Novelist as a Vocation

  • By Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
  • Knopf
  • 224 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • December 20, 2022

A master offers insight into his craft.

Novelist as a Vocation

With his latest book, acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami treats readers to a delightful volume on how to be a successful author. In it, he shares his own specific tools and also his philosophy on writing.

Murakami is a modern treasure. His novels Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and others are essential to the late-20th-/early-21st-century canon. His renown has made him a frequent favorite to win the Nobel Prize (in 2021, you could get 10-1 odds on him). There are few authors better suited to publish Novelist as a Vocation.

Murakami’s signature style is the conversational tone of his writing; he speaks to us, in his words, “as if I were directly talking to people.” This results in a warmth that other writers would be wise to replicate.

He is further assisted by his decision to write first in English and then translate his words into Japanese. This leads to a short, simple sentence structure (reflective of his level of skill in English) that, again, welcomes readers rather than alienates them.

That welcoming tone is mirrored in the man. He holds himself up as an example of a writer who tries to be encouraging of others. When aspiring scribes try their hand at the craft, “Do novelists make a sour face?” he asks rhetorically. “From my experience, no. To the contrary, we tend to look upon the results positively, and even encourage their authors.”

Perhaps this is because he recognizes the ease with which he plies his trade. “It’s not difficult to write a single novel,” he claims. “Even a very good novel, depending on who you are.” Fellow writers may beg to differ, however. Murakami’s deceptively easy style is tough to replicate.

So, what pointers does Murakami offer here? First, a novelist must read “everything you can get your hands on — great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading.” The goal is to build your foundation of ideas and skills so that you’ll come to know where you fit in the field.

Next, find subject matter by paying close attention. “Make a habit of looking at things and events in more detail. Observe what is going on around you and the people you encounter.” But refrain from making quick judgments. “[Don’t] rush to determine the rights and wrongs or merits and demerits,” he admonishes. “Try to consciously refrain from value judgments — conclusions can come later.”

Patience and discipline undergird Murakami’s writing style. He sets a goal to write 10 Japanese manuscript pages daily, which translates to 1,600 English words. (That’s roughly twice the length of this review.) “I work away, persevering day after day,” he shares, “like a bricklayer carefully laying one brick on top of another.” But it’s not easy. “Sitting at a desk…every day for five or six hours…requires an extraordinary amount of physical strength.”

As his devotees know, Murakami is an avid runner. Indeed, he has dedicated an entire book to his athletic efforts and how they’ve impacted him. It’s often said that to be a writer, one must simply write, even when you don’t feel it. Likewise, “The act of running represents, concretely and succinctly, some of the things I have to do in this life…even on days when I think I’m not feeling so great.”

He draws a direct connection between all forms of strength, “the emotional, the mental, and the physical.” Each one informs and guides the others. That mix of ease of language, determination, and a commitment to progress is the hallmark of his work. While he’ll knock out a first draft quickly, he’s willing to do extensive rewrites, massaging a piece into the shape he desires. But he wouldn’t be doing any of it if he didn’t love it. “If you’re not enjoying yourself,” he says of writing, “then there’s likely something wrong.”

We readers are beneficiaries not just of Murakami’s sage advice but also the product of his process. It’s a testament to his eminence as a writer that even straightforward books such as this — and another recent one that examined the T-shirts he owns — are considered must-reads by fans. The most successful authors need not churn out only epics to be praiseworthy. That said, here’s to more great Haruki Murakami novels to come.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

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