“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Dangdai Magazine Best Novels of 2010 Awards

By Canaan Morse, published

Paper Republic Associate Wang Danhua's write-up of Dangdai magazine's Best Novels of 2010 Award election ceremony, translated and with commentary by Canaan Morse. Read on to find out who won!

“Transparent voting, zero prize money” was the slogan for this year’s Dangdai Best Novels of 2010 contest. Held as a lunch in the banquet hall of the Huaqiao Tower (near Dongsi), the attending audience was composed primarily of literary critics, editors, publishers and reporters. Several well-known names, such as Bai Hua, Chen Xiaoming and Zhang Yiwu were all present. Canaan and I were invited as representatives of Paper Republic and also participated in the voting. (Canaan adds: …and the eating, too)

Once everyone was seated, the sponsors passed out full-page ballots that included a list of notable works of long fiction published in the past year and asked each voter to select five finalists. The list itself was far from complete, and voters were encouraged to add their own write-in candidates. As neither Canaan nor I had read many of the listed titles and didn’t want to vote outside our experience, our choices were fairly limited.

During the voting, participants were invited onto the main stage to name and justify their choices. The young critic from Peking U., Yan Shaojun, recommended Ning Ken’s Heaven - Tibet (宁肯《天-藏》), even going so far as to name it as one of the best works of Chinese literature in the past 100 years. Chi Zijian’s Snow and Raven (迟子建《白雪乌鸦》), Zhang Wei’s On the Plateau (张炜《你在高原》), Li Shijiang’s Chinese Department (李师江《中文系》) and Han Han’s 1988: I Want to Have a Talk With This World (韩寒《1988:我想和这个世界谈谈》) earned a significant number of votes. Canaan and I recommended Heaven-Tibet, 1988 as well as Pan Xiangli’s Green Chiretta (潘向黎《穿心莲》). While Green Chiretta can be considered popular literature, it is written with remarkable elegance and insight, endowing it with literary merit as well as readability. (Canaan: I picked Han Han’s 1988 not only because I was more familiar with it than any of the other books listed, but because the selections of it I had read displayed an attention to literary structure and emotional detail that I find rare among authors, particularly in contemporary Chinese lit.)

One interesting twist during the first round was the inclusion of Wang Wanping’s Golden Wedding Whirlwind (王宛平《金婚风雨情》), a novel adapted from the popular TV series of the same name. Doubts were cast on the eligibility of this selection given the conditions of the contest, but all were surprised to discover that the book was recommended twice. Perhaps we should allow that being an adaptation does not damn a book’s quality a priori.
(Canaan: Yet considering the quality of most Chinese TV series, it’s not high praise, either.)

After elimination, Snow and Raven, Chinese Department, Heaven – Tibet and On the Plateau remained. This round was an open vote. The big names were invited up first, and on stage they performed almost to a man a rather alarming about-face by voting for Zhang Wei’s On The Plateau. Several explained that while Chinese Department was a better piece of literature, they still thought On the Plateau to be more worthy of the prize. I thought to myself, is this a championing of bare effort over success? Which entry in the ten-volume On the Plateau series did you or did anyone else ever read all the way to the end? This is not so much a book as it is a piece of engineering (Canaan: specifically, a doorstop). Again, it was Shao Yanjun who went to the heart of the matter, pointing out that, of the two Zhangs (Zhang Chengzhi and Zhang Wei), Chengzhi was more of a philosopher, while Zhang Wei dealt more with emotions; yet in that arena, Ning Ken’s Heaven –Tibet was a more significant contributor.

Dangdai editor Yang Xinlan was a strong supporter of Li Shijiang’s Chinese Department, recommending it for its honest expression of the emotions of the young as well as its firm grasp of reality.

In the end, Snow and Raven won by a slim margin, with Li Shijiang, Ning Ken and Zhang Wei filling out the ranks.

Though the contest was billed as “transparent,” there still remained plenty of ambiguity to mask the principle. Those living on the inside were aware of what they were supposed to say and what they ought to hide.

(Canaan: I myself was surprised to hear these well-known critics say, with smiles on their faces, “While I think Chinese Department is a better book, I think the prize should go to On the Plateau.” What Danhua avoids suggesting--but I think is probably true--is that it was likely a done deal between the critics and the publishers, who surely have some good friends between them, what the latter should say when the time came. Yet we notice that in the end, guanxi didn’t carry the day, and I believe that is something.

Though I am not yet a competent enough judge, the overall impression I received from the event was that 2010 was not a year for literary enlightenment. No real eye-openers here. We’ll see what happens in '11.)

Comments

# 1.   

Hi Guys,

OK so which novel, or novels, published in 2010 would you say were worth reading? Any favourites? I've never heard of any of the above authors. Did any of the big names, like say Jia pingwa, Yan lianke, Li er, publish anythihng last year?

Also, were there any underground novels that everyone talked about?

Cheers

Alan

Alan, January 20, 2011, 6a.m.

