An Unnatural Spring: On Haruki Murakami’s “Novelist as a Vocation”
By Robert Allen PapinchakFebruary 10, 2023
Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami
In a self-deprecating manner, he characterizes himself as a “very ordinary person” who finds talking about his own works as “sounding kind of apologetic, or boastful, or as if I’m trying to justify myself.” He still feels a “sense of amazement” that “writing novels is nothing less than expressing yourself.” He is also fully cognizant of the role that the reader plays in his achievements.
In his earlier, more assertive memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007), Murakami exercises his mental muscles while he traces the trajectory of his training to run the 2005 New York City marathon. The book is about much more than running, of course: it becomes an extended metaphor for the writing process. Murakami believes that physical fitness and stamina derived from the muscle memory of repetition is akin to the challenging demands of writing novels. The loneliness of the long-distance runner translates quite naturally into the solitude of the marathon writer.
He compares an “inborn talent” to an imagination that draws “water from a natural spring.” But he does not include himself in the category of writers who have “spotted any springs nearby.” Instead, he has to “pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.” As he does with running, he begins every new novel by “dredg[ing] out another new, deep hole.” Continual exercise and constant experience have made him more proficient “both technically and physically” at “opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein” when sourcing an unnatural spring.
There is some overlap between the two books. As a composite diptych of a writer in stasis, they both describe the epiphanic moment when he decided to become a writer: at a baseball game on April 1, 1978, upon hearing the crack of a bat. As he puts it in Running, it was as though the sky opened and lightning struck him while he lay on the grass in Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, and he received the almost psychic message that he “could try writing a novel.” His life, he adds in Novelist, was “drastically and permanently altered in that instant.” He also reiterates his passion for jazz, his ownership of a jazz bar, and his active pursuit of solitude versus loneliness.
Novelist as a Vocation comprehensively explores the “enigmatic,” “mysterious” minefield of possibilities in the “constant process of self-reinvention,” the “time-consuming, tedious” Sisyphean labor of always having another story to tell. The first six selections were originally serialized in monthly issues of Monkey Business magazine; the remaining five were written especially for the book. The initial group comprises exploratory riffs on the “tenacious, persevering temperament” of a professional novelist and the circuitous route Murakami took to writing, beginning with that momentous “hit down the left field line.” They include a self-effacing observation on winning awards; an incisive definition of artistic originality, in literature, art, and music; an exploration of the “mental chest of drawers” from which he draws his ideas; and an affirmation of the “trust in our felt experience” derived from writing while traveling abroad.
The question “Are Novelists Broad-minded?” leads Murakami to imagine having the skills and talent to survive in a professional wrestling ring that “welcomes anyone who feels like taking a crack at it.” With a gap between the ropes “big enough to pass through” onto the “spacious” canvas where other wrestlers (a.k.a. “established novelists”) are at least “resigned to your presence,” he sees the writing life as an “airy, easy, accommodating, altogether laid-back environment.” In several other somewhat-mixed metaphors, he also compares writing to “assembling miniature boats in bottles with long tweezers,” sizing up Mount Fuji from alternative vantage points, and resembling the behavior of “certain types of fish. If they don’t keep swimming forward, they die.” Whatever the image conjured, the need for tenacity persists.
The essay “When I Became a Novelist” introduces 30-year-old Murakami in a firecracker of a literary debut, winning the Gunzo Prize for New Writers with a short piece of juvenilia, Hear the Wind Sing (1979). With a tinge of impostor syndrome, he tells us that he thought it was an inadequate novella. It became the first installment of a trilogy, followed by Pinball, 1973 (1980) and the considerably more accomplished A Wild Sheep Chase (1982). The first two are what Murakami refers to as his “‘kitchen-table’ fiction.” Married in his twenties and struggling to sustain a foundering jazz café, he scribbled out 200 manuscript pages with a Sailor fountain pen before turning to his trusty Olivetti typewriter. At the same time, he was trying to find an individual style and voice that would set him apart from other writers.
His practice was to write first in English and then translate his work into Japanese, in an effort to create an “unadorned ‘neutral’ style,” one as “far removed as possible from the strictures of ‘serious literature’ in order to speak in my own natural voice.” When he won the award with the “new style [that] felt more like performing music than composing literature,” the “pleasure and excitement” led to moments of “pure bliss,” culminating in what he considers his first real novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. That delightfully charming, frequently humorous, sleepless-in-Sapporo hunt for an elusive mutant sheep follows the lifelong friendship between the Rat, J, and the nameless protagonist, an advertising executive who stumbles upon a surreal mystery embedded in an old photograph.
Though often bruited as a potential Nobel Prize winner, Murakami eschews the recognition that comes with awards. Despite the frequent accolades received after winning the Gunzo, he avows, in the essay “On Literary Prizes,” that he would rather have “good readers” who “shell out twenty or thirty dollars” than “prizes, or medals, or critical praise.” He believes that “it is literary works that last, not literary prizes.” While an award “can turn the spotlight on a particular work, […] it can’t breathe life into it.”
In fact, it is the revered reader who gets most of the attention throughout the 11 essays. Such supporters form the central core of Murakami’s sustenance. He believes that a “writer’s greatest responsibility is […] to keep providing them with the best work that he is capable of turning out.” Even if only “about five percent of all people are active readers of literature,” he is content “[a]s long as book lovers keep on reading books.” After all, in Japan, that adds up to six million people.
