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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / writing

Novelist as a Vocation

Murakami Haruki

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To purchase Novelist as a Vocation

Title: Novelist as a Vocation
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 210 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Novelist as a Vocation - US
Novelist as a Vocation - UK
Novelist as a Vocation - Canada
Profession romancier - France
Von Beruf Schriftsteller - Deutschland
Il mestiere dello scrittore - Italia
De qué hablo cuando hablo de escribir - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 職業としての小説家
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable -- though certainly of greater interest in what it says/reveals about Murakami-as-novelist than novel-writing in general

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung . 2/12/2016 Andreas Platthaus
The Guardian . 9/11/2022 Kathryn Hughes
The Japan Times . 19/11/2022 Thu-Huong Ha
Le Monde . 28/11/2019 Florence Noiville
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/11/2022 Charles Finch
The Observer . 6/11/2022 Sean O'Hagan
The Telegraph . 22/10/2022 Philip Hensher
Die Welt . 12/11/2016 Britta Heidemann

  From the Reviews:
  • "You end this collection of beautiful essays vowing to never let life, or writing, get so complicated again." - Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

  • "By the end of the book, the reader, too, is left wondering: “Wait, is Haruki Murakami qualified to give any writing advice ?” Yet here we are, both reader and author seem to admit, resigned to our tasks. (...) For Murakami fans who have no interest in writing, the book still offers an intimate look into the daily workings of a writer who rarely gives interviews, particularly in Japan. The author writes directly and honestly about his own creative and linguistic processes, low points in his pre-writing career, his decision to go abroad and his failure to win the Akutagawa Prize. The book is a frank account from a person who comes across as incredibly common despite the fact that his books, of which he’s written over a dozen, have sold many millions of copies around the world." - Thu-Huong Ha, The Japan Times

  • "The result is a book that's assured, candid and often -- never meet your heroes, they say -- deeply irritating. (...) (T)he book makes for a weird, cranky document. Its chapters focus on subjects that should be useful to any aspiring or working writer -- originality, literary prizes, publishing abroad -- yet each somehow collapses in on Murakami’s experience, leaving only traces of practical advice, and a narrator who seems at once proud, complacent, tone-deaf and aggrieved. (...) The accumulation of lines like these is punishing, but what’s worse is the strange anti-factuality of the whole endeavor -- a huge central evasion, which is that Murakami is not just another professional novelist, but a titanic figure in Japanese and world culture, one of the few people, from all eight billion of us, whose stories draw a crowd up to the primeval campfire." - Charles Finch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book, which is a very personal guide to fiction writing peppered with biography and opinion, contains a handful of strange, and strangely revealing, moments such as these, when his experiences read more like passages from his novels than fact. What’s more, they are recounted in a matter-of-fact way that echoes the deceptively simple, conversational style of his fiction, which often moves from the almost mundane to the mysterious without any appreciable shift in tone. (...) For all its examples of inspired creative idiosyncrasy, Novelist As a Vocation is in many ways a very matter-of-fact delineation of the novelist’s calling." - Sean O'Hagan, The Observer

  • "The aspect of the book I found utterly compelling are the stretches where Murakami accounts for what he says in his title, that novel writing is a vocation. (...) I can’t say that I learnt very much from this odd book, and a novelist as long-practising and often alluring as Murakami must have much more to say about the craft than he is letting on." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph

  • "Murakami überwindet die eigene, offenbar tief verwurzelte Scheu, sich selbst darzustellen, indem er den Tonfall eines Ratgebers anschlägt. (...) Dass Murakami mit diesem Essayband zwar auf die Mechanik des künstlerischen Herstellungsprozesses eingeht, mit keinem Wort aber auf den magischen Gehalt seiner Kunst oder die spirituellen, psychologischen Ursprünge seiner Eingebungen, das ist so enttäuschend wie folgerichtig." - Britta Heidemann, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Murakami Haruki's Novelist as a Vocation collects eleven essays about: "writing novels, and being a novelist", with Murakami writing very much from his personal experience -- though he notes:

