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absalom's avatar

Why is Haruki Murakami so popular?

Asked by absalom (7552points) September 23rd, 2010

The question should probably be: “Am I misunderstanding Haruki Murakami’s popularity?”

I’m working through various Japanese texts for my thesis and have come across the inevitable Haruki Murakami, whom I’ve been avoiding for the past four years because of severely negative responses from professors and (almost annoyingly) positive reactions from (I hate to say it) quote unquote ‘non-literary’ or ‘lay’ readers of popular fiction.

Currently making my way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, shrugging at the better parts and crying on the inside at the truly bad parts (which are mostly dialogue), and have read some short stories and couldn’t finish What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I still don’t see why he’s adored.

He seems to have a formula or template for his characters, so that whatever he had to say when he started writing about middle-aged sexually anxious men trapped in a mundane life and then dragged into calculatedly quirky circumstances – if he was saying anything to begin with – has by now been obliterated by convention. The dialogue seems banal, or ‘tinny,’ as though he lifted pieces of it from uninspired network television shows. People seem to think he does this on purpose, but as far as I can tell it serves no purpose; if it’s not accidental, it still doesn’t accomplish anything.

The question, then: why is Haruki Murakami so popular?

Understand that I’m not being ironic or snarky or elitist or anything; I think I just don’t get it. Hoping especially to hear from @Jeruba because I know her profile has awarded Norwegian Wood a respectable B+, although that reminds me that Murakami’s convention of naming his novels after (Western) songs always seemed kind of silly to me.

Thanks in advance.

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10 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think the question ‘why is ___ popular?’ has very little to do with ‘is ___ good according to ___ standards?’ The Twilight series is popular but I wouldn’t call ‘em books, you know? I’ve read Murakami’s stuff – I wasn’t inspired or greatly turned off so I feel neutral about him. I think that some people like his off-handedness in some cases.

judochop's avatar

Um…The Wind Up Bird Chronicle rocked the casbah yo. That book is the shit.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

I’ve only read The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Underground by Murakami. Wonderland was alright; the concept was interesting, but the writing wasn’t fantastic. A lot of it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Underground (the book about the Tokyo subway attack), however, was very good; the stories were compelling as was Murakami’s writing.

As for his popularity, I’m not sure why he’s been chosen out of so many Japanese novelists. Perhaps it’s because his novels are so hard to understand. Personally, I find Takashi the cooler Murakami.

nikipedia's avatar

I liked What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I liked it because as a runner I identified with what he said about running, and I guess because there was something very fluid and easy about the way he uses language. He writes like he is comfortable and relaxed and when I read it I could fall into that easy rhythm and just coast along with him. And he had some good insights about running: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. I still pull that one out sometimes on a tough run.

absalom's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir: You make a great point, of course. Among people with literary pretensions, though, Twlight is almost universally regarded as bad fiction. Murakami on the other hand has this polarizing effect so that people either love or hate him. I think you’re one of the few I’ve seen who’s totally neutral, which is refreshing.

@judochop: But why? I mean specifically. Two quiet people also gave you GAs, so I’m asking them as well. What makes WBC so good? What makes Murakami good, in your opinion, as a fan? That’s what I’m trying to figure out w/ this question.

@ParaParaYukiko: I meant to check out Underground because I think Murakami makes a good essayist/ general non-fiction author. It’s his fiction I’m having trouble reconciling his popularity with. You’re right that it’s like intentionally nonsensical, but I’m wondering why people are so drawn to that, and if there is actually anything substantial to understand beneath the surrealism, which seems shallowly evoked to me. And re Takashi Murakami: I’m glad you mentioned him. Superflat stuff has fascinated me for a while now and I think he’s a great artist. In a way he’s a lot like Haruki because he’s kind of synthesizing ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. But I think Takashi pulls it off better.

@nikipedia: You’re definitely right about his fluid prose w/r/t to Running. It was satisfying to read, although in the end I probably dropped it because of my disinterest in running. #_# Still, sometimes his non-fiction seems better than his stories. I love that he can present himself as very sincere and trustworthy in his writing, which these days is pretty rare because so many people are ironic or cynical. It would be great if he wrote more non-fiction, or if people recognized him for that. But of course his fame has been built around the stories….

Thanks @all for your great answers.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@absalom I very rarely hate something (Twilight non-withstanding) – there is Frost and that guy who wrote the Tropics books (Tropic of Cancer, etc.).

absalom's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir: Haha, Henry Miller; classic sexism.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@absalom Pushed through as ‘innovative’ and ‘disjointed’ and ‘empowering’

judochop's avatar

@absalom it was a great story. I was able to put myself in to it in a few parts. I don’t look for things to be magical. I either like them or I don’t. No sense in over complicating it.
I dislike the Beatles but I love the Stones?? Go figure.

Jeruba's avatar

I’ve had to think about this question for a while before answering it. First I would have to say that I can only speak to my impression from reading the books in English. If you, @absalom, are reading them in the author’s language and are also steeped in Japanese culture, you are able to respond to them on a level that I can’t reach.

I am currently reading my fourth of his novels, Kafka on the Shore. It has been sitting in the Amazon box it came in for about six months, until I ran out of other things.


1. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – I don’t remember how I came across this, but I knew nothing at all about the book or the author before I read it. It might have popped up as an Amazon suggestion. I enjoyed the imaginative quality, always an immensely important element for me, and the semimystical weirdness, which reminded me of Mark Helprin’s wonderful A Winter’s Tale and the way reality and hallucination seemed to spill over into each other. This was an interesting enough experience that I went on to

2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – There was some striking imagery in this one, and always a sense of an intent toward Significance that persistently eluded me. I found parts of it downright annoying. Nevertheless I forged ahead and read

3. Norwegian Wood – Here I was dogged by the sense that I was reading over the shoulders of Japanese adolescent males as they grappled with identity, East/West culture, the onset of adulthood, and an aching yearning for coolness to which I was a not altogether willing spectator. Besides, I didn’t like any of the characters. This unsatisfying experience coupled with wonder at the way this book has been touted led me to feel that I’d had enough of Murakami to last me for a while.

Afterward, as I said here, the novels seemed to me a bit like my wilder dreams: I know I’ve been through some sort of extraordinary experience, but I can’t remember much about it. There is a literary quality to them, but there is also something that feels too self-consciously contrived to stand solidly on its own. Perhaps one day I will look to see what critical opinion makes of them.

I read for an hour every night. When my stock of fresh material gets low I have been known to read entire themed dictionaries and small encyclopedias. I’d already purchased Kafka on the Shore, and when I’d exhausted my current supply of fiction, there it was.

At the midpoint I’d have to say I’m enjoying it. The imaginative quality is there, the mystery, the sense of overlapping realities and of dark dreams flowing into daylight, giving it unnatural colors and creating shadows that we glimpse sidelong and can’t account for. I like to watch the writer at work at his craft while simultaneously surrendering to the spell, and I find that I can do both in this book. I will probably give it a good mark, assuming that it delivers on its promises.

But In the end, @absalom, I am unable to answer your question. I have never felt that my taste in reading was an index of majority opinion. Perhaps the winning formula is in those peculiar titles and the catchy cover designs. Perhaps others are seeing something I’m missing. Perhaps Murakami is simply popular for being popular.

At the risk of being booed out of fluther, I did think while reading them that because of their popularity they might be attracting readers who don’t read much else—like the Harry Potter books, which, for all their undeniably appealing characteristics, are greatly overrated as literature.

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