For more than four decades, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has garnered international acclaim and accolades for his genre-hopping novels and short stories. The 73-year old writer’s bestselling works have been translated into more than 50 languages, adapted into films (including this year’s Oscar winner, Drive My Car), and has developed an avid fanbase around the world. Now, in Novelist As A Vocation, Murakami pulls back the curtain on what it’s really like to eke out a career as a writer. In this first chapter, he explores what it really takes to be a novelist, and why the statement “anyone can write a novel” is not slander, but praise.
Talking about novels strikes me as too broad and amorphous a topic to get the ball rolling, so I will start by addressing something more specific: novelists. They are concrete and visible, and therefore easier to deal with.
There are exceptions, of course, but from what I have seen, most novelists aren’t what one would call amiable and fair-minded. Neither are they what would normally be considered good role models: their dispositions tend to be idiosyncratic and their lifestyles and general behavior frankly odd. Almost all (my guess is 92 per cent, including yours truly) live under the unspoken assumption that “my way is right, while virtually all other writers are wrong.” I doubt that many of us would want to have much contact with such people, whether as neighbors or – heaven forbid – as friends.
When I hear that two writers are good buddies, I tend to take it with a grain of salt. Sure, I think, those things can happen, but a truly intimate friendship of that sort can’t last very long. Writers are basically an egoistic breed, proud and highly competitive. Put two of them in the same room and the result, more likely than not, will be a disappointment. Believe me, I have been in that situation a number of times myself.
One famous example was the 1922 dinner party in Paris that brought together Marcel Proust and James Joyce. They were seated close to each other, and everyone there held their breath to hear what those towering figures of 20th-century literature would say. Yet in the end everyone’s expectations were dashed, for the two barely spoke to each other. I imagine their self-regard was just too great a hurdle to overcome.
Nevertheless, if the conversation shifts to exclusionary attitudes – simply put, the territorial instinct – among professional groups, it strikes me that few, if any, tribes are as generous and welcoming as novelists. Indeed, I think that may be one of the very few virtues novelists possess.
Let me be a little more specific.
Suppose that a novelist blessed with a good voice makes his or her debut as a singer. Or a novelist with an aptitude for art exhibits paintings. Without a doubt, they would be met with resistance, even ridicule. The critics would go to town. “Stick to what you know!” some would sneer. Others would crow, “An amateurish display, lacking in skill or talent.” Professional singers and artists would likely turn a cold shoulder. Comments might even grow malicious. In any case, a “Welcome to the club!” sort of greeting would be rare on either front. Should a warm reception be proffered, it would doubtless be on a very limited scale in a very restricted venue.
Alongside my own fiction, I have been publishing translations of American literature for 30 years, yet in the beginning (and possibly even now) I was raked over the coals by professionals in the field for doing so. “Literary translation is not for mere amateurs,” shouted a chorus of voices. “Writers who try their hand at translation are just a nuisance.”
Similarly, when I published Underground, I was met with harsh criticism from the ranks of professional nonfiction writers: “a display of ignorance of the basic rules of nonfiction”; “a tearjerker of the first order”; “the work of a dilettante.” I had not attempted to write nonfiction per se; rather, I had attempted to produce a work unbeholden to any genre that handled “nonfictional” material. Nevertheless, I had stepped on the tails of the tigers who guard the sacred sanctuary of nonfiction, and they were angry. I had not known that they existed, or that there were hard-and-fast rules that governed such writing, so at first I was completely bewildered.
As my experience suggests, specialists in a given field tend to frown on those who, for whatever reason, stray onto their turf. Like the white blood cells that protect our bodies from foreign invaders, they repel all “alien” forces. Those who proceed undaunted may find, in the end, that the authorities have relented, and that their admittance has been tacitly approved … but in the beginning at least the road is bound to be rocky. The narrower and more specialized the field, I have found, the prouder the authorities tend to be and the stronger their antipathy to outsiders.
But what of the opposite case, when singers or artists or translators or nonfiction writers turn out a novel? Do novelists make a sour face? From my experience, no. To the contrary, we tend to look upon the results positively, and even encourage their authors. Certainly I have never witnessed an established novelist dismiss a first-timer with an angry “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Nor have I heard of newcomers being insulted or ridiculed or maliciously tripped up by their more experienced brethren. Instead, it is likely that curious senior writers will invite them to discuss their work and possibly offer them advice and encouragement. This is not to say, of course, that novelists do not say negative things about first novels in private, but they do that about one another’s works all the time, too: indeed, such criticisms are the norm in all workplaces and bear no relation to the desire to repel outside invaders. Novelists are riddled with faults, but that is not one of them: as a rule, they are magnanimous with those who step onto their turf, and treat them generously.
Why should that be so?
I think I have a pretty good idea. The thing that makes novels different is that practically anybody can write one if they put their mind to it. A pianist or a ballerina has to go through a process of severe, intensive training from childhood until, finally, they are able to make their debut; an artist has to be equipped with at least a modicum of knowledge and foundational skills, not to mention a full set of tools and other materials. Becoming a mountain climber requires an inordinate amount of physical strength, training, and courage.
