books

Pearson unveils OER search engine

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Publishing giant unveils search engine for open educational resources -- and its own content.

Essay on how academics should negotiate with publishers

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Instant Mentor

Just because your book is unlikely to make you wealthy doesn't mean that there aren't important things to push for, writes Rob Weir.

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New book on diversity work in higher education

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Editors discuss new book on diversity work within higher education.

Essay on Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Intellectual Affairs

Writing about the late Jacques Barzun for Inside Higher Ed is awkward. This is an online journal, while Barzun was product and exemplar of a very different cultural order. The index to his last book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) has no entry for “Internet,” though a few terse sentences on the topic can be located by looking up “computers, internetted.” (I am not about to put a “sic” after something by Jacques Barzun, but that’s what it says.) That is really the least of it, though. The problem, rather, is that Jacques Barzun did not think very much of education, higher or otherwise.

In a generous mood he indicated that it was difficult -- all but impossible -- to say anything meaningful on the subject. On other occasions he explicitly questioned the value of education, and even treated it with contempt.

The point is admittedly difficult to square with the man’s career, which included service as dean of graduate faculties at Columbia University, as well as almost a decade as its provost. With the literary critic Lionel Trilling he had a hand in shaping the school’s undergraduate core curriculum, and taught legendary courses in it. So it might clarify things (if it doesn’t make them worse) to say that while dubious about education, he thought highly of teaching.

But the distinction was Barzun’s, and he insisted on it over the course of several decades. We may take it as a given that -- as someone whose feeling for European and American cultural history was both broad and exact -- he was not being light-minded or clever about it. A few quotations will illustrate what he had in mind. How applicable they remain to the scene he departed last week, at the age of 104, I will leave it to the reader to decide.

His first book on the matter was Teacher in America (1944) -- written and published after Barzun toured dozens of colleges and universities during a sabbatical year. It was also a response to the previous three years’ worth of fretful newspaper and magazine commentary on “the shortcomings of the schools.” With postwar life just barely visible on the horizon, the author and his audience shared an urgency of concern: Barzun notes that the book was composed in about five weeks, “as if under dictation.” Whether or not the feeling of inspiration continued during the Cold War and beyond, public anxiety over the state of American education did. Barzun returned to the topic in a few books and countless articles and lectures, which seems all the more noteworthy given the opening sentence of his first volume on the matter: “Education is indeed the dullest of subjects and I intend to say as little about it as I can.”

He used the word in three senses, two of them expressing profound discontent. “Education comes from deep within,” he writes in a rare instance of using it with approval; “it is a man’s own doing, or rather it happens to him – sometimes because of the teaching he has had, sometimes in spite of it.” It is in this sense that Henry Adams could write five hundred pages of an autobiography called The Education of Henry Adams while devoting, in Barzun’s estimate, about thirty pages to his schooling. The other two uses of the word refer to distinct things that nonetheless tend to blur together. One is an ideology: a cluster of beliefs, hopes, and worries. The other is education as a field of study.

In The House of Intellect (1959), he suggests, education is regarded in American culture as an almost mythological force, if not a magical cure-all. We need more education, better education, in up-to-date form -- and if we don't get it, we're bound to fall behind Soviet education. (The book appeared in the wake of Sputnik. The exact concern may change, but not the overall point -- see the current administration's intense campaign to return the United States to the top of international rankings of the most-educated populace.) “Education in the United States is a passion and a paradox,” he says. “Millions want it and commend it, and are busy about it, at the same time they are willing to degrade it by trying to get it free of charge and free of work. Education with us has managed to reconcile the contradictory extremes of being a duty and a diversion, and to elude intellectual control so completely that it can become an empty ritual without arousing protest.”

Barzun’s examples, at the end of the 1950s, include high school courses in dating and driver education. More generally, Barzun has in mind a tendency to regard almost any subject, experience, and medium as “educational” -- life as an “educational process” both endless and all-encompassing. Clearly he was identifying a real set of tendencies in U.S. culture. If we aren't worrying about curriculum, we're hoping that video games are inculcating valuable motor skills. As of 2000, as you may expect, Barzun was aware of claims for the educational potential of internetted computers, and not impressed.

