Book review: “How I Became a Famous Novelist” by Steve Hely

Constable & Robinson sent me another book to review – Steve Hely’s “How I Became a Famous Novelist”, and as befits a former writer for David Letterman and “The Office”, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Hatred can be a wonderfully energising emotion, and Hely has taken his disgust and loathing of mainstream popular fiction to fuel a vicious, acerbic attack on the pseudo-profound bestsellers, ludicrous blockbuster conspiracy thrillers, and Oprah-friendly tat that clogs up much of the American and British book charts. His main character, Pete Tarslaw, has struggled since leaving college, and now works writing business school applications and essays for wealthy overseas students. When he finds out that his now-successful college girlfriend is getting married, he decides to upstage her at the wedding by becoming an overnight literary success. Modelling himself on bestselling writer Preston Brooks, a sentimental and self-consciously rough-hewn novelist (like an amalgam of Nicholas Sparks and David Guterson), Pete draws up a list of “bestseller” attributes and sets about constructing a novel on precisely these lines. He is convinced that Brooks and his ilk are colossal frauds, manufacturing assembly-line fiction in return for fame, wealth, and legions of college students hanging off their every word in graduate creative writing programmes. Pete’s novel, “The Tornado Ashes Club”, a loathsome farrago of cheap sentiment, overly lush and “lyrical” prose, and improbable plotting, is quickly published. Initially dismissed in a couple of scathing reviews, it soon becomes an unlikely bestseller after being adopted by the Christian right, and Pete gets a foot in the door to Hollywood, creative writing teaching positions, and the bookshop reading tours that he thought he wanted. Inevitably, authenticity will win out – Pete is gradually hollowed out by his own cynicism, and his attempt to upstage his ex at her wedding goes horribly, horribly wrong.

The supporting cast of blockbuster novelists are superb – Nick Boyle, author of “Teeth of the Winged Lion” and other action-packed military thrillers; Pamela McLaughlin, author of the Trang Martinez crime series; Josh Holt Cready, whose Civil War novel “Manassas” has made him a millionaire. It’s easy to see who Hely is tacking a crack at here, from John Patterson to Charles Frazier, and the excerpts of these writers works that intersperse the novel are frighteningly authentic. “The Tornado Ashes Club” itself is just the right (wrong?) side of improbable, and Hely’s recreation of its desperately phony prose is one of the highlights of the book. You could argue that so much energy shouldn’t really be spent on such an easy target, but if you are a failed novelists, a frustrated writer, or a reader appalled at the state of popular fiction, this hilarious, inventively bitter book has been written with you specifically in mind.



One thought on “Book review: “How I Became a Famous Novelist” by Steve Hely

  1. Jack Heath

    “Frighteningly authentic”! You’ve really hit the nail on the head there. I get the feeling that Steve Hely has the talent to write bestsellers in almost any genre if he chose to – but instead, he’s content to mock the literati. Well, his loss is our gain!


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