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Writers invent new popular literary criticism

YE LIWEN | 2019-08-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Bi Feiyu, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, shares his analysis of literary classics in his new book Fiction Reading. Photo: IFENG.COM

The rise of writers’ criticism has been an important phenomenon in Chinese literary circles in recent years. Compared with scholarly criticism, writers’ criticism avoids the dogmas prevailing in Chinese schools and is free from rigid literary theories. Their criticism subverts the stereotypical impression of literary criticism by writing with full personality and personal artistic experience.
Reshaping aesthetics
In contrast to scholarly criticism, which aims at seeking truth from knowledge, writers’ criticism is more like an artistic creation with the re-interpretation of classics as a medium. Its vitality and aesthetics effectively reflect and reform current trends in literary criticism.
However, the value of writers’ criticism goes far beyond that. If we carefully observe the origin and practice of writers’ criticism, we will find that it not only shakes up the existing pattern of criticism, but also implies the collective appeal of writers to rebuild literary life.
Literature has never been a mere ornament to real society. As the old saying goes, “writings are for conveying truth.” Apart from its profound influence and social function, literature has contributed greatly to the cultivation of the national character and cultural psychology of the Chinese nation. From this point of view, whether through creation, criticism, or the dissemination and acceptance of works, literature can subtly shape our lives with its unique power.
This is particularly evident in the literature of the 1980s. The sensational effect of contemporary literature at that time reflected the great influence of literature on social life. After the 1990s, literature lost its popularity for a while, and the lifestyle centered on it dimmed. Fortunately, this setback did not last long. Since the late 1990s, with the advent of the internet, literature has gradually returned to the center of cultural life in another form.
In today’s era, literature is no longer confined to the traditional mode of creation, comment and dissemination. People have constructed a new literary way of life through the marriage of literature and film, the complementarity of traditional and new media, and the rearrangement of cultural capital. In such an era, the boundary between the real world and the virtual space has become blurred, and language and visual art often blend into each other. The hustle and vitality of literary production has become the most striking cultural mark of our time.
Since the 21st century, the value of literature, especially online literature, has mainly been to create stories and characters for the film and television industry. Therefore, to cater to the needs of readers, many authors closely follow popular literature. This relatively narrows creation and also tends to lead to the simplification of aesthetic style, which is not in the favor of writers of belles lettres. 
Therefore, they turn from literary creation to literary criticism, hoping to diversify the aesthetic styles of our times through the critical interpretation of classic works. Realism, romanticism and other aesthetic styles can all be brought into the present, thus stimulating the simplified aesthetic taste of today’s era.
Creative writing
As literary criticism is highly professionalized, it is difficult for ordinary readers to benefit from it. While they do voice opinions, they aren’t heard in the current practice of criticism. The writers know very well that whether their creation is accepted depends on its scholarly quality, especially to the value confirmation of literary historians. However, the scenario is changing as more established writers are invited to lecture at university campuses.
Under the influence of higher education reform, more writers are being invited to campuses to teach open courses or give lectures. For instance, Wang Anyi has been to Fudan University, Ma Yuan has taught in Tongji University, Ge Fei has opened courses in Tsinghua University, and Bi Feiyu has been to Nanjing University.
These courses and lectures are not only popular with students, but also serve as a useful attempt to popularize criticism. It is precisely because of the classroom setting that these contemporary writers tend to avoid the theoretical tendency of scholarly criticism when carrying out literary criticism. They are well aware that what the young students look up to is their identity as a writer. If their criticism is no different from that of university professors, their criticism will not be distinctive.
As such, these writers integrate their own experience with literary creation into the practice of literary criticism. To some extent, writers’ criticism is a form of creative writing. In other words, writers’ criticism tends to replace knowledge with experience, and their bold analysis of literary classics has driven the trend of creative writing in colleges and universities. 
As it turns out, young people, as the main commentators, have completely broken the barriers of literary criticism and opened up the creative prospects for criticism. In a sense, the breakthrough of writers’ criticism has made criticism closer to its artistic subject.
This kind of creative writing can be seen as a popular movement of literary criticism, following the rise of the cultural industry driven by creative writing. It has been proven that having writers as the teachers of creative writing in universities and colleges not only inspires young students but also empowers writers’ criticism in rebuilding literary life.
Contemporary mindset
The rise of writers’ criticism has introduced the contemporary mindset to the re-interpretation of literary classics. From the perspective of scholarly criticism, any interpretation of classical works cannot be separated from the time and cultural context of its creation. However, for some contemporary writers, the scholarly style lacks real-life significance. 
The reason is that it is difficult to connect academic interpretations with present-day life. To put it clearly, if scholarly criticism says, “I annotate the Six Classics,” then writers’ criticism says, “The Six Classics annotate me.” Through the creative interpretation of literary classics, contemporary writers have injected a distinct contemporary mindset into literary criticism.
The contemporary mindset of writers’ criticism has two connotations: One is to rediscover the eternal value of classic works, facilitating the passing down of spiritual wealth beyond the barriers of time and space and into the power driving the progress of this era. 
For example, when studying Dream of the Red Chamber, contemporary writers will not devote themselves to textual research, as redologists do. Instead, they will investigate the characters and interpret realistic lessons through the life philosophies and ethics embodied in the works. 
Second, the contemporary mindset of writers’ criticism is also reflected in the creative rewriting of classic works. Compared with scholarly criticism, the writers’ criticism of classic works is actually a creation process. Though such creation may not be completely in line with the actual condition of the classic works from a theoretical point of view, it can stir up readers’ interest by infusing the classics with the writer’s own life experience and artistic pursuit. In this regard, Bi Feiyu’s Fiction Reading is a great success.
As a collection of critical essays, the book takes literary classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin, The Killers and The Necklace as the objects of criticism. The writing uses colloquial language, and the reasoning process is full of suspense and clever logic, which has been widely lauded. 
Bi believes that artistic omissions in literary classics are a kind of “writing without words.” Therefore, one of the important missions of writers’ criticism is to interpret meanings that have been left implicit in classical works. 
Bi argues that Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, left words unspoken everywhere in his work because of his trust in readers. In fact, since the Book of Songs, Chinese literature has followed an aesthetic tradition of “the content runs out, but the sentiment continues.” So the more omissions in Dream of the Red Chamber, the more intriguing it becomes for readers to read between the lines, which is what theorists call “writable text,” infinite and intriguing. 
From the perspective of literary theory, this is indeed the process of the critic’s discovery of the hidden text. However, as Bi’s criticism is mainly based on his own life experience and artistic pursuit, it contains a contemporary mindset that will arouse the enthusiasm of readers and further promote the reconstruction of literature in our time.
Ye Liwen is a professor from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Wuhan University.
edited by YANG XUE