     I imagine this book will be taken as autobiographical essays, but they weren't originally written with that in mind. What I was after was to write, in the most concrete and practical way, about the path I've followed as a novelist, and the ideas and thoughts I've had in the process.
       Using his own rather unusual example, Murakami offers a variety of opinions and observations about what makes, and what it takes, to be a novelist -- whereby he very much emphasizes being a novelist, despite also, for example, writing many short stories as well as some non-fiction.
       Being a true novelist -- seeing it as one's vocation -- for him is something more than merely having written a novel: as he notes in the opening piece, many people have a novel in them, and manage to get it out -- but: "What's really hard is to keep on writing novels year after year". This seems a debatable point, as surely a huge issue in writing (and publishing) has always been that most people don't seem to know when to stop: (far too) many writers continue to churn out books, long after their well has run bone-dry, with the not uncommon complaint being that they continue to write the same book over and over. (Presumably, these are not true 'novelists' in the sense that Murakami means it -- but a large percentage of the novels that appear each year are by such writers.)
       Murakami is generous about anyone who wants to have a go at writing a novel, but he does make the point that true novelists are a different breed from those that just give novel-writing a try (many of whom he sees having headed: "off to new destinations after writing a novel or two") -- and he makes clear that he's always (or at least since he started writing) had something to get out, even as for him it's simply a matter of: "I let things take their own natural course, following where my heart leads".
       Murakami is an interesting case study in that he claims never really to have intended or set out to become a writer. There's quite a bit of autobiographical detail in these essays, and he again goes into the familiar story of his early adult life, when he ran an ultimately successful jazz café -- a full-time job --, and how, in 1978, while taking in a baseball game, he was suddenly inspired to write a novel. Here -- and throughout his career -- he differs from many writers in not really specifically having something he wanted to say; for him, in many ways, it really simply is about the writing, a kind of playing with story and form (which, it turns out, he is very adept at).
       Murakami seems a firm believer in people doing whatever works for them. There's some advice of sorts on offer, but even much of that is very much from personal experience. He describes how one method he used with his first novel was first writing it in his limited English -- leading him to the realization: "that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively, and linked them together in a skillful manner". As he sums up:
What I was seeking by writing first in English and then "translating" into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned "neutral" style that would allow me freer movement.
       An interesting technique, it nevertheless seems unlikely to be one most writers (especially monolingual American ones ...) would be able to embrace .....
       One essay is 'On Literary Prizes', as Murakami's career clearly benefitted from his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, being awarded the prestigious Gunzo Prize for New Writers -- " It was truly a landmark event in my life, my ticket to becoming a writer"-- while both that novel and his next, Pinball, 1973, had been favorites for the best-known Japanese literary prize, the Akutagawa Prize, but neither won (after which, his editor told him, he was: "now considered 'used goods,' and should not expect to be nominated again"). While acknowledging the significance of winning the prize he did, he argues that on the whole the fuss around literary prizes is too great. Amusingly, he recounts how his standard answer when asked about literary prizes is to say that what really counts are "good readers" (meaning also, specifically, the ones willing to buy his books), but he finds no one is interested in that answer.
       Here as elsewhere, Murakami treads carefully -- there's nothing of the Bernhardian My Prizes-rant here. Indeed, instead -- and true to the approach throughout this volume -- he consistently maintains his whatever-works attitude:
     Literary prizes thus mean vastly different things to different people. Their significance depends on an individual's standpoint, on the writer's circumstances and the way he thinks and lives. You can't lump us all together.
       Unsurprisingly, Novelist as a Vocation is most interesting when it is most introspective, when Murakami speaks of his own experience and doesn't concern himself with how other do it or feel. So, for example, he compares the writing-process to music -- which he obviously also has a great love for:
     I can't play a musical instrument. Or at least I can't play one well enough to expect people to listen to me. yet I have the strong desire to perform music. From the beginning, therefore, my intention was to write as if I were playing an instrument. I still feel like that today. I sit tapping away at the keyboard searching for the right rhythm, the most suitable chords and tones. This is, and has always been, the most important element in my literature.
       He describes his own writing process -- but admits: "what I'm describing here is just the system I myself have developed". This is the strength and weakness of this collection: Murakami reveals a fair bit about himself, but so much of this is determined by his own circumstances, personality, and abilities. Most (would-be) writers are unlikely to relate to much of this.
       There are intriguing biographical bits -- such as when he admits that he sometimes reacts strongly to the comments he gets from his wife when he has finished a work: "Harsh words are sometimes exchanged [...] I can't help flaring up". But the final piece, on: 'Going Abroad: A New Frontier', about his work appearing in translation and him becoming an international success is disappointing in no small part for what is left unsaid -- the fact that some of his major novels were heavily edited and cut in English translation or, for example, that in many languages his work has been transmitted via the English translations. It's nice that he has kind words for his various translators and a good relationship with his agent and The New Yorker, but it's hard to believe everything about this experience has been so rosy, and there are certainly issues that one would have liked to see be addressed here.
       Novelist as a Vocation is an agreeably-written (sometimes too much so) collection that looks at many different aspects of being a novelist -- though mostly very much from Murakami's own atypical experience. This would seem to limit its usefulness as any sort of how-to guide, but in fact also helps make what might be Murakami's main point: that there is no one or right way to go about it; instead, everyone has to figure it out for themselves. Murakami can't help but write, he can't help be the person he is -- a true novelist -- and so, surely, the underlying message of this volume is also that anyone whose vocation it truly is similarly won't be able to do otherwise either (all of which also clearly implies that Murakami finds it difficult to believe that you can somehow will or force yourself to become a novelist either -- not that people don't keep trying ...).
       Novelist as a Vocation is of greatest interest for the insight it offers into Murakami's own life and work(-processes), and, as such, is of obvious interest to any fan of his fiction. As to more general observations, lessons, or suggestions, it's probably less useful -- but no less interesting for that: writing is an unusual profession, and Murakami certainly shows that, including both the luck and peculiar determination that play significant roles in being able to make it one's profession.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 November 2022

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Novelist as a Vocation: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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© 2022 the complete review

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