In what could've been a microcosm of BEA, this year's Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) featured all of the major players: Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins and even Neil Gaiman. We, from the U.S., said gan bei, or “bottoms up,” with Chinese publishers, we overate on 30-course meals, and amid all of the energy and excitement, we seemed to overlook an absent party: the quality of books, in content and appearance, from China.
When Americans speak about China, it usually concerns the 2008 Olympics or the unprecedented economic growth. With much of China undergoing rapid development, will the country's book publishing improve as well? It's rare to hear a publisher say, “The books from China really look better than last year.” In fact, among the three floors of domestic Chinese publishers at BIBF, you'd have a hard time finding a foreigner studying the books closely. And the simple reason is that many of the books from China look terrible.
Before BIBF, as v-p of marketing at China Books, I was often asked by Chinese editors to advise them on ways to improve their English-language books. Editorially, my suggestions would range from “Delete 'the unrelenting working class rise to save the republic,' ”to “'travelist' is not a real word.” Many of their books were filled with typos, '70s-style outdated cover designs and Communist propaganda. My suggestions were simple, their questions repetitive, and I often wondered if books from China would ever improve.
A common problem I find among editors from China is an attempt to package the culture without ever having left China. The result is another book on the Great Wall, another book on Chinese tea and another guidebook on the magnificent places to see in China. Yet how can one understand a country without ever having left it?
With all of this cynicism about Chinese publishing on my mind, I was surprised to return from BIBF hopeful. And it wasn't just the energy and curiosity of the American publishers that inspired me, nor was it the invitation by Chinese publishers to eat massive amounts of food. It was the realization that art in China really is changing.
While wandering the rows at BIBF, I found a number of small provincial presses, like Chongqing and Heilongjiang, that featured picture books that combined postmodern children's stories with magic pens that spoke, and eye-catching book formats you would never see in the U.S. At the five-story Beijing City Bookstore, there were so many readers clamoring for books, you had to walk over people sitting in the aisles. And where else can an online novel like Ghost Blows Out the Light have a readership of six million?
Although I had been to Beijing many times before, I hadn't been back since 2002. For the first time, I visited the avant-garde 798 Art District, a former socialist factory complex turned contemporary art center. I was bowled over by the edgy artwork being featured: photograph exhibits with nudity, parodies of the Cultural Revolution, large sculptures of famous political heads, all displayed in spacious, art deco warehouses that felt like galleries in Manhattan's Tribeca or Chelsea. All of the artists were distinctly Chinese, yet the gallery owners were from China, Australia, Japan, Germany, Texas and New York. This was evidence that artistry flourishes through cross-cultural pollination.
The growing artist community gave me hope that Chinese books, in appearance and content, would one day improve. BIBF represents a cross-cultural exchange between international publishers, where collaborative efforts will support literature and quality books. Right now, most of the business between China and the U.S. is in one direction: U.S. rights sold into China. But this will soon change.
Besides owning new cars and fancy condominiums, the Chinese people finally seem more confident about being Chinese. How could you blame them when 35 years ago during the Cultural Revolution, individuality and confidence led to torture? HarperCollins and Penguin have been the most aggressive at striking the largest China to U.S. book deals. They're searching for the Chinese Haruki Murakami, whose work, greatly influenced by the West, has sold in translation in the millions worldwide. From what I saw at BIBF, in the art community, and at bookstores, I have no doubt that, in the next few years, Americans will find a whole slew of mainstream Chinese authors.
Illustration by Christopher Serra
|Chellis Ying is the v-p of marketing for China Books, oldest distributor of books and periodicals from China in the U.S., and a writer (www.chellisying.com).