The Excessive Focus on the “Great Chinese Novel”

This is seriously big and seriously American. (image)

This is seriously big and seriously American. (image)

If you’re denouncing the Great Chinese Novel, and if your name is Eric Abrahamsen, then you’re having a great week. Eric, who’s the Chinese lit genius and translator behind our May title Running through Beijing, has been tearing up the Internet with his distaste for gigantic novels that try to sum up the state of China.

Not that they’re necessarily a bad thing. We can all get behind a brick of paper (and for the record, I do love J R), but on Monday Eric was interviewed alongside translator Canaan Morse at the Wall Street Journal about Chinese literature, and when the subject of the GCN came up, he pointed out that since Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize, there’s been a serious case of elephantiasis among Chinese publishers:

Abrahamsen: One of the ironies about Mo Yan is that his style of writing is a kind of Chinese literature that international publishers are getting tired of and are deciding not to continue publishing—the very long, epic novels about China’s rural problems and recent history. There’s a real fatigue among publishers and among readers.

WSJ: How about translators?

Abrahamsen: The most fatigued of all. There’s a disease of the ‘great China novel’ that’s attacking Chinese writers. They feel they have to produce these enormous things that explain all of Chinese society and are filled with philosophy and ideas and thoughts. And they tend to believe that’s more important than story or character.

WSJ: Is there an editorial process that helps curb that?

Abrahamsen: That’s actually conspicuously lacking. Everyone feels good about a 300-page novel. The writer feels like they’ve done something, the publisher feels they’ve spent money on paper to good effect, and readers feel like they’ve got their money’s worth because it weighs a lot.

We here at Two Lines Press find these comments highly interesting because this is an exact thing that Eric has previously expressed to us. And, in fact, one thing that made us all fall in love with  Running through Beijing is that it’s resolutely not a GCN, at least not in the respect of a gigantic tract filled with philosophy and ideas. It’s short, sleek, and very character-driven, all things that flagged it to Eric and us as different from a lot of Chinese literature that gets translated, and thus most worthy of our attention.

And it looks like we’re not the only ones feeling this fatigue. Over at the Melville House Press blog, Dustin Kurtz expresses extreme impatience with Great ____ Novels, be they Chinese, American, or what-have-you.

On the Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time blog [ . . . ] Laura Fitch interviewed Eric Abrahamsen and Canaan Morse of the excellent new Chinese lit mag Pathlight. She spoke to them about the state of the nation’s book industry, with the understanding that much has changed since Mo wore a shirt printed with his own name for a meeting with Swedish royalty. The most dramatic changes pointed out by Abrahamsen and Morse, however, are a precise litany of the ills embodied by the Great American Novel school of publishing. . . .

Even if China is new to the trend, a central trope in English language publishing has always been that we reward girth and self seriousness with prizes or sales or cash, and then slap a bird on the front. Look at Donna Tartt‘s bestselling The Goldfich, or Garth Risk Hallberg‘s lucrative contract and movie option sale. That latter book doesn’t even have a jacket yet, but I’m assuming it’ll have six birds, one wearing Franzen glasses just to drive the point home. For these books value is undeniably pinned—at least in the estimation of the readership, and thus in the anticipated sales figures of publishers—to their literary elephantiasis.

I guess this means we’re doubly (or triply) going against the trends of mainstream literature: we’re publishing foreign authors, we’re doing slim books, and we’re not even putting Franzen iconography on the covers (Running through Beijing is fronted by an artful scattering of Chinese cigarette butts).

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