“That a user had ‘the whole world of knowledge at his disposal,’ ” he writes, is “one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think -- it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. ‘The whole world of knowledge’ could be at one's disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.”

But in that regard, the emergent digital culture impressed Barzun as less an influence on colleges and universities than a fulfillment of the tendencies within higher education at the end of the last millennium. To quote From Dawn to Decadence once again: “From photography to playing the trombone and from marriage counseling to hotel management, a multitude of respectable vocations had a program that led to a degree. On many a campus one might meet a student who disliked reading and had ‘gone visual,’ or be introduced to an assistant professor of family living.”

As for education in the sense of a discipline or a field of research, Barzun remarked in Teacher in America that doctorates in it “cover such a wide range of indefinite subject matter that they have been repeatedly and deservedly ridiculed.” His opinion did not improve over time. The remarkable thing, he goes on to say, is that “in the midst of the vacuum certain fine minds have been able to survive, to think, and to make their mark in a most useful fashion as trainers and inspirers of teachers. Whether they are happy in their invidious and Ovidian exile, I shall not undertake to say.”

Teaching, however -- or “instruction,” as Barzun also sometimes called it -- well, now that is another matter. It is the opposite of education in the senses that bother him. Education is vague and inflatable. Teaching is an encounter of a specific kind, among concrete individuals, to an established end. The teacher knows something in particular and the student does not. The process of transmitting it is delimited and one-way. It implies dependency and insufficiency on the part of the student, and does not shrink from acknowledging them. The authority to determine whether the student has absorbed the skills and concepts rests with the teacher. The goal is ultimately to make the teacher no longer necessary for the student. (By contrast, the notion of an “educational process” is murky, and open-ended to the point of being interminable.)

We never have enough good teachers, Barzun says. At the same time, there are more kinds of good teachers than we normally recognize. But the problem runs deeper than that. As he puts it in Teacher in America, the very title is suspect, even somewhat disreputable

“I notice that on their passports and elsewhere, many of my academic colleagues put down their occupation as Professor. Anything to raise the tone: a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber….. ‘What do you do?’ – ‘I profess and I educate.’ It is unspeakable and absurd.”

Ouch. A curmudgeon? The patron saint of the curmudgeons, even? No doubt, and one fighting what was, in the 1940s, probably already a lost cause. In academe, the fetishism of professionalization is by now so far advanced that expecting people to apply the same term to themselves as people working in primary and secondary schools is a hopeless wish. But a lecture from 1947 suggests how comprehensively Barzun understood teaching as a calling, and how inseparable from scholarship, and his closing remark is a point to end on:

“If the scholars with a knack for organizing materials will freely turn to writing textbooks; if those having the gift of accurate rhetoric will deliver the classroom lectures and radio broadcasts; if the generalizing minds will produce the broader syntheses; if the ready pens will enlighten the public with vivid restatements of important truth; if the bibliophiles and antiquaries will staff libraries and museums and facilitate, as they already do, every branch of study and research; and if the versatile will combine two or more of these activities at choice … [then] we shall be in a fair way to fulfill the destiny which every scholar takes as his privilege and his justification.”

Supreme Court Hears Case Involving Textbook Pricing

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in a case that explores whether re-sellers can hawk cheaper versions of textbooks, produced for students overseas, to U.S. students. The case, the second the court has heard in two years involving what is known as the "first sale" doctrine, could have major implications for how much publishers charge for their textbooks, both in the United States and abroad. Accounts in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal of the court's hearing in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. described justices divided over the arguments made by publishers and by the former graduate student whose resale of foreign-made textbooks earned $1 million in sales a year and brought the wrath of the publishers. (Note: This item has been updated from an earlier version to correct factual errors.)

