Observations on China’s literary market (1 of 2)

DetectiveFictionChina is a great market where translated foreign literature is always competing against domestic literature. Is this an uphill battle? Not necessarily, but it is worth knowing what Chinese media have to say about the country’s publishing industry, i.e. what sells and what does not. This knowledge can surely help those outside of China to find a way in.

A recent article published by Sina Books — a major portal of Sina.com providing commentaries on all issues related to culture and literature — is on the (lack of) popularity of detective fiction in China. Titled “Well-written is no better than well-sold?“, the article begins with a publisher in Shanghai lamenting how difficult it is to promote detective fiction.

“In terms of suspense and detective fiction, it seems the only authors known among Chinese readers are Keigo Higashino, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Dan Brown. Other than these, any author would be considered popular if up to 20,000 copies of their books are sold,” claimed the Shanghai Translation Publishing House in their microblog.

With that said, Shanghai Translation Publishing House is currently promoting Walter Mosley’s “Easy Rawlins” series. They are hoping that recommendations such as Mosley being “one of former U.S. president Clinton’s most favorite authors” would help to attract more Chinese attention to this famous creator of classic detective fiction.

Indeed, a lot of European and American authors of detective novels have been translated and published in China, including Stieg Larsson, Val McDermid, John Hart, Tom Rob Smith, Louise Penny, and Gillian Flynn. However, while these authors are famous in the English-language market, to most Chinese readers they are still unknown. The unique characteristics of their books are neither studied nor copied by Chinese writers. As a common Chinese saying goes, the flavors of these books do not suit the Chinese stomachs.

Chinese publishers are often forced to shift their attention from those well-written books to those well-sold. For example, several years ago, China’s New Star Press launched a series of detective novels. From the aforementioned Keigo Higashino and Agatha Christie to John Connolly, Ian Rankin, Peter James and Ruth Rendell, none of the books by these authors has sold more than 10,000 copies. A better achievement is made by Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, but even this book has managed 20,000 copies only.

Other examples, such as James Patterson’s The 5th Horseman, were mentioned, but no specific sales figures are given. The article published by Sina Books quotes “Old Cai”, host of China’s famous website on detective fiction, Tuili.com, as saying one of the reasons why European and American detective fiction cannot compete against their Japanese counterparts is that the names of characters in the former are too complicated for Chinese readers to remember. This is particularly so when the characters are referred to with more than one names throughout a story, e.g. not only their first, second and last names, but also their nicknames, pseudonyms, aliases, working names, “also known as” and “formerly known as”.

Other industry insiders focus on the detective genre itself. The aforementioned article quotes Ye Kai, editor of China’s Harvest literary magazine, who considers “genre fiction” as a byproduct of modern-day consumerism. “As a representative of genre fiction, detective fiction has only just emerged among China’s literary categories,” Ye said. “It has a lot to do with a lack of attention paid to detective fiction by literary critics.” In Ye’s view, this is in sharp contrast against Japan, a country that is famous for its meticulous categorization of everything.

Finally, the aforementioned article quotes Chen Huihui from Taiwan’s Apex Press, which is famous for translating and publishing Japanese detective fiction. According to Chen, the popularity of the detective genre in Japan is partly due to the country’s common love for and interest on literary criticism. Another contributing factor is Japan’s very few but extremely popular literary contests, such as the Edogawa Rampo Award and the Seicho Matsumoto Award, which encourage new and emerging authors to focus on the detective genre.

In our next article, we will explore the popularity of another type of “genre fiction” in China.

Image thanks to: “How to create main characters for detective stories” at eHow.

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