Hey Billy. What’s a real estate novelist?
I don’t remember the first time I heard Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” I don’t know if anyone my age does. I do recall one time I heard it on the school bus in seventh grade and paying attention to the lyrics for the first time—I believe that’s the first time I ever asked “what is a real estate novelist?”
I assumed there was something I didn’t know at the time. That a real estate novel was a genre of fiction, something in the realm of John Grisham’s law thrillers, but with real estate agents instead of lawyers. (And yes, I was aware of John Grisham as a seventh grader, having read and enjoyed The Firm at the age of eleven, I think. Still haven’t read Grisham since but I liked it at the time.)
I didn’t wonder what a real estate novelist is for a long time after seventh grade. I assumed Billy Joel knew more about real estate novelists than I did.
Later, it nagged at me. I asked myself questions.
- What is a real estate novelist?
- Does it have something to do with real estate novels?
- Does everyone in the world of real estate know about real estate novels and real estate novelists?
- Am I the only person who doesn’t read real estate novels?
In the age of the internet, I’ve confirmed that no one else knows for certain what a real estate novelist. There’s more than one reddit thread on it, various Quora threads, and a New York Post article where Billy Joel biographer Hank Bordowitz claims “[Another guy,] Paul, was a real estate broker, but he wanted to be a novelist”—something Bordowitz claims but that doesn’t seem to have much verification behind it. The Wikipedia article on “Piano Man” claims the same, citing the New York Post article.
Oh, and there’s some random investment blog owning the top search result in Google, agreeing with the Wikipedia and New York Post take.
I don’t know if any of these explanations satisfy me. I think another possibility is that Billy Joel is confused about what novels are.
It Bugs Me When People Refer to Any Long Text as a Novel
There’s a tendency among adults to say “it’s a novel” or “I couldn’t get through that novel” and other variants when dealing with a lot of words or text. This is a pet peeve of mine. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.
Here’s a screenshot from Urban Dictionary of this trend:
I don’t know what I wish people said instead, but I can’t help but think there’s some kind of correlation between people who refer to a lot of words as being a novel and people who don’t read novels.
So what am I suggesting?
I think it’s possible that Billy Joel mistakes someone who has to write lots of words in long documents as someone who is a “novelist”.
What’s the argument for Billy Joel knowing what a novel is?
The best argument I can find to suggest why Billy Joel might be aware of novels is that he names several of them and their authors in his song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Of course, the nature of that song is that the only thing Billy Joel does is recite a list of pop culture milestones and proper nouns.
Specifically, he lists:
- The Catcher in the Rye, the novel by J. D. Salinger
- Kerouac, author of several novels
- Psycho, a film based on a novel (It’s generally assumed Joel means the film, not the novel, based on where the word psycho falls in the chronology of the song)
- Hemingway, another author of several novels (again, based on the chronology of where Hemingway falls in the song, it’s likely his death being referenced)
- Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel by Robert Heinlein
While Joel is undoubtedly aware of The Catcher and the Rye and Stranger in a Strange Land, there are no lyrics in the song that indicate he knows the word to describe those books are novels, or that Psycho is based on a special kind of book called a novel, or that Kerouac and Hemingway wrote novels during their lifetimes.
It’s possible that he thinks both The Catcher and the Rye and Stranger in a Strange Land are books—maybe even fiction books—and that, because each of them are longish chunks of words, they could also be considered novels.
In short, Joel might think all longish chunks of words are novels, but not all novels are books.
Okay, Billy. We have to ask…
what is a real estate novelist?
There are three possible explanations:
- Paul writes novels set in the world of real estate
- Paul writes long texts for his career in real estate (and Billy Joel is confused about what novels are)
- Paul wishes he wrote novels, but instead works in real estate and spends time at the bar
While the third explanation is the one Wikipedia and its source, the ever-dubious New York Post, opt for, I think there’s a reason within the song to entertain one of the first two.
…Who never had time for a wife
Here’s why I’m convinced the popular wisdom that Paul was a failed novelist is not accurate. There is nothing in the song to suggest Paul has any dissatisfaction with being a “real estate novelist”, or that “real estate” and “novelist” are not meant to be one and the same career.
The only thing we know is that Paul “never had time for a wife.”
And we don’t even know that Paul is dissatisfied with his lack of a wife. He didn’t have time for one.
As has been pointed out on the internet a few times, Billy Joel is likely obliviously playing piano in a gay bar without realizing that’s where he is.
So to go back to the original question: no, I don’t think Billy Joel knows what a novel is… AND he doesn’t know he’s in a gay bar. Piano Man is an exercise in a lack of awareness.
Good song, though.
Note: I have used a machine to write a counterpoint to this article, which you can find here: What Is a Real Estate Novelist? Exploring the Secret World of Real Estate Writing.
Of course Billy Joel knows what a novel is. Every character in the song is a regular Joe who is in someone or another a little stuck, or a little regretful, or unrealized. The real estate agents and (unknown) novelists have in common that they talk up their careers, especially when they flirt. Paul and Davy are flirting, and “Real Estate Novelist” is a manifestation of Paul’s hollow grandiosity. (Like the “politician” waitress and the “movie star” bar tender.) Those 4 characters and the first guy who has forgotten the “sad, sweet” melody he asked the piano man to sing are regulars at the bar, as is the piano man. The piano man also has ambitions beyond playing in a bar where the piano isn’t well tunes “sounds like a carnival”, the microphone stinks like beer, but the customers like him, and tell him that he’s better than this place “what are you doing here”. They all are a bit down, a bit regretful, need cheering, and it from the song.
Sure, but wouldn’t it be funny if Billy Joel didn’t know what a novel is?
I remember when this song came out, I was between 16-19. I never once felt that the bar was a “ gay bar” nor that a piano man as billy had portrayed himself was in any way unaware of his true surroundings. On the contrary, he seemed/seems to be somewhat jaded. Surely he was aware of his surroundings, in most of his endeavors. “Paul and Davy” were most probably gay but everyone else in the bar cut a wide swath through various types in our society. Finally, I see no reasoning at all in thinking Billy Joel was unaware of what makes or doesn’t make a novel. After all, though most of us , until recently knew not what a Real Estate Novelist was, at the time, that is proof of Our ignorance not B. J.’s.