Monday, July 27, 2015

The great ones know

A fascinating article by the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami about when he decided to become a novelist and how he developed his unique style:
To tell the truth, although I was reading all kinds of stuff, my favourites being 19th-century Russian novels and American hard-boiled detective stories, I had never taken a serious look at contemporary Japanese fiction. Thus I had no idea what kind of Japanese novels were being read at the time, or how I should write fiction in the Japanese language.

For several months, I operated on pure guesswork, adopting what seemed to be a likely style and running with it. When I read through the result, though, I was far from impressed. It seemed to fulfil the formal requirements of a novel, but it was somewhat boring, and the book as a whole left me cold. If that’s the way the author feels, I thought, a reader’s reaction will probably be even more negative. Looks like I just don’t have what it takes, I thought dejectedly. Under normal circumstances, it would have ended there – I would have walked away. But the epiphany I had received on Jingu Stadium’s grassy slope was still clearly etched in my mind.

In retrospect, it was only natural that I was unable to produce a good novel. It was a big mistake to assume that a guy like me who had never written anything in his life could spin something brilliant right off the bat. I was trying to accomplish the impossible. Give up trying to write something sophisticated, I told myself. Forget all those prescriptive ideas about “the novel” and “literature” and set down your feelings and thoughts as they come to you, freely, in a way that you like.

While it was easy to talk about setting down one’s impressions freely, doing it wasn’t all that simple. For a sheer beginner like myself it was especially hard. To make a fresh start, the first thing I had to do was get rid of my stack of manuscript paper and my fountain pen. As long as they were sitting in front of me, what I was doing felt like “literature”. In their place, I pulled out my old Olivetti typewriter from the closet. Then, as an experiment, I decided to write the opening of my novel in English. Since I was willing to try anything, I figured, why not give that a shot?

Needless to say, my ability in English composition didn’t amount to much. My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax. I could only write in simple, short sentences. Which meant that, however complex and numerous the thoughts running around my head might be, I couldn’t even attempt to set them down as they came to me. The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact, and everything arranged to fit a container of limited size. The result was a rough, uncultivated kind of prose. As I struggled to express myself in that fashion, however, step by step, a distinctive rhythm began to take shape.

Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle. It also led me to discover 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 skilful manner. To sum up, I learnt that there was no need for a lot of difficult words – I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrase.
I found this fascinating, because as you may recall, I studied Japanese, and although I don't speak it anymore, I retain enough of a sense of it that Murakami's writing has never struck me as "translated" in the same sense that other Japanese writers do. I'd always just assumed that he had a better translator, but apparently it is the English structural influence that he imposes on his Japanese style that creates that effect.

One Murakami fan has observed: "When you read Murakami in Japanese, it's almost like he's translating his own writing from English."

In any event, if you haven't read Murakami, he's well worth reading. He tends to stick to the same themes and Japanese fatalism runs through all of his works, but he always presents an interesting variation on those themes. My favorite Murakami novel is A Wild Sheep Chase. And I found it unsurprising to observe that the great ones usually recognize their own talent before others do:
That’s when it hit me. I was going to win the prize. And I was going to go on to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success. It was an audacious presumption, but I was sure at that moment that it would happen. Completely sure. Not in a theoretical way but directly and intuitively.
That's why I always laugh at those who claim that if someone openly states that they are X, it should be taken as evidence to the contrary. That's totally false. From Ruth to Jordan, from Tolstoy to Murakami, the great ones always know it and they are not at all surprised by their own success. They expect it.



Anonymous Knarf July 27, 2015 8:20 AM  

Sadly, for every Great One who knows it, there are a thousand Hopelessly Untalented & Delusional Ones who also know it with equal certainty. This is why being a slush pile reader is such an Augean task.

Anonymous Steve July 27, 2015 8:23 AM  

Do the Japs "do" science fiction and fantasy novels?

Obviously they have Godzilla and anime, and I've heard good things about "All You Need Is Kill" (which is a great title).

But the only "Japanese" sci fi novel I've come across myself is Never Let Me Go. And it's barely a science fiction novel, more of a melancholy drama. And Kazuo Ishiguro is a naturalised Brit.

Is there a Japanese Robert Heinlein?

Blogger Tank July 27, 2015 8:26 AM  

@Knarf LOL, so true.

I feel "great" in having the self knowledge to realize that I am pretty mediocre at almost everything I do. On the other hand, I'm honest, conscientious and persistent. Delta?

Anonymous Conservative Buddhist July 27, 2015 8:30 AM  

Yet another benefit of reading VP, discovery of new authors. Speaking of Japanese authors known for their English works, Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" is a natural extension of the dissolving morality represented by the Planned Parenthood organ harvesting. I found the novel horrifying when I read it (and the movie adaption is disturbing too) and this only increased as its prescient nature was revealed recently.

