Haruki Murakami’s “Novelist as a Vocation” is a collection of essays initially published in Japan in 2015, the first six serialized in the Japanese magazine “Monkey,” the last five “written especially for this book,” the author says. Its rather sober title notwithstanding, the collection is eccentric, meandering, self-deprecating. This is no bombastic tome or loftily impassioned defense of fiction; it’s a generally charming excursion through the mind of one of the world’s most beloved novelists.
With the first chapter, “Are Novelists Broad-minded?,” the collection gets off to a shaky start. Murakami traffics in rather weakly analyzed platitudes about writers and their personalities. The titular question is almost immediately revealed to be rhetorical; “most novelists aren’t what one would call amiable and fair-minded,” Murakami writes. The next generalization may feel sounder, if no less familiar: “their dispositions tend to be idiosyncratic and their lifestyles and general behavior frankly odd”. But soon, he stumbles back into stereotyping, pronouncing that a “truly intimate friendship” between novelists cannot “last very long” because their egos will get in the way. My experience as a literary agent and editor who’s taught and worked with countless novelists suggests quite the opposite.
The strongest essays are those that bring us into Murakami’s own idiosyncratic disposition, his unlikely career path, and his odd routines and requirements as a writer. Murakami explains how his familiar obsessions with jazz, running, and baseball have influenced and been influenced by his writing career. “How I Became a Novelist” is a delightful essay about the improbable genesis of his career; “What Kind of Characters Should I Include?” provides insight into how he chooses his narrators and invents his strange and intriguing characters that populate his novels from “Norwegian Wood” to “Kafka on the Shore” to “Killing Commendatore.”
In “A Completely Personal and Physical Occupation,” Murakami lays out the principles and practices by which he pursues his passion for writing novels and helpfully debunks the myth that debauchery and decadence are requisite for wild and inventive art. One imagines that Murakami would heartily endorse Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” He hits a set word count each day, structures his life around his writing, stays home most nights, and doesn’t attend literary festivals or glitzy events. Physical stamina, he insists, is of the utmost importance to his literary success.
Of course, a highly controlled life and a single-minded focus on creative work is much easier to achieve for a literary superstar on the level of Murakami, whose books sell well into the millions of copies and whose name regularly bubbles to the top of Nobel Prize candidates. He also is blessed with a stable marriage to a supportive wife who acts as his first reader, and he has no children to divide his attention. But if these privileges and boons make him an unlikely role model for most aspiring writers, his keen awareness of his own good fortune and his humility about his own gifts endear him to us.
Murakami’s best quality on view here is his utter lack of pretentiousness. He attributes much of his success to luck, chance, accident, the “exceptional stroke of good fortune” he had in winning a major literary prize for his first novel. He is self-effacing, humble, and aware of the impossibility of prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice, which makes the lack of subtlety of the first chapter’s vaporous assertions all the more bizarre. Yet at the same time, his dedication to speaking plainly, as a man rather than as a sage or prophet, helps to explain the sometimes undefended straightforwardness of these essays.
“Novelist As A Vocation” doesn’t offer extensive practical advice in the way of Stephen King’s “On Writing” or Stephen Pressfield’s “The War of Art,” nor spiritual nourishment in the vein of Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” or Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing.” It isn’t a book that I’d assign to my writing students or use myself as a source of tips and tricks. It works best as a fascinating backstage pass to Murakami’s process and approach to creating fiction.
Reproof, the imprecations and epithets of his critics play a major role in this collection. Even as he insists that he doesn’t “take criticisms . . . all that seriously,” his resentment about negative reactions to his work, especially in his home country, is palpable. But the collection’s ingenuous enthusiasm about writing simultaneously disarms reproof. Murakami emphasizes that he is not “a genius in any way, shape, or form,” expresses how “grateful [he is] to be able to make a living” writing novels, gives much credit to his US publishing team (agent, editor, publisher, designers, translators), and thanks his readers profusely for their loyalty and devotion.
An essay on the rigidity and vicious competitiveness of the Japanese educational system, whose “goal,” according to the author, “appears to be to create doglike people . . . and even sometimes to create sheeplike people,” illuminates Murakami’s temperament and ethic in both life and art. Murakami’s rejection of conformity and celebration of the individual, his elevating “imagination” over “efficiency,” go a long way towards explaining why young people have flocked to his work in droves.
Throughout these essays, Murakami emphasizes spontaneity, freedom, and a feeling of unbridled emotion. When writing, “I let things take their natural course,” he tells us, “following wherever my heart leads.” It is the frank romanticism of that “free and natural sensibility,” that has won so many hearts in return.
NOVELIST AS A VOCATION
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 224 pages, $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”