It will be interesting to see what Murakami’s response will be if the Swedish Academy ever takes him in their grasp for his remarkable life’s work. Until then, the reader is his focus. In fact, instead of writer’s block, he more often suffers from reader’s block. The essay “On Originality” underscores his abiding effort to present his audience with “fresh, energetic” prose — words that convey the same sense of emotion to readers as they do to him when he composes his fictions.
For Murakami, originality is important not only for literature but also for music and art. It is the “natural and necessary evolution of a creative spirit engaged in a constant process of self-reinvention,” a “living, evolving thing, whose shape is devilishly hard to pin down.” He sees it in the Beatles and the Beach Boys; in Thelonious Monk’s “arresting” jazz; and in Igor Stravinsky’s “unconventional” The Rite of Spring, Gustav Mahler’s “‘deconstruction’ of the established symphonic format,” and Franz Schubert’s “marvelous piano sonatas.” Art lovers were once shocked by Van Gogh and Picasso; today, they find their work “deeply moving, invigorating, even psychically healing.” Murakami believes that the “mental landscapes of Japanese and English readers” have been forever changed by the “celebrated” styles of Natsume Sōseki and Ernest Hemingway (a writer Murakami frequently translates, alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Murakami lists three basic requirements for originality: a “clearly unique and individual” sense “of sound, language, or color”; an aesthetic with “the power to update itself”; and the requirement that one’s “characteristic style should become integrated within the psyche of its audience.” Again, his abiding attention is to the audience — viewers or readers. For his own work, “nothing could be higher praise” than to receive compliments on his “own special style.” There should be a “sense of profound well-being, a natural high”; originality “should feel […] pure and simple.” He wants readers to “savor that same emotion when they read [his] books” that he experiences when he writes them. It goes without saying that he regularly achieves these high goals.
After the accidental novelist became comfortable with his own talent at narration, he had to decide: “So What Should I Write About?” He also had an important lesson to earn: “Making Time Your Ally.” Those last two essays in the first group of six highlight the nature of the “magic” of writing fiction and describe moving from process to finished product. What he takes from that “expansive mental chest of drawers” are details that he transforms through memory and imagination — through what he deems his “E.T. Method,” which he blends with his musical inspirations (rhythm, harmony, improvisation). He writes as if he is “playing an instrument,” finding “the most suitable chords and tones.” It’s like the movie’s eponymous extraterrestrial assembling a “transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of the garage.” Creativity inspires creation. Talent infuses ideas.
The remaining five essays endorse and enhance the observations expressed in the earlier six. There is the demand for stamina and strength in what is “A Completely Personal and Physical Occupation,” the need for a “space of individual recovery” when “Regarding Schools,” the question of “What Kind of Characters Should I Include?” while deciding “Who Do I Write For?”
Since writing is a lonely process that “takes place in a closed room,” sometimes at a kitchen table, in a “portable study” like a hotel room in Greece or Rome, or “on board ferry boats, in the waiting lobbies of airports, in shady spots in parks,” Murakami maintains his physical fitness with aerobic exercise like running and swimming. The activities provoke a “mental toughness” that propels his “inner motivation.” He cites Anthony Trollope’s “unromantic and exceedingly orderly” daily routine in the service of the British postal service and Kafka’s diligence in swimming a “mile in the Moldau River every day in the summer” as exemplary models for maintaining strength (both physical and spiritual) while coping with the “tiresome, lackadaisical, protracted battle” of living.
In a digressive diatribe against the Japanese educational system, he admits he “never liked school.” Instead, he reinforced his own “sense of purpose” and discovered his imagination through private reading — “its own kind of essential school,” in which he “traveled freely through time and space.” He comes to define a novelist as “a person who steadily fills his head with a world of his own.” In an essay on the process of discovering his characters, he details the “structural limitations” of the first-person point of view he favored in his early work before learning how to orchestrate third-person perspectives. As he moved from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95) to Kafka on the Shore (2002), he realized that he could “become anybody [he] want[ed] to be.”
That belief is aided by what he calls the “Automatic Dwarves” dwelling in his subconscious, “each in charge of operating a separate gear.” While the “novelist is creating a novel,” Murakami says, “he is simultaneously being created by the novel as well,” and he delights in learning about his characters and learning from them. There is always the excitement of “wondering what kind of people I’m going to meet next.”
Even though Murakami has “no clear mental image” of his readership, he always has an “imaginary reader” in mind, someone he hopes to please, someone he hopes will “feel something” when reading his books. He sees a “stout pipeline” of communication as being dependent on a “natural, spontaneous sense of trust.” In a recent interview, Murakami underscored the knotty relationship between writer and reader: an “outstanding” writer “has to have a definite sense of drive. A power to propel the reader onward.” His idea of an “ideal novelist” is a mashup of Gabriel García Márquez and Raymond Chandler.
The final essay, “Going Abroad: A New Frontier,” acknowledges how working with translators, combined with his exclusive contract with The New Yorker, helped him reinvent himself as a public novelist, to become part of the “literary industry.” Novelist as a Vocation is an indispensable contribution to understanding Murakami’s astounding mind and method. It shows what makes Murakami run — on the street and on the page.
Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews, criticism, and interviews appear regularly in The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, On the Seawall, and World Literature Today, as well as in newspapers, literary journals, and online. Recently, he was named a finalist for the 2022 Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing by Washington Monthly for his essay/review of Ronald Brownstein’s Rock Me on The Water: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics, which appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Haruki Murakami’s new collection of stories is an assortment of alluring, mysterious dreams....
For Randy Rosenthal, reading Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore” is like exploring underground caverns “enormous and deep and lovely.”...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.