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.)