But when I ask her about her writing routines, she laments the “shaming culture” that dictates “all these didactic rules” one must follow to be considered a writer – like having to write every day.
“Everybody has their own process … You’re not a machine,” she says. “I feel like as long as you’re reading, you’re fine. If you’re a writer and you stop reading things that don’t relate directly to your work, for pleasure, then you’re fucked. What are you even doing? How can you expect people to read your stuff for pleasure if you’re not?”
One of the more hideous things you have to do when you have a book coming out is suck up to other authors in the hope they’ll give you a blurb for your jacket. Everybody in this process hates it: the people doing the asking, the people being asked, the third-party friends leaned on to lean on their own contacts. And yet, in the absence of any better ideas, the quote economy chugs on.
I’ve been thinking about blurbs lately, not only because my own galley is out for approval, but because of two recent references to the practice, both of them exceedingly grumpy. The queen of the gentle letdown was the writer Nora Ephron, who – I just looked up an email I received from her many years ago – would respond to friends and acquaintances begging for endorsements with the joke that she gave up giving quotes when her gynaecologist “wrote a book and asked for one”; or her vet, or other versions of a line that evolved over the years and that, with characteristic generosity, she used to make the asker feel slightly less of an arse.
At the other end of the spectrum is the novelist Rose Tremain, who said in the Times last week: “I hardly finish any books. Our so-called literary world is now choked with the mediocre and the banal, piles of which arrive through my letter box, soliciting endorsements, every week.” One feels her pain: no one wants big slabs of text dropping uninvited on the doormat. On the other hand, cheer up, Rose – maybe one day these dreadful people will go away, and then you’ll have problems indeed.
Put your mind to it, and you can write a slender volume of verse on the back of till receipts with a stolen Argos biro.
Martel experienced “a crazed euphoria, like a ravenously barking dog that’s finally eating,” when she finished the novel [Zama] for the first time. As she wrote in El País last year:
What we call masterpieces of literature manage to weave a very particular toxin into their letters, one that sickens, maddens, and then transforms humans into better animals. It’s not something you can explain by describing events or characters. It’s something that happens in the writing. In the order and selection of the words… The particular way Di Benedetto makes use of language in Zama allows us to see something we’d never seen before. A region of the planet only made visible by passing through those letters.
There was no edition of Zama in the English-language book world until August 2016, when my translation of the novel was published. […] Martel’s Kabbalistic understanding of Zama’s original language – the sorcerous power of the exact sequence of those letters and words in that particular order – is entirely betrayed by any translation, which has no option but to present different letters and words in different sequences. As I adapted the novel from Spanish to English, though, what I struggled with most were not words but silences: the imperative that the translation not say what the original leaves unsaid. Each sentence of the story’s first-person narration constitutes a self-portrait of its narrator; the silences between them are the blinkered, beleaguered being of Don Diego de Zama.
In the 1903 preface to his translation of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, Lu Xun wrote:
The typical reader is bored by the tediousness of science books and cannot finish them. But when dressed up in the form of fiction, the science can seep into readers’ minds without boring them…. As the reader’s heart is touched, the reader gains insight and wisdom without taxing the mind, knowledge that would break down legacy superstitions, improve their thoughts, and supplement our culture. What a powerful tool is such fiction!
“The progress of the Chinese people,” Lu Xun declared, fifteen years before his own first satirical stories were published, “begins with science fiction.”
Throughout the early twentieth century, Chinese science fiction authors took advantage of the genre’s possibilities for social criticism. In 1932, Lao She attacked the weakness and divisions of Republic-era China in Cat Country, a novel set on the surface of Mars, where a cat-like people are addicted to opiate “reverie” leaves and turn to a new ideology called “Everybody Shareskyism” – a thinly veiled stand-in for communism. China’s real Shareskyists didn’t share Lao She’s sense of humor, and for decades after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, sci-fi was either suppressed or molded into Communist propaganda.
If the science fiction of a century ago was preoccupied with utopian dreams of progress, this new wave, made up mostly of younger writers, is more concerned with the rifts that have been opened in China’s social fabric now that such progress has been achieved.
The new sci-fi is now in many respects the most biting mode of social and political commentary in China. Long derided and marginalized by China’s literary establishment, it has slipped past the censors who so stringently watch realist fiction. And while much of the genre remains escapist entertainment for the nation’s surplus of engineering students, its more literary practitioners have reclaimed its place at the vanguard of China’s national introspection. They are using it as a Trojan horse to sneak in truths obliquely, offering not feel-good bromides but twisted visions of what modern China has become.
In his book Celestial Empire (2017), the scholar Nathaniel Isaacson called Chinese science fiction “a vehicle for expressing anxieties and hopes for modernization and globalization.” China’s urban transformation and vertiginous growth have bifurcated society: some live in a rich, privileged world of comfort, cashless payment, facial-recognition software, and high-speed trains; others suffer quietly, building that world. Realist literature often can’t keep up with the pace of the change that China is undergoing. Fictions set in the future are not only safer from censorship but also especially good opportunities to comment on such a hurtling present.
For Manguel libraries are not simply repositories of learning but nerve centres of civilisation, where the conscious and the subconscious outpourings of centuries teem together in a platonic mirror of life that may also, paradoxically, be humanity’s fullest iteration of itself. Yet, in another digression, he points out that “every book confesses the impossibility of holding fully on to whatever it is that our experience seizes. All libraries are the glorious record of that failure.”