Novelist Yan Lianke • Courtesy

Franz Kafka. Leo Tolstoy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yan Lianke?

Mandarin readers may love Yan for polemic novels like Hard Like Water, The Day the Sun Died, The Explosion Chronicles, and The Four Books. English language readers might gravitate toward the first three literary giants. What about a book by this popular Chinese novelist about the future of realist fiction? In Discovering Fiction, Yan Lianke exegetes 19th and 20th century European and Latin American literature in order to define mythorealism the genre he sees as the next step in China’s literary journey.

Most good reviews minimize the reviewer’s personal experience in order to maximize readers’ attention on the book itself. Today, I will break that tradition and use myself as a test case for prospective new readers of Discovering Fiction. The book sold excellently in China after its initial release in 2011, but does it have the cross-cultural relevance to appeal to the type of U. S. reader who might pick it up?

I will admit the title was misleading. I expected a how-to manual with chapters about creating a plot, developing characters, building believable settings, etc. Maybe even some writing exercises at the end of each chapter, or website links where I could read more about a particular topic. This was not the case. Instead of teaching the elements of good writing, Yan’s book analyzed “realism’s four levels of truth: zero causality, full causality, partial causality, and inner causality.” This would boggle the mind of many beginning writers; even I have to admit this was the first time I’d seen the word “causality” in a table of contents.

Did the treatise for that seems closer to what the book really is improve upon further reading? That depends on who you are and why you bought the book. Once I got over my disappointment at not doubling up on writing practice and reviewing simultaneously, I was still confused as to whom Yan was addressing. As I pointed out before, “causality” isn’t a word people toss around nowadays, readers or writers.

Given the book was ordered by causalities, and that these causalities represented “realism’s four levels of truth,” I decided it might be safe to say the book was addressed to those writing realist fiction. Until I got into reading the actual chapters.

The chapters themselves are a study in tasteful academic writing, which is a compliment to both Yan and his translator. My first reaction as I began reading was ‘This would be a wonderful resource for a creative writing program somewhere!’ But unfortunately, that’s not how Yan’s book is being promoted in the U.S. It’s been billed as a “revealing and instructive” look into the mind of a modern-day literary giant, which I’m afraid will lead many readers down the “writing manual” rabbit trail I followed.  Those who chased me down my rabbit trail will find themselves in a world crafted for readers, not writers.

Chapters may feature titles weighted with different version of causality, but their pages are filled with close readings of Anna Karenina, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc. Yan seems more interested in teaching how to read than teaching how to write.

Whether or not marketing is adjusted, the book’s literary analysis that makes up the bulk of each chapter is outstanding. Readers may be intimidated by such statements as, “The result is a literary practice that does not imagine itself as being outside of ideology, but rather attempts to reassess the relationship between reality, ideology, and literary production” (xvi). However, Yan does a good job of illustrating his abstractions with concrete excerpts from novels and short stories, and explaining how they fit together. Even if I was often lost, I was never lost for long.

It did seem odd that such a reputable Chinese novelist would spend so much time analyzing European and Latin American literature. Each chapter on a causality featured close readings from a particular Western literary giant, with the exception of Kafka. Yan found Kafka and his “zero causality” so essential that he appears in every chapter.

Why add another book to the already overflowing oeuvre of romantic and modern scholarship, especially when the author seemed specifically equipped to raise awareness for marginalized literary texts and genres? I wondered.

Yan finally transitions to Chinese literature and a genre he calls “mythorealism” in the final chapter. This was when I made some coffee, grabbed a highlighter, and settled in to read. Readers buy books so they can see the world from a different perspective. Sure, Yan had dashed my hope for a writing manual, but here was his second chance. Here was his chance to describe a genre I’d never heard of and then apply it to a literary culture I only vaguely understood.

So, what is mythorealism? I’ll give you Yan’s definition since I’m still a little fuzzy: “…[M]ythorealism is a creative process that rejects the superficial logical relations that exist in real life to explore a kind of invisible and “nonexistent” truth…” (99). What makes this definition murky is the fact that Yan’s just spent a great deal of time analyzing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which debuted the genre of magical realism. It’s not the same as mythorealism.

But whether or not we agree that mytho- and magical realism warrant separate definitions, there’s no denying that Yan displays his mastery of Chinese literature in this final section. I admit that I know very little of Chinese traditional storytelling, so am not the best fact checker. But as a writer, I was impressed with his ability to weave back and forth between traditional stories, his own novels, plus the work of his contemporaries. With all these threads he spun a web that caught me and held me ready for the kill, or as writers say, the conclusion.

So does Discovering Fiction earn its keep as an English translation of a popular Mandarin work? That is difficult to say. American consumers aren’t very gracious when they don’t get what they paid for in this case, a fiction manual. I believe Yan’s literary analyses are excellent, but readers interested in close reading are probably students or professional scholars. Perhaps they might pick up a copy if it caught their eye, but it would be competing against assigned course reading or professional development. Although young Asian American writers and readers are the future of Asian literature here in the U.S., Yan doesn’t specifically address the next generation of writers or readers on either side of the Pacific. But that is my reading journey. What’s yours? 

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