Tuesday, September 1, 2009

People Magazine Recommends

I just finished reading How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely which was reviewed in the September 7 issue of People Magazine. While The New York Times Book Review tends toward Literary with a capital L in its reviews and Oprah's recommendations are famously gloomy and depressing, People Magazine, not surpisingly, usually reviews bestsellers, thrillers, chick lit, vampire romances and beach reads all year round. Reading People's recommendations is just like watching television, except you have to turn the page instead of clicking the remote. Hely's book was an antidote to Every Patient Tells a Story, the book about medical mysteries I had just finished.

Pete Tarslaw, fictional narrator of How I Became a Famous Novelist, decides that writing a popular book simply requires understanding the formula that sells books and then fitting the plot and characters into that trusty template. He studies the bestseller lists and concludes:
"The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book." (p.47) Cynical, but hard to argue with in many cases.
He makes a list of rules for bestsellerdom: "Rule 4: Must include a murder." (p. 50) "Rule 6: Invoke confusing sadness at the end." (p. 52) and so on. Hopped up on coffee and ADHD drugs, Tarslaw writes The Tornado Ashes Club, a patched together family saga/road trip/war story/mystical-spiritual saga with the hokey prose of The Bridges of Madison County meets every sappy war story you've ever read mixed with a heavy dose of quasi-philosophizing as in the Secret or the Alchemist. Meaningful gazing, pregnant pauses, wise old people, wily peasants, salt-of-the-earth types who are smarter than book-learned types: they're all there. Throw in every dreadful literary cliche you can think of and you will get a sense of The Tornado Ashes Club. It rises to the heights of the bestseller list of course.

How I Became a Famous Novelist mocks the pretensions of publishers, authors and readers especially well in the fake bestseller lists included in the book. The comments on Amazon and other websites are very favorable and report much laughing out loud hilarity while reading this book. I didn't laugh out loud, but I did read bits of the fake "Bestseller Lists" aloud to people, which was at least less gory and stomach churning than the medical book excerpts I shared last week. (See previous blog post.)

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