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 real estate novels were 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 think much about real estate novelists 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?
In the age of the internet, I’ve realized and confirmed that no one else knows for certain what a real estate novelist is either. 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 assume 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.
So, Billy, what’s a real estate novelist?
Let’s consider each possibility. What does it mean for Paul to be a real estate novelist?
- He writes novels set in the world of real estate
- He writes long texts for his career in real estate
- He is wishes he wrote novels, but instead spends time in real estate and at the bar
While the third explanation is the one Wikipedia and its source, the 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.
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.