Novelist as Vocation by Haruki Murakami

Review by Walter Cummins

Novelist as a Vocation—Haruki Murakami’s collection of ten essays on novel writing, first published in Japan in 2015 but not translated into English until 2022—suggests that he just fell into writing fiction, and it’s all worked out for him for more than thirty years.

I couldn’t help thinking of how Wee Willie Keeler, the baseball Hall of Famer from the turn of the twentieth century, explained the achievement of his lifetime batting average of .345. “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  It’s as easy as that. When Murakami sits down to explore a new idea, he never has a writer’s block and amuses himself with “pleasure and excitement” as he plunges into the process. And he turns out novel after novel unlike any written before. In effect, he writes where other books ain’t.

The baseball connection isn’t a stretch because Murakami, age twenty-nine and running a jazz club with his wife, was sitting near the outfield grass at Jingu Stadium in downtown Tokyo when he witnessed a sharply hit double. At the resounding crack of bat, “In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.” He calls it “a sudden epiphany.” Despite his wide reading all his life, that idea had never occurred to him before.

The batter, Dave Hilton, was an American who had come to play in the Japanese major leagues. That coincidence also relates to Murakami’s literary career. He had translated American fiction into Japanese, and dissatisfied with the first drafts of his novel and seeking a personal prose style, he started a version in English, aware of his limitations with the language, but then rendered those pages into Japanese. That became a major step in creating an unusual and original Japanese voice that was also where all other Japanese writers ain’t:

Some people have said, “Your work has the feel of translation.” The precise meaning of this statement escapes me, but I think it may hit the mark in one way and entirely miss it in another. Since the opening passages of my first novella were, quite literally, “translated,” the comment is not entirely wrong; yet it applies merely to my process of writing. What I was seeking by writing first in English and then “translating” into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned “neutral” style that would allow me freer movement. My interest was not in creating a watered-down form of Japanese. Rather, I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from the strictures of “serious literature” in order to speak in my own natural voice.

Considering the question of originality, Murakami tells of his reactions to first hearing the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and the Beatles was “Please Please Me” or Thelonious Monk. It was unlike any music he knew, and readers of his novels have said the same thing about his stories. It parallels his reaction to the music: “’Wow!’ I had thought. ‘This is amazing, not like anything else I’ve heard!’”

Even with his international fame, Murakami chooses not to be a principal in the Japanese literary community, content to be a homebody rather than socialize with other writers. In addition to his personality, that may be the result of his unconventional route into the world of writing. He didn’t study creative writing at his university and never thought to pursue the Japanese equivalent of an MFA. Essentially, he is self-taught.

Murakami believes anyone can write a novel, unlike a pianist, ballerina, mountain climber, or a person with skills that need years of preparation and training: “An aspiring novelist, by contrast, needs only the basic ability to write (most people have that), a ballpoint pen, a pad of paper, and the capacity to make up a story to turn out something resembling a novel …”

He explains that this collection is not a guide to novel writing for others, just a clarification of his way: “What I mean is, I’m the kind of person with a very individual way of thinking, and I don’t know how far you can generalize about or apply my way of writing and living. I know hardly any other writers, so I don’t know how they write, and I can’t make comparisons. For me, this is the only way I can write, so that’s how I do it.”

Murakami’s way of doing includes an emphasis on exercise that other writers ignore because he believes the physical process of composition demands conditioning: ‘That kind of life, though, gets you out of shape physically, so every day I spend about an hour outdoors exercising. That sets me up for the next day’s work. Day after day, without exception, I repeat this cycle.”

However, several of the final group of essays—written after the decision to make the initial pieces the basis of a book—cover topics pertinent to any novelist. Murakami reacts to criticism of early drafts, including that of his wife, defensively, but eventually as the basis for revisions that make the work better. He discusses how he creates his characters and, like other novelists, how they often determine the direction the work in progress takes: “And in some cases the character takes the novelist by the hand and leads him or her to an unexpected destination.” He also considers his thoughts about potential readers.

Bored in the classroom, but a constant reader, Murakami writes about schools and proposes that a potential novelist is an unlikely academic star: “People who absolutely love school, and feel sad when they can’t go, probably won’t become novelists. I say this because a novelist is a person who steadily fills his head with a world of his own. When I was in class, I didn’t pay much attention to the lesson, and instead was lost in all sorts of daydreams.”

His final essay tells of his publishing career and the translations that led to his international fame. In that fame, unique in his daydreams, Murakami invents worlds like no others.