December 22, 2010

How to Write a Novel About Novels

I've recently read two novels that on the surface have related premises. In HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely, Pete sets out to write a best-selling novel by analyzing the New York Times Best Seller list and incorporating every element that seems to contribute to popularity. Improbably but hilariously, his scheme works, and THE TORNADO ASHES CLUB achieves success, though the consequences aren't quite what Pete had hoped for.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING by Tanya Egan Gibson also involves crafting a book to the tastes of an audience -- not the entire reading public, but a single teen girl. Carley's richy-rich parents believe there's something wrong with her because she's neither skinny nor Ivy League material. They decide that somehow the key to turning her life around is to make her into an enthusiastic reader by commissioning a novel written to her specifications (and in a single month -- November, as it happens).

Neither of these books were what I expected from the premise, and both were far better. When I first heard Hely discuss HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST on NPR, I laughed at the concept, but it also sounded a little too easy, a bit too one-joke to be worth actually reading. My humble apologies to Hely, and my sincere gratitude to the friend who pressed the book into my hands. (And also sorry to everyone within earshot who had to listen to me giggle my way through the book.)

The story of Pete's rise to fame is not, as I perhaps imagined, based on deciding that THE DA VINCI CODE sucks and quickly knocking out a better version. Pete finds that compared to thinking up an idea, "Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass." And he also discovers that to write a plot-focused page-turner requires even more effort, more than he wants to expend. Instead of worrying about intricate plotting, Pete writes a literary-type blockbuster full of engineered emotional moments, pointlessly flowery language, and a plot that makes no real sense. I appreciated that Hely went in this direction, because as much as I might enjoy mocking THE DA VINCI CODE, I am well aware that Dan Brown's books are popular not because they are so carefully written, but because they have plots stronger than I could ever hope to write.

But don't worry, this book still lets you enjoy mocking Dan Brown and everyone else who writes novels that sell better than yours. Pete's literary world is full of fictional but easily recognizable stand-ins like Tim Drew, whose works include THE DARWIN ENIGMA and THE BALTHAZAR TABLET. And Josh Holt Cready, "the precocious author of MANASSAS, a novel about a precocious author named Josh Holt Cready who retraces the steps of his ancestor who fought for the Union and died at Cold Harbor," if Schadenfoer is more your thing.

Throughout the book, we are treated to excerpts from Pete's novel and those of his competitors. These are spot-on parodies of their genres, and the humor isn't that the writing is bad (it's not) but that each excerpt is so exactly what that particular style is like. Kudos to Steve Hely for this difficult accomplishment, which must have taken a lot more work than Pete was willing to put in. If you have a familiarity with the kinds of books that sell these days and some skepticism over what makes the lists, read HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST and scare those around you with your outbursts of laughter.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING also spends some time on literary parody, with a bunch of discussion of meta-fiction and other amusing mentions such as "the just-released ANNIE GONE, a retelling of ANTIGONE through the eyes of a twelve-year-old trailer park denizen." But the book isn't really about the novel commission, even though that's what the title and description suggest. It's a story about a boy and a girl (with a secondary story about another boy and another girl), and it's about characters wrestling with issues that can't be fixed by literature. It's about the question of how many times people will forgive being hurt by the people they love.

Carley doesn't need a love of reading or anything that her parents can buy for her. She needs their attention, and if they'd only listen, they might find out she's a smart, caring person who isn't much interested in books because she has more pressing concerns. She'd really like to get some help for her best friend, because he has a serious substance abuse problem and equally inattentive parents.

I learned about this book when Tanya Egan Gibson came to my writing club to speak about world-building. I bought the book and read it because I liked her presentation, but I had no idea that I was going to find a story so much more complex and significant than the description reveals. I especially didn't suspect this novel to be practically what I would request if I were commissioning a novel. Sensitive but damaged male protagonist? Check. Kid characters? Check. Multiple perspectives, humor, texts within the text, narrative gimmicks, non-linearity... Some of these are even elements I didn't realize I'd include on my manifesto for a perfect novel. I'm not saying this is a perfect novel, but it does remarkably well at being exactly the sort of book I love to read. Since that mirrors the purported subject of the novel, I suspect Gibson of some sort of literary voodoo. If this is also the kind of book that enchants you, read HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING and fall in love.


Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by the fact that when I clicked through your link to amazon for How To Buy..., the editorial reviews there totally pan the book -- it's hard to imagine that they and you are reviewing the same book, except for the plot. Which just goes to show, book reviews are very much in the eye of the beholder, and really only useful to the reader to the extent that a) they are entertaining on their own merits and b) one has a conversion algorithm between the reviewer's taste in books and one's own. :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Wow, you're right, that PW review is painful. This is definitely a book that I'm a bit hesitant to recommend to other people (unless I know their tastes well) because I'm aware I might be blinded by it being so much a story I want to read. I do note that the Amazon customer reviews skew toward positive, so other readers are enjoying it, too.

Tanya Egan Gibson said...

Hi Lisa,

I'm so happy that it was the story you wanted to read. (I suppose wrote it, in part, because it was the story *I* felt like reading.) Thank you for investing time and emotion in the story and characters. And thank you, most of all, for taking the time to write about it.

All my best,

Tanya Egan Gibson

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