Writers' block

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am


China often claims it is misunderstood, or at least is less well- understood than it would wish. China may well be right, but mutual understanding rarely improves by fiat or admonition.

While in Britain last summer, Premier Wen Jiabao suggested an alternative and perhaps more effective tack. After taking in a performance of Shakespeare, a Western literary icon with whom he demonstrated considerable familiarity, Wen expressed the hope that more people would return the favour and discover Chinese literature as a way of better understanding China and the Chinese.

He has a point. Works of fiction - as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote - 'constrain us to the acquaintance of others', that is, by reading and immersing ourselves in fiction, we acquire some insight into people different from ourselves. Novels by such contemporary Chinese novelists as Yu Hua, Guo Xiaolu, Jiang Rong, Dai Sijie and Wang Gang allow readers to glimpse China not just through Chinese eyes, but also with Chinese sensibility.

However, it's not clear that China entirely appreciates the way in which books contribute to what has come to be known as 'soft power'. Neither the Harry Potter nor the Twilight series may be entirely accurate depictions of Western society, nor do their legions of fans read the books to learn about Western cultural norms and psyches, but their success in China has, even more than has Shakespeare, generated points of common contact between the real, non-fictional societies.

Nor can China merely will anglophone readers to open a book translated from Chinese rather than one on the current best-seller list. It would, however, be relatively simple to make Chinese writers seem more familiar and less remote to potential readers overseas. It just requires some not-very-large, yet enlightened, expenditure.

The opportunity to see and hear authors in the flesh matters greatly, but there are still only relatively rare sightings of Chinese writers at literary festivals, readings, bookstores and other places around the world where authors meet readers. Having been involved with festivals for more than 10 years, including helping to arrange the participation of Chinese writers at a literary event in New York last November, I can understand why. Just making contact with Chinese authors can be difficult, and long- distance travel and translation quickly consume the budget.

Regardless of the need to stoke demand, there is also a problem of supply - the vast majority of Chinese contemporary novels remain untranslated. It is true that English- language publishing often seems inhospitable to works in translation, at least in comparison with publishing in such languages as French and Italian. Blame is sometimes laid at the feet of the anglophone reading public, who are portrayed as being unwilling to read translated fiction, such successes as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo notwithstanding. But publishing can be a hit-or-miss affair at the best of times; translation is costly and hence risky for books whose sales are far from guaranteed.

Chinese authors, in other words, tend to be more expensive for literary festivals than their Western counterparts.

But what are significant costs at the margin for publishers and event organisers are minuscule when compared to the amount spent on Chinese overseas outreach programmes. Funding commercial-quality translations of the most promising Chinese novels - a couple of dozen or so additional titles each year would make a huge difference - would at least remove the additional business risk associated with the cost of translation.

China might also follow the example of Britain, Australia, Canada, France and other countries which have provided funding for their authors to travel to literary events worldwide.

This is less a literary project than one of marketing, promotion, co-ordination and relationships. It almost goes without saying that Hong Kong could play a key role if it chose to.

Any such endeavour could easily founder on the shoals of politics, of course. Chinese fiction is often read and reviewed through the lens of politics. Novels are, however, neither exclusively nor even necessarily primarily political undertakings. So while Chinese authors can be, and often are, censored - and some censorship happens even before pen is put to paper or fingers touch a keypad - this should not be a reason to limit fiction from China solely to its political context. Dostoevsky, after all, was subject to censorship too, as was - pointedly noted in commentary following Wen's visit to Stratford-upon-Avon - Shakespeare himself.

It is perhaps unreasonable to expect much financial support for writing that which China considers entirely antithetical, but there are fortunately increasing numbers of talented Chinese writers of both literary and commercial potential who have established a modus vivendi with the establishment, who either are or could well be published in translation and who travel internationally.

Whether books should serve to spread values is something that has long been debated, but in practice readers are a notoriously independent bunch, and tend not to read what they are told. But as long as readers, rather than bureaucrats, are allowed to rule the selection of books and authors, fiction offers excellent returns for the soft-power renminbi.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and set up the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2006-07