# 2.   

Either you guys are all super busy translating or no one reads this blog because comments are almost never replied to...it sort of takes the fun out of it all

Alan, January 21, 2011, 9:04a.m.

# 3.   

Dangdai's annual prize tends to nominate all of the big names (Zhang Wei and Chi Zijian this year) as well as anything that everyone was talking about (see 2008 and 2009 for comparison). At least in the realm of highbrow lit -- as this post implies, there's some debate over the worthiness of popular titles.

As for the other heavy-hitters, Jia Pingwa's latest just came out this month.

Han Han's 1988 is the best he's written, as far as I'm concerned. Much tighter and far more nuanced that his other recent novels.

 jdmartinsen, January 21, 2011, 10:05a.m.

# 4.   

Alan,

I'm afraid to say that you've caught us at a moment when we are, in fact, super busy, and not just with translating work. While I didn't have the time to take in all of the major novels published in 2010, I can tell you that there were no "underground" novels flying under the radar at this particular contest, nor were there any entries by the authors with which you're familiar. Jia Pingwa's new novel 古炉 has only just come out, while Li Er has not released anything in at least a year and a half. Mo Yan was supposed to be at the meeting, but ditched at the last moment. Can Xue's novel 边境 was published in '10 as well, but not having read it, I don't dare make assumptions regarding its quality. Chi Zijian is quite well-known herself, and I expect you've heard of Han Han before.

 Canaan Morse, January 21, 2011, 11:58a.m.

# 5.   

Yan Lianke's self-published 《四书》is worth noting, although I'm not sure if it counts for 2010 or 2011. The editing was completed in July and August of 2010, the author postscript is dated Oct. 16, 2010, and I just got my copy a few days ago. Hot off the presses. We'll definitely be writing more about this one...

 Cindy Carter, January 29, 2011, 11:20p.m.

# 6.   

On "Plateau," I don't think the turnabout was necessarily insincere. It's just that Zhang Wei is a fairly prolific author whose early work was respected and influential in the 80s and 90s, but he has never received much recognition. When Plateau came out it was perceived by many to be a major literary event just by virtue of it's length. On the other hand, inevitably to some degree there will be an unspoken sense of what one is supposed to say, call it self-censorship, or sense of community responsibility/unity . . . the result is always going to be transparency with Chinese characteristics.

I'm curious why Canaan thinks most TV programs are of poor quality? It seems to me that TV drama and comedy writing in the past several years has been a more reliable place to find creativity and intelligence than the major literary magazines. Many of the writers in television were literary authors (poets notably numerous among them) who were fed up with the literary scene as such.

Charles Laughlin, January 31, 2011, 10:01a.m.

# 7.   

More awards: The fourth Lao She Prize was announced recently. The nominees were drawn from works by Beijing writers published between 2004.11 and 2010.10. The three winners in the novel category were all published by the October Literature and Arts Press.

Novels:

  • August Rhapsody 八月狂想曲 by Xu Kun (徐坤). Published ahead of the Olympics, this gently satiric novel depicts a secondary host city's efforts to prepare for the games. The elements are largely drawn from the Beijing experience -- urban relocation, corrupt bids, a clash between an austere vision of the city and a livable urban environment, feuds over outlandish stadium designs, and bureaucratic wrangling. I found Xu's customary quick wit, irreverence, and colloquial storytelling to be a bit constrained by the demands of the wholesome mainstream storyline, but as novels of urban redevelopment go, it's far far better than that old Mao Dun winner Metropolis 都市风流;
  • Ning Ken's Tibet/Heaven;
  • Consummate Highland 如意高地 by Ma Lihua (马丽华), who has long been involved in Chinese-language literature of Tibet. Never heard of this one.

 jdmartinsen, January 31, 2011, 10:53p.m.

# 8.   

Charles,

I base the opinion that most Chinese TV series are poorly done on my own limited experience watching, translating and dubbing said programs. I find them, on the whole, to be horrifically sentimental and/or "nationalist" to the point of outright discrimination. Take off every series that demonizes either the Japanese or the Americans and you'd have a nearly empty set. By contrast, the two most markedly original fictional TV series of these years, "Fen Dou" and "Wo Ju," have run into problems because they hit too many important people too close to home. That being said, I can't remember the last time I watched television on a consistent basis. Are there any series you would particularly recommend?

 Canaan Morse, February 4, 2011, 10:08a.m.

# 9.   

"Run into problems" doesn't mean they are not widely watched and influential. On recommendations for TV dramas, there's a question on Quora for this with some very good answers: http://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-the-best-Chinese-TV-dramas?q=chinese+tv+

Charles Laughlin, February 5, 2011, 9:24a.m.

# 10.   

Regarding Charles' comments on the quality of mainland Chinese television shows: I agree that there are many talented writers working in television today, but TV is also the most censored medium in China - far more so than literature or film - which places limits on what these talented writers can do. I have a number of friends working in Chinese television, and not a single one went into the field for more artistic or creative freedom. For good writers, the attractions of television are simple: higher salaries, better production budgets and larger audiences.

 Cindy Carter, February 21, 2011, 1:37a.m.

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