 

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Editorial board quits to protest changes at environmental journal

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Editorial board quits to protest shifts in leadership and direction – away from sociology and green theory and toward what critics see as a business-oriented approach.

Essay on usage statistics and the research library

Intellectual Affairs

In a passage surely written with tongue in cheek, Friedrich Nietzsche states that a scholar of his era would consult 200 volumes in the course of a working day. That’s far too many, he suggests: a symptom of erudition’s decay into feeble bookwormery and derivative non-thinking. “During the time that I am deeply absorbed in my work,” he says, “no books are found within my reach; it would never occur to me to allow anyone to speak or even to think in my presence.” A noble modus vivendi, if not quite an admirable one, somehow.

Imagine what the philosopher would make of the 21st century, when you can carry the equivalent of the library of Alexandria in a flash drive on your keychain. Nietzsche presents the figure of 200 books a day as “a modest assessment” – almost as if someone ought to do an empirical study and nail the figure down. But we’re way past that now, as one learns from the most recent number of Against the Grain.

ATG is a magazine written by and for research librarians and the publishers and vendors that market to them. In the new issue, 10 articles appear in a section called “Perspectives on Usage Statistics Across the Information Industry.” The table of contents also lists a poem called “Fireworks” as part of the symposium, though that is probably a mistake. (The poem is, in fact, about fireworks, unless I am really missing something.)

Some of the articles are a popularization -- relatively speaking -- of discussions that have been taking place in venues with titles like the Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserves and Collections Management. Chances are the non-librarians among you have never read these publications, or even seen them at a great distance, no matter how interdisciplinary you seek to be. For that matter, discussing the ATG articles at any length in this column would risk losing too many readers. They are peer communications. But the developments they address are worth knowing about, because they will undoubtedly affect everyone’s research, sooner or later, often in ways that will escape most scholars’ notice. 

Most of us are aware that the prominence and influence of scholarly publications can be quantified, more or less. The Social Science Citation Index, first appearing in 1956, is an almost self-explanatory case.

As an annual list of the journal articles where a given paper or book has been cited, SSCI provides a bibliographical service. Counting the citations then yields bibliometric data, of a pretty straightforward kind. The metric involved is simplicity itself. The number of references to a scholarly text in the subsequent literature, over a given period of time, is a rough and ready indicator of that text’s influence prominence during said period. The reputation of an author can be similarly quantified, hashmark style.

A blunt bibliometric instrument, to be sure. The journal impact factor is a more focused device, measuring how often articles in a journal have been cited over a two-year period relative to the total number of articles in the same field, over the same period. The index was first calculated in the 1970s by what is now Thompson Reuters, also the publisher of SSCI. But the term “journal impact factor” is generic. It applies to the IDEAS website’s statistical assessment of the impact of economic journals, which is published by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And there's the European Reference Index for the Humanities, sponsored by European Science Foundation, which emerged in response to dissatisfaction with “existing bibliographic/bibliometric indices” for being “all USA-based with a stress on the experimental and exact sciences and their methodologies and with a marked bias towards English-language publication.”

As the example of ERIH may suggest, bibliometric indices are not just a statistical matter. What gets counted, and how, is debatable. So is the effect of journal impact factors on the fields of research to which they apply – not to mention the people working in those fields. And publication in high-impact journals can be a career-deciding thing. A biologist and a classicist on a tenure committee will have no way of gauging how good the candidate’s work on astrophysics is, as such. But if the publications are mostly in high-impact journals, that’s something to go by.

The metrics discussed in the latest Against the Grain are newer and finer-grained than the sort of thing just described. They have been created to help research libraries track what in their collections is being used, and how often and intensively. And that, in turn, is helpful in deciding what to acquire, given the budget. (Or what not to acquire, often enough, given what’s left of the budget.)

