Bootleg-mobiles, sutras retold by Wang Shuo, and bad habits in contemporary fiction

A grab-bag of issues in book publishing this month.


· Bootleggers go mobile

Beijing's Mirror evening paper discovered vendors selling pirated books out of a van loaded with hundred of volumes. Most of the titles were oversized compilations of net-lit or gaming fan-fiction that stretched to 700 pages - this kind of bootleg fiction in recent months has become fairly common to see sold on overpasses or from carts wheeled on sidewalks. There's even a stall in Panjiayuan's used book area that's piled high with cheaply-printed copies of "The Complete Execution of the Immortals" and Purple River (a fantasy epic that's up to its 20th full-length installment).

The Mirror reporter also noticed an omnibus edition of Yu Dan's explications of The Analects, Zhuangzi, and other classic texts. No doubt Yi Zhongtian's popular books were there in a single-volume edition as well.

· Wang Shuo retells scripture

More news about Wang Shuo's new book emerged this week. According to a report in The Beijing News on Thursday that quotes Wang's agent Lu Jinbo, the book won't be a novel; rather, it'll be a collection of five different short pieces, including a novelization of the previously-published screenplay to Dreams May Come.

The collection, to hit shelves in mid-March, will be called My Thousand-Year Chill (我的千岁寒). The title story is inspired by the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and, according to TBN's quotes from the foreword, is "written for high-level intellectuals." Wang also gives a "scientific" retelling of the Diamond Sutra in Beijing dialect and adapts a story from Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government that he intends for Xu Jinglei to film this year. Then there's "An Outline History of Materialism," a piece that came out of philosophy materials Wang gave to his daughter for college entrance exam preparation.

A nice short book at 130,000 characters, it sounds like it will be quite a change from Wang's earlier stuff.

· Changing the definition of modern lit

Has the upper limit for modern Chinese literature been pushed back 25 years?

That question was asked in a headline in The Beijing News earlier this month. Fan Boqun, a scholar known for his work on popular Chinese fiction in the early 20th century, has a new book out, the illustrated History of Modern Chinese Popular Literature (中国现代通俗文学史). Fan's text views the 1892 publication of Flowers of Shanghai as the point at which Chinese literature made its switch from classical to modern.

Conventional wisdom holds that the turning point came in 1917 with essays by Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu on the need for a literary revolution, followed by the publication of Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman" the next year. Fan is not the first one to challenge this timeline; academia has looked to the political novels of the late Qing and the fiction of the Republican period for sources of modernity in Chinese literature. And Fan's identification of Flowers of Shanghai as the father of modern novels was made clear in a journal article last summer, whose abstract states that

subject matter, character design, language use, artistic technique, and even distribution demonstrate that even without the assistance of foreign literary thought, Chinese literature would have travelled the road of modernity. The literature of our people had this potential within itself. As an outstanding example of popular fiction, Flowers of Shanghai opened up new modern fertile soil for Chinese literature a quarter century before the elite.

But at least in the popular mind, as the headline demonstrates, modern vernacular literature sprang into being at the May 4 Movement.

· Bad habits in contemporary fiction

Reviewing the month's literary magazines for The Beijing News, critic Hu Chuanji identifies three problems with contemporary fiction that divorce it from reality:

Novels today have a few widespread bad habits: glibness, cosmetics, and coquetry.

First, glibness. Many authors mistake glibness for humor. The difference between glibness and humor is that glibness is malicious and almost entirely unsympathetic; in some authors' novels, anecdotes from the street are sprinkled liberally and naturally throughout, but when you read their work, for a moment you'll think that you're hearing after-dinner gossip from some office filing secretary; there's an instantaneous physical reaction. Humor, though, has self-mockery as its most essential aspect. There is a clarity behind humor, and the reaction it causes accidental yet understanding laughter. In today's fiction, glibness abounds while humor is rare.

Next, cosmetics. Wafting off of these works is the scent of mildew, dank from confinement. I've previously mentioned "literary confinement of private life" [see below]; cosmetic works also to be of a type of self-confined writing that is limited within material fantasies. This type of author takes his or her material "avant garde" experience of confinement within private life and tirelessly depicts every corner of his or her own bedroom; he or she writes endlessly of the tastes of new and old lovers, he or she thinks continuously of an idle, material, extravagant life of stolen passion - these people have eyes for no one but themselves. These works are heavy with the stench of lethargy and the tomb. Using the viewpoint that critic Xie Youshun puts forth in his essay "Out of the mortal world, into the soul" (Huacheng, 2007.1), the author has not arrived at an appropriate understanding with reality, the author's contract with reality cannot go into effect. Simply put, cosmetic writing is half-exposed, looking neither to heaven nor to earth, neither false nor true.

And coquettish literature. Coquettish literature has a long history within Chinese writing; no recent novelty, the dehumanization and hollowing out of parents and lovers is truly a common sight. To be a bit harsh, whether starving or full, old or young, some writers simply whine no matter the person or situation. In their works, there are not even any "people." I personally believe that coquetry and foul language, out of consideration of justice and humanity, ought to belong to the realm of secrets told in the bedroom. Yet coquetry and foul language have clearly become part of the common public discourse in all manner of real and virtual environments; novels have not escaped harm.

However, it cannot be denied that these three bad habits are extremely true to contemporary popular life. But I ask, realities like clearance sales and voyeurism, realities that anyone possessed of a normal will can use his five senses to find out for himself - what need is there for authors to waste effort and ink to describe them over and over?

Hu goes on to mention Ge Fei's new novel The Land in a Dream (山河入梦), Can Xue's short story "Slums" (贫民窟) in Huacheng, and Sana's novella Golden Meadow (金色牧场) in Harvest as examples of contemporary fiction that have made good on their bargain with reality.

In the earlier essay Hu mentions, appearing in Southern Metropolis Daily last October, "literary confinement of private life" (私人生活的文学禁闭) is described as follows:

Confinement - this word is indeed overly severe, but I think that it can be used as an analogy for the creative circumstances of current literature: literature is confined within private life, and private life has confined literature; literature and private life rely on each other, they each feel secure. In this way, bondage and capriciousness are bound together "perfectly."

Literature confined within private life - one reason is spiritual atrophy, and another is complete material guidance. Not much needs to be said about spiritual atrophy, but what about the material guidance? At many occasions matter can be the enlightening instructor for the spirit, the personal trainer for cultivation, but if private life answers entirely to the call of things then literature will entirely taken over by private life. Gradually, literature will no longer hold any appeal for public discourse, and it will lack any attention to "public morality" (in the words of De Tocqueville); literature will become a way of life for one to look after his own, a stage for naked streaking and recitation, a tool that only bears on individual welfare. So I say that private life will ultimately confine literature; the indulgence of private life has enslaved literature today.

Hu goes on to criticise a number of pieces in last quarter's literary magazine for indulging too much of private life, and he lauds the "New Nativist" effort by Vogue Literature which, despite its impurity and contamination from the "main theme", can still be viewed as "a forceful opposition to the conversion of literature to private-life." He concludes:

Literature confined in private life reminds me of a line by Eileen Chang: "Life is like a magnificent gown, crawling with lice." Sometimes I have to ask why it is that so many literary works only read the magnificence and not the lice?! There are two meanings to confinement: it is the root of bondage, but also the source of indulgence.

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