October 12, 2012

‘Mo Yan my ass,’ and other Nobel reactions: a round-up


The prize for the most ungracious response to Mo Yan’s Nobel win goes to Philip Roth’s biographer Blake Bailey, who tweeted: “Mo Yan my ass. #Rothscrewedagain.”

It has yet to be explained to me why Roth should ever win a literary prize rewarding the most outstanding work written “in an ideal direction” — but then many people yesterday argued Mo Yan’s unfitness on the same grounds. Yes, his works have been banned in China, those commentators said, but Mo is, among other things, vice-chairman of the government-backed Chinese Writers’ Association, which of course made no comment on dissident Liu Xiaobo‘s Nobel Peace Prize win two years ago.

As an example of Mo’s compliance with the Chinese regime, Shanghaiist‘s article ‘Is Mo Yan unworthy of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature?’, recalls Mo joining ninety-nine other writers to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Mao Zedong‘s ‘Speech at Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature’ by hand-copying a paragraph from the speech, ‘which said that writers who failed to integrate their work into the Communist revolution would be punished.’

Mo argued at the Frankfurt Book Fair three years ago that his dissent has rather been literary:

A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.

In the GuardianJulia Lovell supported the reading of his works as rebellious:

In his 30-year writing career, Mo Yan has gained a reputation for speaking out with uncommon directness on the absurdities and corruption of modern China. Born in 1955, he won celebrity during the mid- to late-80s, participating in two key developments in the post-Mao literary thaw that, together, transformed the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing: the root-seeking and avant-garde movements. The root-seekers opened up fiction to influences from Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics, countering decades of anti-traditionalism both before and after the communist revolution of 1949. The experimental avant-garde writers, meanwhile, released literary form and content from the stranglehold of socialist realism.

Meanwhile in the Washington Post his translator Howard Goldblatt described the novels as more traditionally Dickensian:

He’s bawdy when he wants to be. Big and bold, lots of adjectives, and long sentences. The visuality is incredible. When he describes a scene, he does it with every tool in his box. He turns things on their head and makes them be something they could never be in real life. In Mo Yan’s hands, even the most horrific scenes have a great beauty to them.

There’s been little else in the way of commentary on the actual work — hardly surprising, given that many critics admit not to have read him. Interestingly, given that several sources quote press-release material about Mo’s admiration of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Reuters has Beijing-based essayist and literary critic Yu Shicun criticising the work as derivative:

I don’t think this makes sense. His works are from the 1980s, when he was influenced by Latin American literature. I don’t think he’s created his own things. We don’t see him as an innovator in Chinese literature.

A Dickensian, a tired imitator of magical realism, a government sympathiser, or a rebel within the system?

We’ll have to make up our own minds.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.