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China: Writing Imaginary Book Reviews

Writing a review of an imaginary book is a form of pseudepigrapha. Renowned Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a great popularizer of this art form, famously wrote in the introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths (1942):

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary… More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

Cover of 'Review of Imaginary Books' collection of fictional reviews.

Cover of 'Review of Imaginary Books' collection of fictional reviews.

This kind of amusing review has also finds its way in China. In 2010, Review of Imaginary Books [zh], a collection of fictional reviews, was published by the Shanghai Bookstore Publishing House.

The reviews are entertaining commentaries on a wide range of subjects, from issues in contemporary Chinese society to literature and arts. Here is an excerpt from a ‘review’ of The Art of Road Crossing [zh]:

The Art of Road Crossing is actually a book on how to deal with hidden rules in the Chinese society and commercial world for foreigners (laowai) living in China. The book is divided into the following chapters. Chapter 1: You cannot ignore the traffic lights – avoiding mistakes of principles; Chapter 2: When can you ignore the traffic lights – grasping policies and regulations with flexibility; Chapter 3: Looking at the cars is more important than looking at the traffic lights – how to understand and apply ‘hidden rules’; Chapter 4: The police cannot deal with too many rule-breakers – deciding on how bold to act; Chapter 5: That you can run the red lights today does not mean you can do the same tomorrow – understanding the rapid changes in Chinese regulations.

Here is another extract on the ‘book’ Self-cultivation for the Parvenu [zh]:

Although the author reminds the parvenu that they do not need to re-create themselves, he offers a lot of practical advices for parvenu in urgent need to improve their image and tastes. He starts from the basics, including personal and environmental hygiene and etiquette. ‘If you want someone to respect you,’ he writes, ‘you must not be too harsh on waiters in restaurants and hotels. Being impolite on service providers is a typical behavior of the uncivilized parvenu. For those who want to cultivate their tastes, he lists out the most famous writers, musicians and other cultural celebrities. The book also talks briefly about finance, insurance and charity donations.

The author of these imaginary book reviews, Bimuyu, is a Chinese writer of fictions, essays and book reviews. Apart from his own blog [zh], he also maintains the website Duxieren [zh], an aggregator of literary criticisms and reviews from the book supplements of major Chinese newspapers. In 2010, Duxieren was honored with the ‘Model Worker Award’ by the English-language China website Danwei.

Bimuyu has also designed book covers for the imaginary books reviewed by himself:

If a normal book review entails a level of abstraction, a book review for an imaginary book involves an additional level of abstraction. How about a review of these imaginary book reviews? He drew an analogy [zh] from the multi-level world of the movie Inception:

第一层:虚拟书和非虚拟书;第二层:评论这些虚拟或非虚拟书的《虚拟书评》;第三层:评论《虚拟书评》的书评;如果没有搞错的话,本文应该处于第四层;欢迎给本文留言,借以进入这个系统的第五层(陀螺仍然在旋转……)

First level: real and imaginary books; second level: Review of Imaginary Books, which reviews these books; third level: a review of Review of Imaginary Books; if I am not wrong, this blog post is the forth level; and you are welcome to leave a message to this post, in order to enter the fifth level (the gyro is still spinning…).

This month, Bimuyu has shared with us two recent interviews with the media about the thinking behind his imaginary book reviews, and reading and writing in general. Below are excerpts from the transcripts.

What motivates you to write these imaginary book reviews?

其实最初我没想过写书评。一直以来我最大的愿望是写小说,可是一直写得不是很顺,产量极低。开始写博客以后,有一天忽然想写一些假书评玩玩儿。这种形式并不是我的发明,博尔赫斯、艾科,甚至伍迪•艾伦都写过类似的东西。虚拟书评虽然基本上是书评的文体,但是我感觉当初可能还是把它们当小说来写的。小说的主要特点就是虚构,所以虚拟书评大概也可以算是小说,只不过这些小说的主人公不一定是一个人,而是一本书。写虚拟书评的另一个起因是当时我读了一些欧美书评文章的中译本,发现译文中那种英文复合句掺杂中文成语的知识分子气很浓的文字风格挺有意思,我在虚拟书评里大多模仿(或者说戏仿)这种文风,所以也可以说是一种“风格练习”。比较有意思的是,因为虚拟书评有了一些影响,后来开始渐渐有书评杂志的编辑专门找我约稿,于是我开始写起真的书评来了,越写越多,以至于到现在经常被称为“书评人”了。其实,我觉得我骨子里还是一个写小说的。

At the beginning, I didn't think about writing book reviews. My wish was to write a novel. However, my progress was not satisfactory. After I started blogging, one day I suddenly wanted to write some fake book reviews for fun. This literary style is not my invention. Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco and even Woody Allen have all written in such a style. At first, I wrote imaginary book reviews as if they were novels. One thing about novels it that they are fictional, therefore imaginary book reviews can also be counted as novels, though the main characters are books, not people. Another reason I write fictional book reviews is that I have read some Chinese translations of book reviews from Europe and America. I find that translations of complex English sentences doped with Chinese idioms are very intellectual, and I like it. In my book reviews, I frequently imitate this style. I therefore treat my book review writing as an exercise in this style. Because my reviews slowly became influential, some book review magazine editors invited me to write for them. This is how I started writing real book reviews and got the name of ‘book reviewer’. But at heart, I am writing novels.