An aspiring novelist, by contrast, needs only the basic ability to write (most people have that), a ballpoint pen, a pad of paper, and the capacity to make up a story to turn out something resembling a novel – whether they have received any specialized training is quite beside the point. There is no need to study literature at the university level. It’s fine if you’ve studied creative writing, but just as fine if you haven’t.
It’s possible for a first-timer to produce a fine novel if he or she is blessed with just a little talent. When I started, for example, I had zero training. True, I had majored in drama and film in university, but times being what they were – it was the late 1960s – I had seldom attended class. Instead, I grew long hair and a scruffy beard and hung around in clothes that were less than clean. I had no special plans to become a writer, never even tried to scribble something down for practice, until one day the bug suddenly bit me and I wrote my first novel (if you want to call it that), Hear the Wind Sing, which ended up winning a literary magazine’s prize for new writers. I went on to become a professional writer without ever having had to study the craft. “Is this really all right?” I asked myself, shaking my head in wonder. It all seemed way too easy.
This may anger some people. I can hear them squawking, “What the hell do you know about literature?” I’m just trying to tell it like it really is. People can theorize all they want, but when you get right down to it, the novel’s form is extremely broad. Indeed, that very breadth is what helps to generate its amazing, down-to-earth vitality. From where I stand, the statement “Anyone can write a novel” is not slander, but praise.
In short, the world of the novelist is like a professional wrestling ring that welcomes anyone who feels like taking a crack at it. The gap between the ropes is big enough to pass through, and a step is provided to make your entrance easier. The ring is spacious. No security men block your way, and the referee doesn’t bark at you to leave. The wrestlers who are already there – the established novelists, in other words – are at the very least resigned to your presence: “No worries – come on up and take your best shot” is their attitude. The ring is – how shall I put this? – an airy, easy, accommodating, altogether laid-back environment.
While entering the ring may be easy, however, remaining there for long is hard. We novelists are of course aware of this. It’s not that difficult to write a novel, maybe even two. But it’s another thing altogether to keep producing, to live off one’s writing, to survive. That’s a Herculean task. It’s fair to say not many are up to it. To accomplish it, one needs, well, a special something. Talent is important, of course, and backbone. Like so many things in life, luck and fate play a big role, too. But there is something else that is needed, a kind of qualification. Some have it and some don’t. Some possess it from birth while others struggle mightily to acquire it.
Not very much is known about this qualification – indeed, it is seldom addressed in public. The reason, for the most part, is that it is virtually impossible to visualize or put into words. Yet novelists are keenly aware of its importance and of how necessary it is to sustain their craft – they can feel it in their bones.
I think this is why novelists tend to be so generous to outsiders who step up through the ropes to make their novelistic debuts. “Come on in,” some will say, while others seem to take no notice of the new kid in the ring. When the newcomer is unceremoniously tossed out or steps down voluntarily (most will fall into one of these two categories), the old-timers will say “Too bad, kid,” or “Take care of yourself.” If someone manages to stick it out for the long term, on the other hand, those novelists gain well-earned respect. This respect will be given rightly and properly (or so I would like to believe).
Another reason novelists can be so magnanimous is that they understand literary business is not a zero-sum game. In other words, the fact that a new writer has appeared in the ring almost never means someone already there will have to step down. On the surface, at least, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. In that sense, the world of writers and the world of professional athletes are diametrically opposed. In pro sports, when a rookie makes the team, an old-timer or another new player who has failed to impress is either given their walking papers or moved to the far end of the bench. No parallel exists in the literary world. In the same vein, when a new novel sells a 100,000 copies, that total isn’t subtracted from the total sales of other works. To the contrary, a runaway bestseller by a new writer can give the whole publishing industry a boost.
Nevertheless, if one takes the long view, a fitting kind of natural selection is in operation. The ring may be spacious, but there still appears to be an optimal number of writers inside it. Such, at least, is my impression.
I have been getting by one way or another as a professional novelist for over 35 years, as of 2015, when I wrote this. In short, I have been in the ring all that time – ”living by the pen,” to use the old term. This, I guess, can be regarded as a real accomplishment in the narrow sense of the word.
I have seen the debuts of a great many new writers during that time. Many have been praised to the skies for their works. They have been toasted by the critics, awarded various literary prizes, talked about by the public, and have sold lots of books. Bright hopes have been held out for their futures. In other words, they have stepped up into the ring bathed in the spotlights, their theme music rising around them.
Yet how many of those budding writers who debuted 20 or 30 years ago are active as novelists today? Not many. Only a very few, to be more precise. The rest have quietly slipped from the ring. In many, perhaps the majority of, cases, they have gravitated to other fields, having grown tired of novel writing; or perhaps they simply found it too much trouble. And those first novels that received so much attention? One would probably have a hard time locating them in bookstores today. Although the potential number of novelists may be limitless, the amount of shelf space is most certainly finite!
Excerpted from Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, releasing Nov. 8, 2022, Bond Street Books, 224 pages.
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