March 17, 2014

Mo Yan has made all of Chinese publishing more Franzen-ey


"... and I want my next jacket to have a reflective bird eye like this big on there."

“… and I want my next jacket to have a reflective bird eye like this big on there.”

Chinese publishing is becoming more venal, more opportunistic, and more obsessed with the next Big Book. The entire industry seems to have a rather gross case of the  Franzens, and the attention brought by Mo Yan‘s Nobel win might be to blame.

On the Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time blog (the web’s best resource for aficionados of streaming webcams pointed at clocks on the mainland, I assume) 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. Abrahamson says,

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. …

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.

And let me guess: many of those books have strangely terrifying half-birds their covers, right? That’s just how Big Books work now. Get hip, guys.

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.

The payouts for big books in China have been growing, too. Morse says,

Chinese writers right now don’t take tiny, pittance advances from foreign publishers. The advances they get from publishers in China are larger. … We’ll take an extreme example. Mai Jia’s advance supposedly from his Chinese publisher was over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million). You could push [a foreign publisher] to maybe $10,000 at best. … Both the carrot and the stick produce a lot more bad writing than good writing. Particularly the carrot.

As Michael Orthofer points out, the book they’re discussing is Decoded, which was recently published in English translation. The reviews don’t mention it, but if that kind of advance and what I’ve learned from Franzen are any indication, the book has at least one scene of a guy digging through his own poop. It’s just standard Big Book fare by now, right?

It’s nice to see China’s literary world taking a note from the Franzen-riffic model offered by the west. Sure, it’s left us drowning in a flood of interchangeable American Realist voices, all worth reading, few worth loving, with the resulting narrowed possibilities for criticism, wildly uneven author pay, and the problem of the midlist trap. It’s nice, I mean, because schadenfreude is fun, even when you yourself are suffering.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.