Haruki Murakami’s bizarre advice to novelists

Some time ago, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has reached the point of self-confidence as an author that he could persuade his publisher to publish almost anything. Ingenuously, he reports receiving letters from readers in recent years as follows: “I read your latest book, Mr. Murakami, and was disappointed. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into it. But I definitely buy the next one. Keep up the good work!

Those of us who adored Murakami 20 years ago had to conclude, faced with the flawed Kafka on the Shore, the interminable 1Q84 and, worst of all, an entire book about Murakami’s jogging craze, that his best days as a writer are far behind him. For this reason, we might be willing to drop this new book on the craft of writing (published in Japan in 2015). We might have been keen to hear from the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle about how he did it; the author of 1Q84, not so much.

It is true that this book contains surprisingly banal observations on the universe of the writer: “Life is strange, when you think about it. “Just like [sic] there are all kinds of people, there are all kinds of novelists. “Every time I start writing a new novel, I get excited, I wonder what kind of people I’m going to meet next.” When he evokes writing as a social program, the banality is impressive: “I want [schools] provide an environment in which everyone’s individuality can flourish.

Put that aside and instead observe the idiosyncrasy of Murakami’s writing practices and beliefs about writing. Jogging returns, and the beautifully insane claim that “once a writer gets fat, it’s all over” (not sure GK Chesterton would have been a better writer had he been a sprint champion). He says he’s a great reader, but he’s not going to share what he’s learned: after a page on Trollope’s autobiography, he admits to never having read anything Trollope wrote. He has no notebook, essential for many novelists to record fragments of speech.

His ways of working are rather wonderfully perverse and always have been; he wrote his first novel by the unusual method of first writing it in his limited English and then translating it back into flat Japanese. His characterization theory is embedded in something he calls auto dwarfs – which is a winner, but maybe not very helpful. This, in short, is a very strange glimpse into a working life.