound to be a lot of holes and repetition and ideas tossed out in favour of better ones, when you’re just throwing stuff onto the page without planning it.

It works for him - he compares it to jazz, the music he’s been a lifelong fan of, which makes sense - but I do wonder if it really all did just happen for him as seemingly easy as it did. The first time he writes a novel and it just works, gets published and he wins a literary prize - he didn’t write before, stories, etc. when he was younger? Come on. Or maybe he’s telling the truth and he’s simply special. Could be.

But that superficial glaze becomes an increasing annoyance throughout. It’s only in a later essay that he concedes that there is a gestation period for ideas but that this is an “invisible process”, so presumably then he’s just thinking up the idea for the novel, short story, whatever, without taking notes, and then setting off. So there is actually more to the process, he just didn’t bother to elaborate until later, for no reason. That’s when he does elaborate because other times he writes incredibly frustrating things like:

“After a great deal of trial and error - I will save the details of this process for another occasion” on p.82 in So What Should I Write About? and “I’ll delve into that topic more some other time” on p.180 in Who Do I Write For?

Are you kidding me - when would be a better time to go into details of your process than in a book about your process?!? How many more books like this are you likely to write - if not now, when?!

Or there’s the repetition of points he made in earlier essays. In Regarding Schools, he talks about how nobody really needs a qualification to write, and instead advocates for reading a lot to start with to see how a novel is structured - both points he made before, in the same book.

It’s stuff like this that makes me believe him when he says he just wings it because that’s the effect reading some of these essays is like - a lot of half-baked ideas that he never got around to properly forming or else just goes around and around making a lot of elementary and unremarkable points.

Like in So What Should I Write About? when he suggests that wannabes read and write a lot and says that, in Who Do I Write For?, he writes for himself, but also readers too. Zzz… Some essays like What Kind of Characters Should I Include? are stunningly banal where he talks about how discovering the third person changed the style of stories he told. This is a guy who’s supposedly read a lot but it never occurred to him to switch from first person to third person - had he never come across this before in other books?!

He is prone to saying weird things though. Like in On Originality where he says on p.59 that The Beatles only achieved classic status after the general public had agreed they were good - but they were always considered good! They were huge when they were only in their 20s and only became more famous over time. He makes it sound like there was some question over whether their music was good or not when there never was - only time made them classic.

And then there’s the odd chip on the shoulder he seems to harbour about Japanese critics. This crops up in numerous essays where he writes in On Literary Prizes how he doesn’t care about not winning the Akutagawa Prize in the 1970s (that’s why he’s writing about it still, 50 years later), and frequently mentions unkind things critics say about his work. I always wondered why he moved around so much, writing his books in Italy and America, and it turns out he was escaping wrathful Japanese critics (though he seems to have made his peace with them now, or vice versa, as he has been living in Japan for some time now).

It’s just surprising how much he’s let bad reviews affect his life. Grow up dude. Nobody cares about critics - you think I have a fraction of this guy’s net worth or audience? We’ll bitch and moan but it never outlasts the work itself and he should have known that then. Oh, and his conclusion on literary prizes? They don’t really matter but they also mean different things to different people. Great. That kind of bland summation is endemic in this book and turned me from being indifferent to becoming increasingly hostile to what turned out to be a stupefyingly vapid and conventional book from a writer who’s (mostly) anything but.

He occasionally stumbles across a thoughtful musing, like on p.68 about expressing yourself freely:

‘It’s probably best not to start out by asking “What am I seeking?” Rather it’s better to ask “Who would I be if I weren’t seeking anything?” and then try to visualize that aspect of yourself.’

And, if you’re a fan of the author, the insight into his process may be compelling. He writes the equivalent of 1600 English words a day, every day, and initially wrote Hear the Wind Sing in English before translating it into Japanese - his limited English making for a more bare narrative approach that stopped him from overwriting, as he found he was doing in Japanese and perhaps led to its eventual success.

A lot of his memoir stuff though isn’t that exciting. He was a bad student at school, took many years more than usual to graduate university, worked at a jazz cafe prior to becoming a writer, and the decision to write his first novel occurred out of the blue during a baseball game he was watching. He writes about the importance of physical health and mental toughness in becoming a successful novelist, something he’s written about at length in his previous nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He was surprisingly tactical in his approach to reaching a wide English-speaking audience, by having already-translated manuscripts to hand before approaching powerful people connected to famous authors he’d translated into Japanese.

There’s really not a lot here though that’ll grab most people, including Murakami fans. Many of Murakami’s revelations could’ve been condensed into a single essay, so that a lot of the time you’re having to indulge a dreary old man’s ramblings to make some very unimpressive statements. His insights and processes are things you can find in most how-to writing manuals already out there. In fact I would say Stephen King’s On Writing is a vastly more successful book of this type, both as a memoir (which is short but riveting) and a how-to manual (not in terms of helpfulness, which it isn’t really - unless you want to write like King, ie. badly and excessively - but in terms of saying the same things Murakami is saying but more succinctly and memorably).

Novelist As a Vocation is poor both as a memoir - which is generally vague and dull - and a how-to manual on writing - which is surface-level at best and fails to address the many nuances that goes into writing a novel. If he makes one good point, it’s that writing novels doesn’t have to be an art - something I think his ever-villainous critics seem to have driven home to him over the years, but which also may ease the pressure on writers starting out. And I think most people wanting to learn how to write would do well to steer clear of procrastination-inducing books like this and figure out what methods work for themselves by actually doing it - which is Murakami’s long drawn-out conclusion as well (the latter, not the former), and which is also one that’s echoed from numerous other books of this ilk, again, typical of much of this book’s material: derivative and underwhelming.

No comments:

Post a Comment