2021 turned out to be a pretty good year for Haruki Murakami with his First Person Singular and the superb Drive My Car bringing home Oscar glory, itself an amalgamation of Murakami’s 2014 short-story collection Men Without Women. Novelist as a Vocation collects 11 essays, half of which originally appeared in Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, the others written specifically for this collection. Chronologically, it was originally published in Japan back in 2015, around the time of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which is referenced several times.
Novelist as a Vocation very much follows his 2007 quasi-memoir ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ in that we’re privy to another side of the famous novelist, one open to sharing his intimate thoughts not just on writing, but what makes someone a novelist, or a short-story writer. Part biography, part literary history, part confessional, part apology, and part instructional manual, Novelist as a Vocation is all of these things and yet none of them. It is an enigmatic work, much like its author.
I imagine, as the title promises, that many will be expecting Murakami to affably share tricks of the trade, similar to Stephen King’s superlative ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’. While this is true, to a certain extent, though his advice may surprise some expecting a primer on the craft: become physically fit (make your body your ally), and to others less so: “the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels.” Great and even crappy ones. Great and mediocre writing alike. Read them all, he suggests. The writing will come later.
Other advice is more technical, though just as nebulous. Consciously refrain from value judgments, he says, because conclusions (like the writing) can come later. Those who jump to conclusions too fast might want to consider a different vocation, like being a critic or journalist. Or possibly an academic. Quick thinkers, or those gifted with knowledge, aren’t likely to become novelists, he suggests. Writing, or telling, a story happens slowly. “Faster than walking, let’s say, but slower than riding a bicycle.”
Or the importance of having “fixed points” – people you trust to give you honest criticism, but make sure they have your best interest at heart. They can also serve as reliable sounding boards, specifically tuned to your own habitual frequencies like ‘old speakers’, which may be the greatest explanation of why each of us has our own standards of comparison that, all too often, contradict what so-called ‘experts’ say we should like.
His beloved wife, he explains, remains his best and most fixed of fixed points, his best old set of speakers. “For better or for worse,” he admits, “my wife is unlikely to be reassigned.”
Murakami’s writing style has long been the subject of controversy, particularly by Japanese critics who’ve accused him of writing unJapanese like prose, a proposition Murakami vehemently dismisses. Japanese publishers, fearing this upstart might upend the status quo by rehashing “foreign literature”, wanted him out, an attempt he likens to “white blood cells attacking a virus”.
But he persisted, becoming one of the best-selling and more respected Japanese authors not just in his home country, but around the world. “It is the right of all writers to experiment with the possibilities of language and expand the range of its effectiveness”, he says, defiantly yet with conviction. Why limit yourself, or the possibilities of language?
Murakami fans will delight hearing the author relate his eureka! moment when it clicked, during a baseball game in 1978, which he describes as a revelation: I think I can write a novel. Fans will delight hearing the author describe his first time immediately going out and buying writing paper and fountain pen (A Sailor) at a Kinokuniya bookstore. That book would, in time, become ‘Hear the Wind Sing’, though not without a few missteps and rewrites.
Anecdotes like this will be a relief to anyone who’s ever felt daunted by the blankness of a page, a confirmation from a legend that, yes, inspiration can strike any of us at any time – but it must be acted upon.
There are many others as well, including his process for creating characters, which he calls his “Automatic Dwarves”, a term that only makes sense hearing Murakami describe it. His comparing a novel’s long “gestation period” to the differences between a soothing Japanese hot spring experience versus an ordinary household bathtub soak may be the most singularly Japanese thing he’s ever written, evoking a similar je ne sais quoi (if you will) about attempting to explain the unexplainable.
Throughout he shows great appreciation for Western writers like Dostoevsky, Raymond Carver, and Hemingway, but also Japanese favorites like Natsume Soseki, Ryu Murakami, and others. He explains his rationale on translations, and translators, including frequent and favorite collaborators Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen (the latter two having translated this effort). And why doesn’t Murakami, also known to translate other novelists from English into Japanese, translate his own work the other way around? This, too, is shared in painstaking details.
Elsewhere you’ll find his thoughts on originality, Japanese schools, criticisms of Japanese society (“efficient, but too bureaucratic and unfeeling”), reappropriating your own work (parts of ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ became ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’), and even the perils of learning to use a word processor (while writing 1988’s ‘Dance Dance Dance’) for the first time. He spends an entire essay explaining why he doesn’t care about winning Japanese literary awards, particularly the Akutagawa Prize, which seems an awful lot for someone claiming they don’t care.
It’s hard to say just who Novelist as a Vocation will appeal to most, apart from longtime Haruki Murakami fans, who will probably love it. But those expecting a full-on biography, inspirations, or even a writing manual will be sorely disappointed, though they will get some of that and more. They’ll want answers they won’t get, or worse, ones that will only confuse and confound them further. But such is the expectation of what makes Murkami so intrinsically Murakami, a master of transforming the ‘raw material’ of everyday life into something magical. As he imparts: Can you think of a more wonderful way to make a living?