May 6, 2014

What we talk about when we talk about publishing in China


Silly Chinese readers, don't they know that every novel should start with a guy putting on some sort of very specific tweed jacket in the first pages?

Silly Chinese readers, don’t they know that every novel should start with a guy putting on some sort of very specific tweed jacket in the first pages?

Chinese publishers censor books. Chinese novels are unpopular abroad. Two common stories, both reflect the same toxic trope.

The fantastic Chinese translation blog Paper Republic points us to two items of discussion about the Chinese publishing scene. First, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos placed an op-ed in in the New York Times this weekend, talking about his decision not to publish his book about China in the nation itself.

After reading the manuscript, an editor in Shanghai replied with enthusiasm, but also sent me a list of politically active people in the narrative who, he wrote, “would be difficult” to include in the Chinese edition: a lawyer (Chen Guangcheng), an artist (Ai Weiwei), three writers (Liu Xiaobo, Murong Xuecun, Han Han) and “a few others.” He made a proposal: “Please kindly let me know if it is possible for us to cooperate on a special version of your book for its Chinese publication.” I had a choice to make.

In the end, publishers wanted to cut what amounted to a full quarter of Osnos’ politically sensitive book. As Chinese translator Bruce Humes points out on his blog, not everyone makes the same choice as Osnos, and there is no clear-cut ethically superior answer.

Ezra Vogel, for instance, the professor emeritus at Harvard who allowed them to mess with his Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. He explains himself in Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China, published in 4Q 2013 by the New York Times: “To me, the choice was easy,” he said during a book tour of China that drew appreciative throngs in nearly a dozen cities. “I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

Paper Republic also points us to a China News article about comments made by pre-eminent Chinese translator Howard Goldblatt at a recent conference. Goldblatt discussed the meager interest for Chinese fiction in the U.S. and the West, laying part of the blame on the nature of the books themselves. Too many books lack character depth, he claimed, and often open with long detailed descriptions of scenery that are immediately dissuasive to Western readers.

I dislike this story. I dislike both of these stories. I don’t doubt that both Goldblatt and Osnos are correct. I don’t suggest they should somehow cater their comments to my ennui. It’s just, I’m tired of discussing only censorship in China, or their national fascination with pastoral novels like those of Mo Yan. It plays rather unfortunately into a gross ‘inscrutable orient’ trope that still drives so much of our interactions with China as a nation and the Chinese as individuals.

I’d much rather write, and read writing, about how the Chinese publishing industry’s woes and peccadilloes mirror those in the U.S. very closely—their increasingly bloated advances, their hunger for a thick Great Chinese Novel. The mundanity of that makes for a less effective news hook, but maybe there’s some novelty in not discussing The Chinese Novel’s flaws as if they were endemic to the nation, a product of naivete or venality, and instead discuss them as the style of one author, not a vast and perilous horde. I want to read about specific publishers, about novels from China, not The Chinese Novel.

And as for the ceaseless stories about censorship in China, well, so long as such censorship exists I think them necessary. I’d just like to see them leavened with other discussion. Alongside talk of Chinese publishers cutting Vogel’s book, I’d like more stories about his remarkable sales figures in China, and what they might mean. Hell, I’d like more stories about how Western novelists can better cater to discerning Chinese readers and their desire for lush scenery without garish internality to clutter up the prose.

Sinister uses of the phrase “special edition” are still fun, though. Keep those coming.


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