Because Han Han is Too Damn Old

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

A week or so ago I attended the press conference for The Next (文学之新), a new literary competition designed to sniff out the newest in Chinese literary talent. Most of you may know this already, but Chinese writers are generally referred to by the decade of their birth. So-and-so is a 70s writer, or an 80s writer, etc. Whether there’s any real utility to this kind of classification I don’t know – I suppose it’s possible that China’s recent history has changed so dramatically, so swiftly, that any given ten-year cohort might actually have something in common.

The 80s writers were the last hit sensation, but the sad truth is that Father Time spares no one and they’re starting to show their age – graduating from college, developing taste in music, having sexual experiences, etc. The Next is the mutual brainchild of the Yangtze River Art and Literature Publishing House, Top Novel magazine, Penguin, and the Qidian literature website, and the goal is a return to the purity of the under-25 set. The competition is accepting submissions from now until the end of September, following which comes several rounds of elimination: from 36 contestants to be announced in December, to a grand champion by next July. Each month in between will see another, smaller group of contestants announced in that month’s issue of Top Novel.

This competition is interesting both for the muscle behind it – major foreign and domestic publishing houses, as well as two of China’s largest internet portals – and for the judging panel. Top Novel magazine is an element of the Guo Jingming franchise, and Guo Jingming is the major star power behind this project. Guo, of course, is a definitive 80s writer – possibly the most famous of them, certainly one of the richest, without a doubt the most glittery. He’s on the judging panel, but right there with him is one of China’s hoariest authorities, Wang Meng. Wang Meng is a government writer of the old school: genuinely talented, a smart guy, but also a past master of toeing the line. The rest of the panel includes Zhang Kangkang, Wang Haipeng and Hai Yan – they’re aiming for a mix of market appeal and literary cred.

The press conference was a standard affair – emphasis on the fairness and openness of the competition, and major stress on picking works that are ‘positive’ (积极的) and ‘sunny’ (阳光的). Take heed, ye adolescents! If life sucks and you hate everybody, keep it to yourself! I’ll save the odiousness of ‘sunny’ as a mind-control adjective for another day. My favorite quote came from Guo Jingming, describing his reaction to the submissions so far: “Now I know how my esteemed colleagues on this panel must have felt when they read my writing for the first time. I just don’t understand it.”


# 1.   

Oh, god save us. I suppose this means we can look forward to hit novels from the 90s generation like "The Time My Parents Bought Me A Playstation" and "I Like Shitty Music." Books will be bundled with soft drinks as part of marketing campaigns, and the authors will surpass their hoary old predecessors in the 80s generation by simultaneously being writers, fashion models, pop singers, race car drivers, actors, and television personalities. The first great controversy of the 90s generation will come when it turns out that "Want Want Want, Me Me Me" is copied entirely from advertising copy.

Brendan, July 12, 2008, 1:15a.m.

# 2.   

It's not just me, right? There's definitely something morbid and creepy about this (recent) fetishization of teenaged writers in China.

Seems like not so long ago, writers came out with their first novels in their early or mid-twenties. If you penned a decent first novel earlier than that, you were a wunderkind.

Like most writers, you hit your sophomore slump and then - if you really had the goods - you'd come roaring back in your thirties. Of course, you wouldn't reach your peak until you hit forty, or even fifty.

If you were extraordinarily inventive, you'd manage to adapt your style and subject matter, maintaining your prestige into your sixties or seventies. If not, you'd be accused of resting on your laurels, trotting out the same old claptrap for a new generation of wide-eyed readers.

Then - assuming you hadn't already departed this world by your own hand or because of some senseless disease that had snatched you away before your prime - you'd die. Someone would writea nice obituary and your books would be reissued before your corpse grew cold.

Writers who begin publishing at the age of 16 or 17 and are forced to maintain a pace of one new novel every year or two (and thus experience an entire career trajectory in the space of ten years) are simply destined for burnout.

Churn and burn.

Cindy Carter, July 12, 2008, 6:18a.m.

# 3.   

Given the collective oeuvre of the '80s writers, I say we skip the writing and go straight to the burnout.

Brendan, July 12, 2008, 6:24a.m.

# 4.   

Oh, for goodness' sake. It's just a competition. Who died and made you lot the big chief cynics?

Phil, July 12, 2008, 9:42p.m.

# 5.   

I don't have any objection to the competition - in fact, it seems a great way to identify new writing talent and give budding writers exposure to a larger audience.

But I don't think it's cynical to be concerned about teenage literary prodigies who experience burnout or fail to realize their full potential because they were pressured to publish too much, too fast, too early. That's what I meant by "churn and burn". My impression is that publishers have a huge financial interest in pushing young Chinese authors to become celebrities, rather than encouraging them to continue their educations or develop their careers at a more sensible pace.

I wasn't trying to be snarky (not that I ever have to try).

Cindy Carter, July 13, 2008, 3:15a.m.

# 6.   

And I was just being a snot for my own amusement, though I don't think I'm being too unfair.

Brendan, July 13, 2008, 4:38a.m.

# 7.   

Cindy - I'm afraid I'm pretty sceptical. Do poor teenage millionaire authors get pushed too hard (ooh, was that my lefty side coming out?)? Do authors suffer terrible pressures that those of us down t'pit can never know (see relevant Python sketch)? Here's the thing: I don't believe in "burn out". Not for Chinese teenagers, not for middle-aged Americans. Writing a book with a bit of promise, but then being shit - that's not burn out. That's normal.

Phil, July 13, 2008, 8:25a.m.

# 8.   

This is obviously a marketing exercise "Each month in between will see another, smaller group of contestants announced in that month's issue of Top Novel" to increase sells of Top Novel and fatten Guo Jingming's wallet, and has very little to do with finding new talent and the "major stress on picking works that are ‘positive’ (积极的) and ‘sunny’ (阳光的)" only goes to show that they don't want serious writers to apply anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if it was won by some rich and/or powerful person's 3rd cousin anyway.

Its a shame that foreign publishing houses are legitimizing this, plus the fact that they should know by now that what sells well in the west is work that is critical of China, not "positive and sunny" depictions of it.

Fred, July 13, 2008, 10:18a.m.

# 9.   

Please give us more info on good, younger writers! I always feel that although the publishing industry has grown so much in China, when you look for quality you still end up with the older guys like Yan Lianke, Mo Yan and so on. I really, really want to read younger writers who don't write trash, but it's difficult to find them in the flood of books on the market.

Anna GC, August 3, 2008, 11:44p.m.


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