Anonymous Clint 47/73 July 27, 2015 8:52 AM  

I recently read 1Q84 and enjoyed it. It has an odd shift into a parallel universe that is easy to miss until the characters start noticing. Murakami is a good writer. I appreciate how he can take a love story, that does not follow traditional routes, and make it believable. Even his "killer woman" who is a slight female is not trying to overpower huge men. She kills by stealth, so you don't have to suspend reality for that. You are correct - he is an easy read, and the book is long enough to be worth the time (I am not a huge fan of really short works, usually).

Anonymous Steve July 27, 2015 8:59 AM  

Conservative Buddhist - I found the utter passivity of the main characters in "Never Let Me Go" to be infuriating and disturbing.

The film was beautifully made, and achingly nostalgic for British childhoods of yesteryear, but horribly frustrating. I kept waiting for Keira Knightley or Carey Mulligan to pull out a sawn-off and say:

"You want my liver? Fuckin 'ave some!"

That would have made for a less depressing movie.

Blogger Daniel July 27, 2015 9:40 AM  

Umberto Eco's translations rhyme with Murakami - completely different themes and stories, but concrete, kind and unpretentious in phrasing. Eco favors more unusual words, but he is without guile or forced cleverness about it.

As for the slush pile of mediocrity, I would argue that the majority of the slush is readable and that nearly every professionally formatted book will have at least a few readers happy to have found it. This is the edge that independent publishing has on traditional. Traditional publishing is a bank, a printer, a distributor, a marketer (for the publisher, not the authors) oh and also a publisher. Indies just make books.

Anonymous anonymous coward July 27, 2015 9:44 AM  

Speaking of Japanese authors known for their English works, Kazuo Ishiguro's...
Ishiguro is British. He moved to the UK when he was five. (You wouldn't claim that Asimov is a Russian author, would you??)

Blogger Dystopic July 27, 2015 9:45 AM  

I have experienced something similar in my own writing. When I attempt to use high prose, the whole thing just nosedives. I suppose it looks pretty, in some fashion, but there's something off about it. I guess it's just artificial, because it's not how I really think.

English is a strange language, almost like two languages in one, with its Norman French high register, and Germanic low register. Some folks are better off using the one or the other. It's not necessarily a mark of intelligence to use the high register when the low will do just fine.

Anonymous Steve July 27, 2015 10:06 AM  

anonymous coward - And he wrote "The Remains of The Day", which is more English than having a cream tea while watching "Antiques Roadshow" with Michael York.

Anonymous I left my heart in the Space Marines July 27, 2015 10:33 AM  

"Sadly, for every Great One who knows it, there are a thousand Hopelessly Untalented & Delusional Ones who also know it with equal certainty. This is why being a slush pile reader is such an Augean task."

A perfect comment for a forum run by Vox Day and frequented by Tom Kratman

Anonymous Steve July 27, 2015 10:53 AM  

A perfect comment for a forum run by Vox Day and frequented by Tom Kratman


I haven't read anything by Vox Day yet (mea maxima culpa), but I've read several novels by Tom Kratman, and they're excellent.

If Tom Kratman books were people, they'd have fists like iron, five o'clock shadow at 9am, and smell like Old Spice and Glenlivet.

And if you put one on a shelf with other books, you'd soon find them all pregnant with novellas about sentient tanks.

Anybody who doesn't like Tom Kratman's writing should go to the doctor and ask to have their balls reattached.

Blogger Nate July 27, 2015 10:56 AM  

"This is why being a slush pile reader is such an Augean task."

meh... Its really not a big deal. You can tell in a page or two if its worth continuing... and you don't need a whole chapter to know if its something that is publishable. If you're reading it all... you're doing it wrong. Hell there should be some that require less a few minutes to disregard.

Anonymous The Original Nekkid Stillers Capitaliss Fan July 27, 2015 11:13 AM  

Funny that this post has highlighted a related notion that I've always had... that an author knows when they've hit the jackpot with a novel and they're on the proverbial roll with a good story. It's almost as if the author's confident energy vibrates via the content of the book as it either winds up or down to a conclusion. I got that feeling when I read Peter David's Imazadi so many years ago. I remember first thinking that this was going to be stupid pink SF even then, but it pleasantly surprised me and is still one of my favorites, and the favorite of many others.

Blogger Brad Andrews July 27, 2015 11:14 AM  

How many claim such success and never get their claims published or spread further? You have validated he saw his success ahead of time. You have no validated he is really the norm in that.

I have no idea if he is the norm, but such a claim could be made by many, in which case the exception would prove the rule. How would someone validate this?

Anonymous Red Comet July 27, 2015 11:17 AM  

Steve @2:

They do science fiction and have consistently done it better than the West in recent years as their stories aren't held back by the constant need to focus on dieversity instead of plot and ideas.

The closest thing to a Japanese Heinlein is the author Ryo Hanmura. Most of his works have not been translated in English, but some movies based on them like GI Samurai starring Sonny Chiba did make it over.

In my opinion the best Japanese science fiction is found in manga/comic books. For anyone interested in Japanese prose science fiction, the manga publisher Viz has an imprint called Haikasoru that has a lot of interesting titles.

Blogger Tommy Hass July 27, 2015 11:33 AM  

Good God Vox, I actually checked up on Sexy Losers because of you...

