September 9, 2013

Don’t cry for China’s literary culture


There’s a familiar narrative you may occasionally encounter if you spend much time in translated literature circles, and that is: as countries or regions become richer or more free (sometimes both, sometimes just one), the quality of the art gets suckier and the citizens of the country pay less attention to it.

It is the only time that you start to hear this disturbing refrain, a certain wistfulness for the time when there was an urgency to art and literature—what it said or didn’t say, who had access to it and how they got it, what the stakes were for all concerned. Though in fact, that urgency— which was certainly there– was the result of repressive policies, intolerance at every level, and often, the wholesale wrecking of lives.

Helen Gao’s recent article for the Atlantic on the state of reading in China is an example of the “A” form of this narrative: as China gets richer, its citizens read less and their reading habits are less literary. It begins with an anecdote from an essay by Yu Hua (author of Brothers and other novels) about the appetite for Western literature in the late 70s:

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Western classic novels, previously denounced as “poisonous weed,” started to reappear in the remote village where he lived. Because of the shortage in supply, however, villagers had to purchase these books with ration tickets issued by the local bookstore. On the day the tickets were distributed, Yu arrived at the bookstore at dawn. A line was already snaking out from the entrance, formed by hundreds of villagers who had waited all night long. At 8 a.m., the bookstore owner announced that only 50 ration tickets were available. Yu remembered feeling as if “someone had poured a bucket of icy water over his head in the dead of winter.” The 51st person in line, staring at people ahead of him leaving with brand new copies of Anna Karenina and David Copperfield, looked so crushed that the number “51” soon became a village slang for bad luck.

Gao goes on to contrast this to the state of affairs in current-day China, where the publishing industry is the world’s largest yet the average number of books read yearly per capita is just 4.39. She also describes a general leavening of the types of books being sold and the interest in intellectual debate, and quotes publisher He Xiongfei on the topic:

“In the last decade, best-sellers in China have less intellectual content and have become increasingly practical,” said He Xiongfei. Best sellers in China today, He says, consist mainly of “child-rearing manuals, cookbooks, health and fitness guides, test-preparation books, thrillers, and romance novels.”

Commenters on the Chinese literature blog Paper Republic immediately picked up on the problems here: for one thing, the stats Gao is using don’t include digital reading, and there is a lot of digital reading going on in China. The digital-reading numbers are large—and also complex, because  smartphones, PCs, and ereaders are involved, in roughly descending order. And, though some of it is legal, a lot of it is pirated. But to ignore it all together is no good.

And the question of the judgments involved here was also raised by Paper Republic commenters—Lucas Klein (translator of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito) points out that literary fiction isn’t necessarily a useful indicator of book-reading habits:

One of the problems–one I see evidence of in articles about countries and cultures all over–is confusion about what “read” and “book” mean. Very often they seem to imply fiction, and within that literary fiction. When was the last time you saw any other genre represented in lists of books you must read before you die or books that changed my life? And yet so much reading of books takes place outside that category, I think we’d be better off if we were more clear and comprehensive about our terms.

Since the question is ultimately about what books we wish people were reading more of, ten mezza-mezza formally boring literary novels over one really great earthshaking work of history, journalism, or criticism does not seem like an improvement. In other words, literary fiction is as susceptible to middling products as any other form of book-making.

And even discounting instructional literature seems problematic: it was instructional literature (some of it shitty, misleading, and dull, but other books that were strange, suble variations on how to convey information, not to mention advance radical attitudes) that, in early modern England, drove the financial engines of the publishing industry, along with satire, popular genres, and knockoffs of various kinds: in fact, the same brew that Gao describes currently bubbling away on the servers of sites like Qidian and Chuangshi.

What I think, in fact, is going on here is a fundamentally fragile argument, and its soft spot is literacy rates, because the advances China has made in literacy are very recent and very dramatic.  Gao compares the increase in recreational reading in the US and the UK over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries to the reading habits of Chinese citizens after “government education campaigns reduced the illiterate population from 230 million in 1985 to 50 million in 2011.” That’s only 13 years of 180 million people being newly able to make sense of printed text, and, possibly, to buy it.

In other words, just because the base of readers widens and the type of literature they read appears to drop in intellectual rigor or narrative complexity does not mean we should be worried. Powerful censorship over what gets printed or circulated—that’s something to worry about. But reading audiences develop over decades and centuries, and as they grow their tastes turn up all kinds of weird literary flora and fauna; if some of it for the moment is martial arts fan fiction, I think we’re doing ok.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.