Novelist as a Vocation
Haruki Murakami's musings on the art of writing fiction.
"Writing novels is nothing less than expressing yourself, so talking about the process of writing means you inevitably have to talk about yourself".
A long-awaited release for the abounding fans of one of Japan's most eminent contemporary fiction writers, Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation can be read both as a guiding light for all aspiring fiction scribblers as well as the author's memoir covering a timespan of thirty years during which he built his career and reputation as an international literary icon. The author of momentous novels such as Norwegian Wood and Kafka on Shore attempts to deliver an account of the realities, adversities and pleasures involved in the process of writing fiction, holding nothing back and employing once again his distinctive, conversation-like style which has won the global readership's hearts during the last three decades. Even from the first pages of his latest feat, Murakami explicitly states: "I tried writing as if I were directly talking to people (...) and decided to consolidate the whole thing as if I were writing a speech". The immediate result of his choice is a text infused with a warm, intimate tone that makes reading feeling all the more effortless for those who are eager to know more about the craft of writing seen from an authorial perspective. The book as a whole is pervaded by Murakami's highly subjective views on the subject and it's by no means intended to provide a stern toolbox and detailed instructions on how to properly write. So, if you are expecting something in the likes of Stephen King's On Writing, you better think twice before begin reading.
Murakami talks in all honesty about himself and at one point he succinctly describes his own character and general attitude as this: "I am just too much an individualist. I'm a person with a fixed vision and a fixed process for giving that vision shape". Later, he mentions that he faces great difficulties when he is called to assess the work of other writers as his personal criteria are almost impossible to be repressed even if the situation calls for it. Novelist as a Vocation contains, for the most part, the Japanese wordsmith's recollections from various stages of his career, starting in 1979 with the publication of his first novella under the title Hear the Wind Sing and carrying on for 30 years. There is a great deal of introspection and self-reflection involved in the text while the readers who are familiar with Murakami's oeuvre will be able to discern some character traits which manifest themselves in his austere prose and creation of stories that clad the trite and mundane with a talismanic quality. Added to the above, the author displays an inclination for self-deprecation, materializing in pithy sentences interspersed here and there such as this one: "I doubt that if I didn't write novels, anyone would even have noticed me". Of course this is a comment that would be immediately rebuffed by Murakami's loyal readership who consider him one of the literary geniuses of the twentieth century. His humble remarks come across as sincere and there is nothing to indicate that he wants to manipulate, by any means, the reader in order to elicit false sympathy.
Novelist as a Vocation is a collection of eleven essays which Murakami began writing circa 2010 and was published in Japan in 2015, leaving a 7-year gap until the English translation -an immaculate work by the duo of Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen- raising questions concerning the reasons for this long delay. The first six essays were originally published in the monthly issued Japanese magazine "Monkey" while the remaining five succeeding them were written especially for this book. Each one of them treads on different aspects of the literary process, including sections on the significance of literary prizes, the concept of originality in literature and art in general, advices on how to craft plausible characters through the sheer power of observation, while there are also chapters in which the author ruminates about educational practices as exercised in his native country. As it always happens in collections, not all essays are of equal interest with the most controversial one being, without a shadow of a doubt, the first one ("Are Novelists Broad-Minded?") where Murakami opts to talk about novelists, not novels as they are "too abstract and amorphous a subject", and makes a series of stereotypical aphorisms concerning certain character traits shared by most authors lacking depth and doing a disservice to the book as a whole. For example, I wouldn't expect to read in a text written by Murakami that friendship between two writers is almost impossible to be achieved due to their idiosyncratic disposition and inflated egoism, even if he attempts to support his claims by employing an anecdotal paradigm featuring Marcel Proust and James Joyce as the protagonists.
I found the essay on literary prizes to be especially compelling as there is a prevalent assumption suggesting that Murakami is a recluse due to his systematic negation to make public appearances, give interviews, or attend to literary prize awards ceremonies. The most recent example of this kind of behavior was in 2018 when the Japanese belletristic guru asked to be excluded as a nominee for the New Academy Prize in Literature, an alternative to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Murakami excused himself by saying that he preferred to concentrate on his craft, staying away from the limelight. His elevated sense of commitment and exemplary discipline in his life is analyzed in the chapter titled "A Completely Personal and Physical Occupation", in which he ponders about writing as the par excellence solitary practice, arguing that this is a vocation that, in order to be sustained, the author has to adhere to some basic rules regarding his lifestyle. Murakami himself is a man obsessed with several things such as jazz, before he began his writing career he was an owner of a jazz bar in Tokyo, and baseball though his number one passion is fitness. He seems to detect a correlation between physical and mental health, claiming that "as physical strength declines (...) there is a subtle decline in mental fitness too". The proper response to the aforementioned danger is to engage in systematic exercise, whether it is running, Murakami's preferred type of physical activity, aerobics or else. The desire for optimal performance in writing a work of fiction dictates a tight quotidian schedule that entails 5-6 hours devoted to the actual writing and at least one hour of outdoors workout.
I also found the chapter on the concept of "originality" to be particularly illuminating as the author draws definitions from various sources, such as Oliver Sack's interpretation of the term as presented in his book An Anthropologist on Mars with which the essay begins, and continuing his analysis to shed light on the affinity of the two concepts of "originality" and "classic" as perceived by the majority of people. Murakami also cites many examples of ingenious creators from a variety of artistic fields, the musicians Igor Stravinsky and Thelonious Monk, and authors of Ernest Hemingway's stature whose work had not been thoroughly appreciated during the span of their lives. Resilience to the passage of time is the number one criterion by which originality is ascribed to the work of an artist. The author summarizes 3 basic requirements that have to be fulfilled for an artist to be deemed as "original": first of all, he must have a distinctive style whose uniqueness ought to be immediately perceivable by the audience. Second, "that style must have the power to update itself (...) since it expresses an internal and spontaneous process of self-reinvention", and finally that style should also "become integrated within the psyche of the audience". Murakami's fans should also delve into the chapter on crafting characters where the author gives the most solid of advices regarding proper characterization: observe those around you as closely as possible: "in the same way that you have to read a lot of books in order to write novels, to write about people you need to know a lot of them". Read and observe are the two cardinal principles lying at the heart of the literary process.
This is certainly a book that will greatly appeal to Murakami's aficionados, but will disappoint those who seek concrete instructions regarding the art of writing a novel. However, there are several other books fitting the bill (you can take a look at my list on writing reference books here) and there are also a multitude of writing courses, some of them offered online, that can educate a prospective author. Novelist as a Vocation is Murakami's take on the subject and aspires nothing more than conveying the author's ideas and conclusions that he reached over the course of a brilliant 30-year writing career.
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