STARRED REVIEW
November 2022

Novelist as a Vocation

By Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
Haruki Murakami’s collection of essays about his life and writing provides a tantalizing peek into the famously secretive writer’s world.
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Using the well-worn adjectives elusive and idiosyncratic to describe Haruki Murakami may be clichéd, but if ever a writer embodied these sobriquets, it is certainly the internationally beloved Japanese author. His fiction can be hard to classify—is it science fiction? dystopian? satire?—so it stands to reason that a nonfiction work wherein he shares his thoughts on writing would be equally hard to categorize. Novelist as a Vocation, part memoir and part informal advice guide, offers a glimpse into a personal life Murakami has long kept guarded. Originally published in Japanese in 2015, it has now been translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen into straightforward English prose that captures Murakami’s unadorned, conversational style and self-deprecating wit.

Murakami declares up front that he should be viewed as a regular man who happens to write hugely popular novels. “If I do say so myself, I’m the type of ordinary guy you’ll find anywhere,” he writes. “Not the type to stand out when I stroll around town, the type who’s always shown to the worst tables at restaurants. I doubt that if I didn’t write novels, anyone would ever have noticed me.” In his telling, his path to writing was accidental. While in his late 20s, working long days and nights running a jazz club, he went to a baseball game one day (jazz, baseball and running, we learn, are his three great passions) where he spontaneously decided to write a novel. In six months he produced Hear the Wind Sing, which went on to win a prestigious Japanese prize, launching his literary career.

Such fairy-tale serendipity, sadly, does not supply the magic formula aspiring writers might be seeking, but it does underscore the unpredictability of success. Murakami makes many good points, especially as he praises the welcoming embrace of the writing community, where novices can take up a pen or laptop and call themselves a writer without much resentment from established practitioners. But he is quick to emphasize that long-term durability as a writer is more challenging than that initial success, requiring not only discipline and luck but continuing inspiration and originality. 

Is Murakami’s claim at ordinariness genuine? Certainly, the everyday details he reveals in Novelist as a Vocation seem pretty conventional. Meanwhile, the advice he doles out to acolytes is—here’s that word again—idiosyncratic and highly personal, methods that work for him but probably won’t for everyone (which he would be the first to admit). But you don’t become an international literary superstar by being ordinary, no matter how “mundane” your daily life is. A deeper dive into Murakami’s singular mind would be devoured by his millions of readers, but one senses he is not willing to fully breach the wall of privacy he has carefully erected. Still, fans will come away from Novelist as a Vocation with a clearer idea of what makes this elusive writer tick.

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Novelist as a Vocation

Novelist as a Vocation

By Haruki Murakami
Knopf
ISBN 9780451494641

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