Exposure Anxiety

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

The following article ran in Southern Weekend in late August, examining The New York Times Book Review's edition dedicated to reviews of Chinese literature. In the interest of multicultural understanding, we hereby present this translation of an analysis of a review of a translation of some novels.

Does everyone remember the domestic media reports in early May, saying that The New York Times Book Review had praised Guo Jingming as China's 'most successful' writer? Plenty of people had their feelings hurt and, hopping mad, cursed the American devils for wearing colored glasses and slandering Chinese literature.

Later, the story got pushed beneath the fold by the Wenchuan earthquake. Now, with the most difficult period of earthquake recovery behind us, it's time to re-examine this particular case. Why don't we take a look at what's really going on here.

The New York Times said that Guo Jingming was "the most successful" writer in China. The word "successful" is often translated as "成功的 [chénggōngde]", but actually the Chinese word "成功的" is not an exact match for the English. The first definition for this word in the Oxford English Dictionary is: "1. Of persons: That succeeds or achieves success, esp. (in recent use), that attains to wealth or position, that 'gets on'." You can see that this word, in its modern usage, specifically means a person with a lot of money or high status.

Let's take a look at an example of modern usage. Drew Faust, president of Harvard, spoke before this year's graduating class on June 3rd. A large part of her speech was an answer to a question that many Harvard students were asking: why do so many of our graduates end up on Wall Street, or elsewhere in the financial sector? In her speech she said the following: "I think you are worried because you want your lives not just to be conventionally successful, but to be meaningful…" Dr. Faust placed the words "successful" (成功的) and "meaningful" (有意义的) in opposition to each other, and added the word "conventionally" before "successful" to emphasize that this was "success" in the common sense, here meaning to make a lot of money on Wall Street – actually closer in meaning to the Chinese word "affluence (富贵 fùgùi)".

The New York Times was only saying that Guo Jingming had earned a lot of money. So when it comes to literature, what would be a better approximation of the term "successful"?

The May 4th book review section can be considered a special "Chinese literature" edition. It led with four reviews of Chinese books in English translation. Wang Anyi's Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) came first, followed by Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing me Out (生死疲劳), Yan Lianke's Serve the People (为人民服务) and Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem (狼图腾). The last page carries an essay about Guo Jingming, which is not a book review so much as a gossip column. The review of Song of Everlasting Sorrow refers to Wang Anyi as a "critically acclaimed" writer – 专业评价极高. These are words of true praise for an author.

How much weight "critical acclaim" carries depends on who's talking – the reviewer of Song of Everlasting Sorrow is Francine Prose, an American female novelist and chairperson of American PEN, and the only one of the four reviewers who is a novelist herself. Prose seems to have a special interested in China; earlier she wrote an article praising Ha Jin's Waiting in The New York Times. Later, Waiting won the National Book Award; another writer who was also nominated said Ha Jin was the only nominee to whom she'd willingly yield the prize.

When Chinese critics discuss Song of Everlasting Sorrow, they often bring up one major point of dissatisfaction: how did Wang Qiyao, the female protagonist, make it through the difficult years of the Cultural Revolution? Why is the description of those years so perfunctory? But Prose's knowledge of China is limited; as far as she's concerned, skipping past those years may constitute the author's freedom of speech. So how does she view Song of Everlasting Sorrow?

Prose sees that Wang Qiyao is a woman who may be very beautiful, but who is quite shallow in all other respects. The volcanic political upheavals of the age only penetrate her consciousness as rumors and hearsay. "The people of Shanghai hewed to the little things of life, which left them stranded on the margins when it came to politics." The "little things", for women, have to do with fashion: "in the slight curls at the tips of otherwise straight hair, in shirt collars peeping out from underneath blue uniforms, and in the way scarves were tied with fancy shoestring bows. It was remarkably subtle, and the care people put into these details was moving." Living for the little things is an unchanging characteristic of the Shanghainese, but actually "Wang Qiyao failed to understand that it is precisely this myriad of unchanging little worlds that serves as a counterfoil to the tumultuous changes taking place in the outside world." The standard translation of "被衬托者" is "serve as a foil to". The translator changed "反衬物" ("foil") to "支票、发票的存根" ("counterfoil", the stub left over when a receipt is torn off), so that the literal meaning of the translated text is that the revolutionary transformations outside the window have left their 'stubs' in the heroine's fancy shoestring bows. This is a remarkable subtlety.

The revolution was unable to transform human beings, and it doesn't hurt to skip over a few years of failed revolution. In the end it is the forces of production unleashed by reform and opening up that transforms Shanghai and the Shanghainese according to historical materialism, transforms relations between men and women, between women and women.

If it could be said that the characters of Song of Everlasting Sorrow negate revolution through their inaction, then the fiction of Mo Yan, Yan Lianke and Jiang Rong negate revolution through hyper-action. Prose's gaze may be turned away from politics, but all the other reviewers see a political landscape. Mo Yan's reviewer is also very famous: Jonathan Spence, Chinese historian at Yale University. But he's not a writer; it's politics he's interested in. And so much of politics is taboo to literature. Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, in particular, was described as a lengthy propaganda booklet, but it's literary status is highly doubtful ("literary claims"; the original text says that the novel's claims on any estate of the literary realm are all highly doubtful). To someone accustomed to western literature, at least, the way Wolf Totem's main characters go about spouting wisdom shows a lack of characterization and complex emotion, and the arrangement of the plot seems clumsy, too.

Wolf Totem received poor reviews not only in The New York Times – later the Washington Post also ran a review (June 11th) written by an author who lives in the northern United States and knows wolves well. This review was negative as well, calling it a five-hundred-page-long metaphor.

Of the four novels reviewed by The New York Times, two were translated by Howard Goldblatt (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out and Wolf Totem). Goldblatt is known as the "chief translator" of Chinese literature into English. He once told a Southern Weekend reporter (ed: see our March 27th edition for details): "If you want to know how well known Chinese literature is in the United States, you just need to look at how many works of Chinese literature have been published in The New Yorker – none so far. …In the American literary scene, The New Yorker sells books, and The New York Times is good for nothing." The New Yorker reviews two or three books a week, naturally they are more selective than The New York Times, which review twenty or thirty a week. But still, writers are clamoring to get into The New York Times – its reviews must do something for sales.

This writer conducted a simple survey at the end of May, to see how these four novels were selling in bookstores. If it was too early the reviews would not yet have taken effect; too late, and that effect would have disappeared. After waiting three weeks, I judged that the time was right. What I found was that although Song of Everlasting Sorrow was distributed first, arriving in bookstores January 30, a month and a half before Mo Yan and Jiang Rong's books, it was ranked near Mo Yan's book, and far above Jiang Rong's. It looks like a positive review in The New York Times has an effect after all, particularly when reviewed by someone like Prose, herself a famous writer with a large fan base.

The New York Times probably arranged for a special Chinese literature edition of the Book Review to cater to the interest in China that has accompanied the Olympics. These reviews weren't aimed at Chinese readers, of course, but Chinese readers are less interested in the kind of serious literature featured in the Review than they are in non-literary gossip – this is likely to depress even Howard Goldblatt, who himself places no great store in The New York Times. Mr. Goldblatt hopes to see mainland Chinese authors in the pages of The New Yorker, but given the kind of domestic readership those authors are writing for, he may yet have a while to wait.


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