If an aspiring storyteller were to pick up Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation, translated by Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen, expecting a step-by-step guide to putting a novel together, they may well be disappointed. However, what Murakami’s memoir does offer is certainly of equal value. It is one novelist looking back over his life and career in an attempt to better understand the many fragments that make up the whole of his success, with a great deal of introspection, self-deprecation, and dispelling of myths along the way. Murakami takes great pains to ensure we understand his position on everything from literary awards he has not received (and why he cares far less about this than others seem to think), to politics and the state of education in his native Japan, a place where expressing divergent opinions is discouraged in favor of maintaining social harmony. Murakami’s personal reflections are replete with the weight of this particular responsibility, and add a pensive layer to his words that demonstrates the impact—known and perhaps unknown—of a creator’s roots to the way that they approach their craft.
The first in this collection of personal essays is somewhat jarring, as it appears to put down the novelist as someone whose work is ultimately “unnecessary.” A smarter person, Murakami claims, “whose message is clearly formed has no need to go through the many steps it would take to transpose that message into a story.” Murakami even goes so far as to utilize an example from a book he once read of two men who travel to Mt. Fuji in order to learn about it in person. The “smarter” man observes the mountain from several angles and decides, based on what he has seen, that he now knows what makes the mountain special. However, the “less intelligent” man must climb the mountain in order to reach his own conclusion. Murakami compares the “stupider” of these men to novelists, lamenting their need to climb the mountain, sometimes repeatedly, in order to reach a conclusion.
However, on the face of it, drawing such a parallel disregards a novelist’s aim. While those with quick minds are often found working in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering, or others where efficiency is prized and straight answers are possible, novelists concern themselves with questions that have as many answers as there are human beings on Earth. Novels document lives lived, either in slices or in their entirety, to illuminate new possibilities for readers, who obviously cannot experience a life other than their own. There is no right way to live, but there are insights to be gained from stories of other lives. Thus the comparison of the novelist to a more “efficient” thinker is moot. While a scientist may grow bored with the perhaps uncomfortably ambiguous conclusions drawn in stories, that does not make writing them unnecessary.
Murakami leaves this line of thinking behind in the essays that follow. It is also worth noting that in the foreword, Murakami emphasizes the fact that this book was first published in 2015, and subsequently updated for foreign release. However, one might wonder, then, why such an essay remains in this book at all. Especially when its ideas are contradicted by later sentiments, such as: “human intelligence, or perhaps common sense, necessitates different approaches for different purposes.” Or the more figurative comparison between a smaller and larger kettle. The former, Murakami says, “boils quickly, but it cools down quickly, too,” while the larger maintains its hot temperature for longer. “It’s not a question of which one is superior, since each one has its uses and distinctive characteristics,” Murakami concludes. “What’s important is knowing how to use these differences to your advantage,” which is, perhaps unintentionally, some of the best advice a young writer could receive. After regarding Novelist in its entirety, the possible “why” of the first essay’s inclusion emerges. To boldly place the writing of novels on the same level as scientific discovery is likely absurd to many. But perhaps what Murakami keen to disabuse us of in his first essay is not the belief itself, but the notion that he believes such a thing to be true. To stick his own head above others in a crowd likely goes against his very nature. Therefore, this first essay reads as an almost exaggerated example of the Japanese tendency toward modesty to which Murakami later refers.
In the foreword, Murakami states his intention to speak to the reader as if they are face-to-face with him. As a result, the tone of the book is intimate, yet unadorned and straightforward in the style Murakami has come to be known for. He engages with personal disappointments, misunderstandings perpetuated by the public, and his own earlier hopes and dreams in an appealingly honest way. There are also a few curveballs. For instance, in a book entitled “Novelist as a Vocation,” I began the essay “Regarding Schools” expecting an evaluation of the usefulness of MFA and other creative writing programs. However, the subject of discussion turned out to be Murakami’s relationship to the English language as it was taught to him in school, and the “contradictions” and “structural flaws” in Japanese society, primarily in education.
Interestingly, he notes that the English language is merely taught with the intent to raise students’ scores on subject-specific exams rather than promote future use in their daily lives. As a result, Murakami, who often read novels in English as a young man, did not get good grades in English class, as his goals for linguistic study differed from those of his teachers. The curiosity and hunger, not only to explore and reach a greater understanding of the unknown, but to entrench oneself in it—in other words, qualities a writer would do well to have—set Murakami apart from classmates who saw their English language education as a mere means to an end, long before his serendipitous decision to give writing a try. This speaks to the role of destiny in our lives, to which Murakami does credit (in addition to luck and other qualities) his authorial success. Often, we don’t immediately know the “why” of an event, or even of our own decisions. Yet Murakami’s ruminations suggest that if we trust in ourselves enough and follow our respective paths where they lead, the “whys” of the past will eventually resolve themselves with crystalline clarity.
The Japanese disinclination to “go against the flow” as Murakami writes, is evident throughout his memoir, most prominently in his balanced examination of others’ opinions. At one point he recalls an old high school classmate coming to his place of work just to put down his award-winning debut novel, claiming that they could surely accomplish the same if “something that simple can make it.” Where a Westerner might simply declare such a person jealous, Murakami, always willing to put another’s perspective on a level with his own, concedes that the disgruntled classmate may have had a point, as he himself freely admits more than once to the casual conception of that very book. Though he never heard of that classmate publishing a novel after their interaction, he writes: “Maybe he figured there was no need for him to write in a world where novels as half-baked as mine could pass muster. If so, it probably showed good judgment on his part.” But Murakami then pondors the complexities innate to so-called “simple” writing, trotting out both viewpoints for our consideration rather than bluntly dismissing his classmate’s rude remark. Similar examples of empathy are sprinkled throughout, an understandable result of growing up in a place where harmony is so highly prized.
In examining the events of his life, Murakami has more than a few nuggets of insight to share. He urges writers and readers both to trust in their own “felt experience above all else” as the “ultimate standard” by which a work should be judged. He also writes on the important connection between a writer’s health and their creative output, as well as the difficulty of accurately writing about oneself as you are now, always careful to stress that the ideas expressed are not prescriptive. Flexibility is key, not only with regard to subject matter and point-of-view (both within a story and in our real-world interactions), but also narrative structure, as novels, like people, must “have [their] loose and sloppy parts” in order to contrast effectively with the more “tightly constructed” sections of the narrative. As long as writers consume this compendium with a mind free of expectation, save the thoughtful recollection of one writer’s rise, there is no end to what they can glean from it as readers.
Novelist as a Vocation
by Haruki Murakami (t.r. Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen)
Published November 8th, 2022
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.