Self-obsession has become a pervasive force in modern writing. But, as Xu Xi writes, others' experiences can still resonate across cultural divides
THE GROWING NUMBER of writing programmes and workshops available suggest many people want to write. But if you consider the number of people in such programmes and the amount of books published daily, it has to be wondered if all contemporary authors can produce is self-obsessed literature. How many stories, after all, are there to tell?
It's a question I considered while teaching at Vermont College's MFA in writing. During the past 25 years, the programme has produced award-winning writers who have published more than 400 books. Students and the faculty come from regional, minority, cross-cultural and international backgrounds. Their work represents a spectrum of styles.
Titles such as Liu Heng's The Obsessed; Han Shaogong's Homecoming?; Gao Xinjiang's Soul Mountain; Zhang Kangkang's The Invisible Companion and Liu Xinwu's Black Wall suggest an underlying political or social commentary. But what of Shanghai Baby, which is as self-obsessed as (if less comic than) Bridget Jones' Diary and which unapologetically apes western culture?
How to account for the obsessive emoting around bulimia, anorexia, teen and pre-teen angst, alcoholics, shopaholics and every '-ic' or addiction - all set against shopping centres, petrol-guzzling cars and suburban McMansions that four Chinese families could occupy with space to spare? Is the fat of the American land too fat to justify more self-obsessive writing?
At Vermont, Sybil Baker in her graduation lecture said that the time for change was now. In Writing Large: An Expatriate's Plea, Baker asks: 'How many of you despair about the state of America these days? ... And how many of you feel powerless to change any of this? And because of this powerlessness and despair, how many of you have fantasised - if even for a minute - about moving to Canada or some other enlightened country where you could write in peace?'
Hers is not the only voice to echo such sentiments. In thoughtful journals, US writers are recording discontent, in prose and poetry, about the state of the nation in the world.
Baker has lived for 10 years in South Korea, where she teaches English at Yonsei University. She says American writing has shifted from literature that engages in a 'conversation of ideas' to one that overly distances itself from intellectual articulation in favour of emotions. Her argument is to move beyond 'the private problems of self so that our short fiction speaks for ourselves, our nation and the world'.
But the question remains: Can writing really escape self-obsession? Is not even a historical novel in the grand tradition merely one writer's obsession with a particular moment of the past?
Vermont College colleague Laurie Alberts is a self-confessed practitioner of self-obsessed narration in both fiction and creative non-fiction. She has written three books, one a collection of stories and two memoirs. A graduate of the Iowa programme, her work has won Katherine Anne Porter and Faulkner Society prizes and a Michener Award. She speaks Russian and has lived in Russia as well as parts of the US. A non-insular US writer, her work is dark, absorbing and provocative.
In a lecture on the reflective narrator, Alberts says that 'reflection, in both fiction and creative non-fiction, can ... mean an opportunity to travel away from the main currents of the story or essay, to express knowledge or opinions on even tangentially related topics'. She pushes beyond conventional observations, saying that 'when we read another's reflections, we expect more. We don't read to have our assumptions or knowledge confirmed, we read to discover.'
Can reflection counter the negatives associated with self-obsession? In Alberts' novel Lost Daughters, the protagonist Allie is haunted by the memory of her child, given up at birth for adoption. 'Your absence is the centre of my life,' it begins. 'The day you were born I didn't name you. Naming you would have made you too real, and anyway, I didn't have the right.' These lines put the reader inside the mother's head. But Alberts speaks to other absences that become central to lives, whether a distant home or family or even the lack of identity - as in Hong Kong, absences over which we may have no rights.
Asian critics often deride the Asian sob-story memoirs that captivate the reading public. Alberts' Fault Line is about a lover from her youth, Kim. Years after the affair the protagonist discovers her ex-lover has recently died, his corpse lying undiscovered for days. Her starting point is the discovery of that death - 'eight months after the fact, I couldn't stop crying'. Despite her happy life, the memory of Kim still haunts her. Why do we need this self-obsessed sorrow? Alberts' highly personal memoir makes no pretensions to telling a larger political or historical tale, the way, for example, Wild Swans does.
Reflection does, however, offer something larger. 'Thirty years later,' she writes, 'I wonder how it is possible to conjure the past, and on what terms. Everything I remember about Kim is distorted by my limitations when I was with him. A twisted Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the observer subsumes rather than merely affects her subject.'
This self-questioning stance forms a trust between narrator and reader. Here is an intelligent, comic, reflective voice, one that won't simply mire us in her obsession. Such writing ultimately does not disappoint.
Can writing in our fragmented, increasingly individualistic, oft-times terrorised world rise beyond the self- obsessed? The personal, these days, might be the perimeter of survival, but self-obsession can resonate beyond the personal. What choice then but to obsess, write, reflect, obsess, and rewrite?