Should literature address more social issues, or should it get closer to the writer's own heart and focus on one's own experiences?
People visiting book stores are more interested in popular writings while serious literature has been marginalized. (Photo: China Daily/Jing Wei)
This was a question debated by several literary authors and critics last weekend at the 6th Chinese Literature Media Awards in Guangzhou. The event, together with a week of speeches, forums and tours, was organized by Southern Metropolis Daily.
There was a consensus among the literati that serious literature has been marginalized in China. People reminisced of the 1980s - the golden age of literary writing - when poems and novels were devoured by tens of millions and a single piece of work could spark a nationwide fire of passion and frenzy.
The emergence of sociology, economics and law effectively pushed literature to the sideline as these subjects can better tackle difficult issues of our society, especially when it has been going through such dramatic changes.
The disappearance of investigative literature, or baogao wenxue in Chinese, is a case in point. Writers used to delve into "big issues" and come up with in-depth reporting. But that was during a time when a newspaper in China typically had four pages and could not possibly accommodate features of this length. Nowadays, a metropolitan paper may have 100 pages or more, and stories like the Chongqing "nail-house" played out in the press like a drama series. Serious literature cannot compete in this area.
"The best story-telling is printed in The Southern Weekend," jokes Xie Youshun, "as it has all the great details and creates endless waves of repercussions." The influential weekly he mentions offers news stories - often controversial ones - in fascinating minutia.
Xu Chunping, editor of Literature Journal, maintains that Chinese culture as a whole is moving in the direction of entertainment. There are new genres like "cellphone literature, online literature and movie fiction" that did not exist before. "Literature as we know it gets purer and contends with only the ultimate issues, and new literature tends to provide solace rather than soul-searching capabilities." She faults the mainstream media for the decline. "Belles-lettres are shriveling to an elitist enclave," she laments.
As literature recedes from the public limelight towards inner self, writers mount a feeble but heroic attempt to rationalize the withdrawal. Li Jingze, a critic, points out that fiction of the old days was devoid of individuality. "The characters did not open their mouths except to pontificate. Everyone of them talked like that," says the editor of People's Literature, who interprets the "withdrawal" more as "a great achievement in opening up and creating personal space in the arena".
Nan Fan, a Fujian-based essayist, sees the phenomenon as "the private inserting itself into the public and changing the latter's core values". Literature of old times dealt in sweeping generalities. The epics told of exploits by giants and mythological characters. Morality plays did not even give unique names to their characters. "The richness of the private space has made literature more diverse and added to its value," he contends.
Xu Xiao, a Beijing-based essayist, believes that writing is ultimately a personal experience and should be loyal to one's inner feelings. "Only when you are true to yourself can you strike a chord with a wider readership."
The writers did not object to exploring the outside world. They mentioned those with rural backgrounds writing about land reform, and those brought up in towns and cities reflecting on the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). But some disapproved of works that talked down to readers. Yu Qiuyu, a towering figure in literary essays, again became the center of attention even though he was absent. He was criticized for ramming foregone conclusions down readers' throats. But an audience member defended Yu's writing for "creating a panorama of Chinese history and culture".
Peking University professor Chen Xiaoming argues that literature has been edging back towards "public space" since the 1990s. "It's possible to get into public discourses," he says, adding that he hopes writers act as "public intellectuals". However, one should not only pay attention to the lower classes. His definition of "realism-based aesthetic exploration" is much wider. "I see a new beginning for Chinese literature," he enthuses, encouraging a hall of students to take up writing literature as a career.
Many writers see the press as the main rival. "We are brothers; we learn from each other, fight with each other and compete for readers' attention," says Dong Xi, a professor of Guangxi University of Nationalities. He lambasts some media for "resorting to fiction when truth is hard to obtain". Others carped that media critics tend to have inconsistent values when it comes to literary criticism. However, Han Shaogong, a Hainan-based novelist, says he values media reviews more than academic evaluation.
"Is the true voice relevant when you cannot even have it heard?" asks Ge Fei, an avant-garde novelist who is also a professor of Tsinghua University. He argues that the media has been under increasing pressure from market forces, which will only "cover up true thinking".
Most of these writers have day jobs as professors, editors or with organizations such as writers' associations and cultural unions. However, most writers support new genres such as blog writing, agreeing that there is good writing floating in cyberspace.
In the end, many advocate pluralism for literature. While literature, they believe, should refrain from striving to be topical, it should not retreat from hot issues of the day. The key is to raise questions, but not to attempt to solve them; to provoke thinking rather than to hand out clear-cut nuggets of wisdom.
"It's always about how, not if," elaborates Li Jingze, the critic, who was reading Raymond Chandler on the flight to Guangzhou. "Finding truth for literature is like finding the criminal in a detective story. The vociferous ones are on the surface. We should look for the vastness between public and personal spaces. It's like the silent majority within ourselves. If you look at it this way, our best writing is yet to come."
(Source: China Daily, April 2009)