Is it easier to write reviews for real or imaginary books?

这是两种不同的东西。写真正的书评需要对读者负责,因为读者可能根据你的书评来选书、买书,同时也必须参照一定的格式,比如交待清楚书的关键内容、作者信息等等。但“虚拟书评”是虚构的,在形式上可以更自由些,我写的虚拟书评中有些严格来讲并不符合书评的格式和要求,但我也没去特别计较。

They are two different kinds of things. Writing real book reviews entails responsibility to the readers, for they rely on your reviews to select and buy books. Real book reviews also need to follow certain formats, for example, conveying key contents and information on the author. But ‘imaginary book reviews’ are fictional, and offer more freedom in terms of formats. Strictly speaking, some of my fictional reviews do not follow the requirements of proper book reviews, but I am not too concerned about it.

Should writing book reviews be treated as a career or an interest?

就我本人而言,写书评是一种兴趣。遇到感兴趣的书就写一篇,至于是贴在自己博客上还是发表在期刊杂志上、有稿费还是没有稿费,这些对我来说差别不是特别大。一本书自己如果不感兴趣,即使有人征稿我一般也会婉言推辞掉。如果把写书评当作一种(主要的)谋生手段,我觉得那就太辛苦了。读完一本书需要很多时间,书评的稿费又不怎么高,投入、产出不合比例。如果单单是为了谋生,应该可以找到更容易挣钱的行当。

Personally speaking, writing book reviews is an interest. I will write one if I come across an interesting book. As to whether it will be published in my blog or a magazine, whether I will be paid or not, I am not particularly concerned. If I find a book uninteresting, I will not write a review for it even if someone pays me. I find it hard to rely on writing book reviews as a (major) source of income. Reading a book is time-consuming. Remunerations for book reviews are not particularly high either. The input/output ratio is not attractive. If your main concern is income, you should be able to find a better source than this.

How can we write good book reviews?

并没有认真地想过这个问题,估计很难给出完整、正确的答案。倒是有些零散的体会可以分享。比如写书评时不要忘了给出这本书的内容简介和对作者的简单介绍。我有时候看到一些书评,从头到尾都是关于这本书的评论,谈得口若悬河,可是读到结尾也没搞清原书是写什么的,作者是个什么样的作者。书评的读者事先未必了解那本书,所以写书评时既要有评论,也应该有介绍。另外,我觉得书评作者应该把握好自己的语气和心态,对原书作者不应该过于俯视或者过于仰视。即使是文学大师的作品,既然你要评论,就不应该以一个崇拜者的语气写,满篇都是敬仰、感叹;你应该尽量把自己和对方摆在一个平起平坐的地位,不卑不亢地、客观全面地来写,这样才是好书评。此外,我觉得书评也应该有文采。书评文章不应该是 “今天我读了一本非常好看的小说”这种白开水式的东西,也应该具有一定的文字魅力。这方面欧美的书评作者做得比较好,他们的书评很多写得非常“有范儿”,抖机灵、玩儿幽默,让你觉得是非常精彩的文字。最后还有一点建议,听起来可能有点儿滑稽,但我觉得还是应该说一下,那就是:如果要写一本书的书评,还是尽量真的把那本书读过之后再写吧。

I haven’t thought about this seriously. I cannot offer a complete answer but can share some bits and pieces. For example, don’t forget to give a summary of the book and some information about the author when writing a book review. This is because some readers may not be familiar with the book. Some book reviews only contain criticisms of the book, and you don’t even know what the book is about and how the author is like after reading these reviews. Secondly, I think book reviewers should balance their tone and attitude properly. They should neither look up upon nor look down on the author. Even if the book is written by a master, your tone should not be too worshipping, as you are writing a commentary. You should place yourself in equal status, neither overbearing nor humble, and write the review as objectively and comprehensively as possible. Thirdly, I think book reviews should be attractively written. It should not be written in boring sentences like ‘today I have read a good novel’. In this respect, book reviews in Europe and America are better. Their book reviews are intelligent and humorous, a style in its own right. Finally, it may sound funny, but I ought to say: if you have to write a book review, you should do so after reading the whole book as far as possible.

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