One contributor, Elizabeth R. Lorbeer, associate director for content management for the medical library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that the old way to gauge which journals were being used was to look at the wear and tear on the bound print volumes. Later, comparing journal-impact factors became one way to choose which subscriptions to keep and which to cancel. But it was the wrong tool in some cases. Lorbeer writes that she considered it “an inadequate metric to use in the decision-making process because sub-discipline and newer niche areas of research were often published in journals with a lower impact factor.”

From the bibliometric literature she learned of another statistical tool: the immediacy index, which measures not how often a journal is cited, but how quickly. In some cases, a journal with a low impact factor might have a higher immediacy index, as would be appropriate for work in cutting-edge fields.

She also mentions consulting the “half-life” index for journals – a metric as peculiar, on first encounter, as the old “count the footnote citations” method was obvious. It measures “the number of publication years from the current year which account for 50 percent of current citations received” of articles from a given journal. This was useful for determining which journals had a long-enough shelf life to make archiving them worthwhile.

Google Scholar is providing a number of metrics – the h-index, the h-core, and the h-median – which I shall mention, and point out, without professing to understand their usefulness. Lorbeer refers to a development also covered by Inside Higher Ed earlier this year: a metric based on Twitter references, to determine the real-time impact of scholarly work.

One day a Nietzsche specialist is going to be praised for writing a high-twimpact paper, whereupon the universe will end.

Other contributions to the ATG symposium paint a picture of today’s research library as a mechanism incessantly gathering information as well as making it available to its patrons – indeed, doing both at the same time. Monitoring the flow of bound volumes in and out of the library makes it relatively easy to gauge demand according to subject heading. And with digital archives, it’s possible to track which ones are proving especially useful to students and faculty.

A survey of 272 practicing librarians in ATG’s subscriber base, conducted in June of this year, shows that 80 percent “are analyzing [usage of] at least a portion of their online journal holdings,” with nearly half of them doing so for 75 to 100 percent of those holdings. It’s interesting to see that the same figure – 80 percent – indicated that “faculty recommendations and/or input” was used in making decisions about journal acquisitions. With book-length publications entering library holdings in digital form, the same tools and trends are bound to influence monograph acquisition. Some of the articles in the symposium indicate that it’s already happening.

Carbon-based life forms are still making the actual decisions about how to build the collections. But it’s not hard to imagine someone creating an algorithm that would render the whole process cybernetic. Utopia or nightmare? I don't know, but we're probably halfway there.

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Journals Project, Attacked by Senator, Defends Its Role

Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, periodically releases lists of projects on which he believes the federal government has wasted its money. His new "Wastebook 2012," includes several research and education projects at colleges, and one of them is fighting back. That is number 79 on Coburn's list: "Duplicate magazine preservation," in which he blasts the National Endowment for the Humanities for awarding a $270,000 grant to Brown University and the University of Tulsa for the Modernist Journals Project, which is digitizing early 20th century publications. Coburn's book says that the project duplicates work being done by Google and others. Robert Scholes, a Brown professor who is co-director of the project, published a defense of it on the blog Magazine Modernisms. Scholes wrote that Coburn has the dollar figures wrong, ignoring that Brown and Tulsa are paying for half the work. Further, he says that the Google versions do not provide complete reproductions of the publications. And finally, he notes that the project also supports original scholarship. "Stepping back from these factual errors in the report, it’s important to understand that magazine and periodical studies constitute a vibrant and expanding area of teaching and research," Scholes writes.

 

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Essay on Gore Vidal's relationship with Harvard

Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.

"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'

"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "

The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.

"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."

But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."

At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”

The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.

 

 

Sample dialogue:

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"

Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"

The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”

Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.

"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.

"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)

"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "

If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."

"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."

In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.

So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and teaches history at the University of California at Irvine. The essay is adapted from I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics - Interviews with Jon Wiener (OR Books).

 

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Essay on Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan

Intellectual Affairs

In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.

For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.

Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.

Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.

In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.

An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”

That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.

The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.

Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.

But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.

She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.

Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”

The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.

But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.

A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.

Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true. 

 

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