Loud Sparrows: Little Stories from Big China

January 8, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

coverAs Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” a short story should be able to be read in a “single sitting.” The writers in Loud Sparrows have taken his call for brevity to heart. Topping out at three pages, each selection from this anthology of Chinese “short-shorts” (also known by the name flash fiction) consumes about as much time as smoking a cigarette, making sitting more or less irrelevant.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to question. What is beyond doubt is the popularity of the form in China. Although, short-shorts (as featured in such journals as Flashquake, Vestal Review, and Smoke-long Quarterly) have found a readership in the U.S., they have not been met with the same enthusiasm as in China, where the Journal of Selected Short-shorts accounts for over half of all subscriptions to the P.R.C’s 400 plus literary journals.

Starting with this rampant popularity as its premise, Loud Sparrows proposes to give its readers an introduction to the “contemporary Chinese experience,” as seen through the world of Chinese “short-shorts.” To accomplish this goal, the translator/editors have assembled a selection of ninety-one stories by professional and amateur writers working in the P.R.C., Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad. The stories are interspersed with philosophical musings about the nature of the “short-short,” which are somewhat condescendingly described as a means to “ease [any] anxiety that may have been caused by the absence of rigid definition[s] [of the form].”

This absence of definition has not hindered the form’s success in China. Rather, the short-short’s popularity there seems almost inevitable. As the joke goes, if you’re one in a million there, there are 100,000 others just like you, a sentiment mirrored by the writer Yin Di in the book’s introduction: “What can be said in 1,000 words had better not be said in 10,000.” As suggested by its accompanying slogan “everybody writes” (a thought that must send shivers down the spines of slush pile readers across the globe), the form’s length makes it democratic in a way that the novel can never hope to be, opening a path not just to mass expression, but also mass consumption, a point that the writer Yang Xiaomin makes effectively in one of the book’s many interludes:

Short shorts are the art form of common people. By that I mean, they can be consumed by most people, most people can participate in the creative process, and most people can benefit from an art form of simple words and profound meaning.

This compression of form suits not just China’s population, but also its somewhat schizophrenic political sentiments. On one hand, the short-short’s brevity fulfills an almost Marxist function, taking the means of literary production away from the intelligentsia and giving them to the people (or proletariat, if you prefer). On the other hand, the short-short fulfills a market function: its length makes it the ideal literary commodity, easily distributed and easily consumed.

This market function has lead to short-shorts being widely embraced by the business world. Unlike novels and longer short stories, which require a much larger investment of time and discipline from both the reader and the writer, the accessibility of short-shorts has made them the perfect vehicle for selling, distributing, and manufacturing the written word. As with any product, this commodification has been a mixed blessing. While short-shorts have made written works more widely available and accessible to the “average Joe,” they have also, arguably, cheapened the written word. A fierce battle over the literary merit of short-shorts – a question elliptically addressed in many of the “please love me” quotes peppered throughout the book – has raged for some time and there are no signs that it will soon abate. Rather, the boundaries of what constitutes literature continue to be tested. The upcoming introduction in China of mobile fiction for cellular phones, stories even shorter than the current crop of short-shorts, raises the question of when a story ceases to be a story (those with an interest in the coming apocalypse should follow this link.

Predictably, this two-fold function of democratization and commodification has had the effect of creating endless opportunities for bad literature. In theory, the form encourages its practitioners to choose their words carefully, picking over every sentence, removing anything that might be extraneous, until all that remains is a small, hard, highly polished jewel of a story, something more closely approaching traditional Chinese poetry than Edgar Allen Poe’s vision for the short story. Examples of this “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” philosophy of story telling are few and far between, however. Instead, the instant gratification of the form seems to encourage both lazy writing and lazy reading.

This is the main problem facing Loud Sparrows. Despite a well of source material that probably approaches the infinite, the majority of the collection’s stories fail to inspire. While there are a few excellent selections, the majority, to quote one story, “[come] like a gust of wind and [go] like a waft of smoke,” relying on tired jokes or twist endings, rather than providing the reader with any true emotional resonance or the epiphanies that the stories’ writers repeatedly insist are part and parcel of the form. Part of the problem arises from a flawed premise. By anthologizing short-shorts, the translators have undermined their essence. When read in context, on the bus or between newspaper articles, a short-short might provide a pleasant aesthetic jolt, much like the sudden appearance of a full moon on a cloudy night, but with little space to develop memorable characters or incidents, the stories quickly lose their novelty and begin to run together. This problem is not helped by the difficulties faced by the book’s translators. Although all three translators write fluidly and well, the idiosyncratic voices of the various writers are inevitably subsumed by the translators’ personal styles. This is an unavoidable artifact of the translation process, but, while it might not be problematic in a novel length work, the stories in this volume fall victim to a sameness that further blurs their boundaries.

Sadly, Loud Sparrows does not only fail as fiction, it also falls short as a scholarly work. The book’s informative introduction is undermined by a haphazard and seemingly arbitrary organizational scheme, which sees the stories arranged by putative subjects (grooming, nourishment, weirdness and, perhaps most tellingly, ??) of dubious value to either the scholar or the casual reader. Even the translator Howard Goldblatt, who “introduces” each subject with original short-shorts written for the project, seems to recognize the meaningless of the task, ending one of his more uninspired stories about a translator writing – guess what – a short-short with the line “…to hell with it…I’ve got better things to do.”

More than anything, the organizational scheme underlines the book’s missed opportunities. Stories from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the P.R.C are lumped together, leaving readers to assume that a common language (common only if you ignore the enormous differences between the three Chinese dialects involved) has played a more important role in the form’s development than the three countries’ different politics, cultures and economic systems. This seems an unlikely proposition. A comment about “Greater China” in the introduction leaves one to wonder whether this possible organizational scheme might have fallen victim to the politics of mainland China, with its insistence on integrating Taiwan and Hong Kong into a seamless whole. Other pertinent information is also ignored. Although the translators make a point of emphasizing the importance of context to the stories’ content, claiming that their length means they are often dashed out in response to breaking news and social trends (a literature of the moment if you will), no context is given. Nor do the translators include the contributors’ biographical introductions that are typical in short story anthologies. These omissions all conspire to further deprive each story of its substance, drawing attention to the fact that, with such a paucity of words, most of the stories, unlike a novel, cannot exist in a vacuum.

In the end, Loud Sparrows amounts to little more than an interesting experiment. Although a few of its pieces show promise, ultimately, its problems are best expressed by one of its contributors: A piece of good fiction must never leave the reader thinking, “So what?”

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.

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