“In my daily life,” Haruki Murakami tells us in Novelist as a Vocation, “I’m hardly ever conscious of myself as a writer.” He wants us to understand: “I am, when all is said and done, a very ordinary person.” For a very ordinary person, Murakami has enjoyed extraordinary success; his nearly 20 novels have been translated into 50 languages. He tends to divide readers. But for those who love him, his work – a blend of the magical, the mundane and the philosophical – can be addictive. I once had a flatmate who, following a Murakami binge, declared he needed to read someone else’s work for a change, went to the bookshop, and returned with a fresh stack of Murakami novels.
So how does this very ordinary person do it? The 11 essays in this book range over writerly topics in a manner that blends autobiography with insights into originality and the creative process. He assures would-be novelists that no creative writing degree is necessary and a writer’s study can simply be the kitchen table at night. Not everyone has a novel in them, however, and some may have only one. That’s okay. You do need to be a big reader and “blessed with just a little talent”. A “quick mind” can be a hindrance, for novel writing “takes place at a slow pace” and is less rational than intuitive. But you also need the capacity for long, hard and frequently unrewarding work. Murakami’s description of his relentless and disciplined process, involving a great number of drafts and careful readings, will rightly put off any aspiring writers among his fans who have mistaken the illusion of effortlessness in his work for the thing itself.
You need “a core of steel” in this business, he tells us. He doesn’t mix in literary circles or do readings, signings or interviews in Japan – and only a limited number overseas. His style – originally derived from an effort to write in English and translate back into Japanese – has long attracted controversy and criticism in Japan. But he warns that if you take every negative critique to heart, you’ll “never survive”. The most important thing in the novelist’s vocation is to feel “spontaneous pleasure and joy” in the process, however arduous, of writing itself. If you do have that ability, he asks, “Can you think of a more wonderful way to make a living?”
Harvill Secker, 208pp, $35 (hardback)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation".
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