Anonymous Steve July 27, 2015 11:43 AM  

Red Comet - thanks.

I've never really seen the appeal of Japanese comics. Nothing against it, it's just not for me.

The Three-Body Problem was a real eye opener for me. I would never have thought that a novel translated from Chinese into English could be so compelling. Japan is pretty much just China with cat cafes, so there must be a market for translating awesome Nipponese sci fi novels into English.

I'm surprised we don't see more of this sort of thing.

Anonymous Jill July 27, 2015 11:53 AM  

I am currently mildly obsessive in my love of Murakami. Funny that I also spent my misguided youth reading hard-boiled detective fiction such as Raymond Chandler (loved him so much!) and Russian fiction.

I think there is some truth to great ones knowing they're going to be great. It's simply obscured by those with delusions of grandeur. I mean, how do you tell the difference until they actually write that masterpiece (or likewise fall into obscurity)?

Blogger Guderian July 27, 2015 12:04 PM  


Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Yoshiki Tanaka is a space opera of grand ambition, though it has never been licensed in English so all that's out there are fan translations:

I've always thought this would be a good series for Castalia to pick up, since the series (and its adaptations) already has a fanbase in the edgysphere...

Though upon research, apparently the first three already got picked up by Viz under their Hikaisoru imprint. Sigh.

Anonymous Barg Uist July 27, 2015 2:36 PM  

I was greatly encouraged by this. Thank you for posting VD

Blogger kudzu bob July 27, 2015 3:21 PM  

The runaway success of The Godfather caught Mario Puzo by surprise. He remarked that if he had known his novel was going to be so popular, he would have written it better.

Anonymous Anonymous July 27, 2015 4:12 PM  

I loath to think how I had to drag my ass, clawing and scratching, through the "Political Military History" bits of War and Peace. I couldn't simply blow it off, as I knew I'd have to make a few bull5h1t "referances" to it in the ensuing paper.
I just wish that The New Yorker Magazine "style book" didn't seek to emulate the same excruciating minutia found in traditional American private high school education in Russian Lit. It DID come in handy as learning how to "stretch out" and belabor a point to fulfill the word/page count quota.

Blogger Cataline Sergius July 27, 2015 4:26 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Anonymous Sparky July 27, 2015 4:30 PM  


Actually, LOTGH has been licensed by Haikasoru. Only the first three novels for now, but more in the pipeline.

Coming Spring 2016.

Blogger Magson July 27, 2015 6:56 PM  

There's a singer named alex Boye on Youtube who wrote a song called "I am Gold" taking from this idea. He noted in his description of the video that at various sporting competitions, the 3rd place winner would say things like "I'm surprised I did so well, glad to represent my country, thrilled to be here" and other things of that nature. 2nd place tended to say something to the effect of "Worked hard, didn't quite have it." and 1st place finishers would say things like "I expected to be here. There was never any doubt!"

Seems pretty in line with your conclusion that when people are good at something, they do indeed know it.

Anonymous A Reader July 27, 2015 7:11 PM  

Interesting piece by Murakami. One thing that I get from his essay is that when he first tried to write "literary" fiction, the result was a boring story.

Murakami is a friend of genre, he's influenced by detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy. The genre elements in his fiction makes his stories interesting. The subject matter of genre fiction is inherently interesting; the old criticism of it, which has a certain amount of truth, is that the writing style is deficient. On the other hand, the mid-life crisis stories that were published in The New Yorker, while well written, were uncoupling in subject matter.

Anonymous dc red dogs July 27, 2015 8:39 PM  

Knarf at 1 - It is possible there are no "great living writers" and if there are they are quite possibly (absent a solid Christian faith) envious to an unbelievably extreme degree of those who have the option to live a well-peopled life without the burden of being great at some task. Would you rather preside at a well-attended reading at some sad urban bookstore or have a beer on the sidelines with your still sort of hot wife while your son tosses half a dozen touchdowns on the field? Absent the wisdom found (inter alia) in the Book of Proverbs, we all envy each other - the unhealthy envy the healthy, the healthy envy their fellow healthy people with better access to the beach or to the mountains, and it goes on and on, the enervated O-10s dream of the congenial life of the staff sergeant, at the same moment that the staff sergeant wishes he could tell his wife he will certainly be a colonel some day (but he may be old and boring by then)... the not quite fat girls envy, without thinking through the psychology of the situation, the skinny low SMV guys, while the not even close to fat girls envy the ones who look like them but who hooked up with a better looking guy than the guy they are bonding with, regardless of whether that guy would or would not bore them to tears in a few minutes if they had to go on a date with them. That being said, Murakami's confidence in his future success is the sort of confidence that only members of a small tight-knit society can ever experience; that is their reward for not living in a vast and indecipherable civilization, such as our own, where there are thousands of places for the talented and no place for the genius, bless his little heart, he will do all right anyway.

Blogger Brad Andrews July 28, 2015 1:04 PM  

@28 The grass is always greener....

Blogger Tom Kratman August 16, 2015 1:38 PM  

Posted that one to FB, Steve. Too good to not memorialize.

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