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the Complete Review
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The Subplot

Megan Walsh

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To purchase The Subplot

Title: The Subplot
Author: Megan Walsh
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 118 pages
Availability: The Subplot - US
The Subplot - UK
The Subplot - Canada
  • What China Is Reading and Why It Matters

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Our Assessment:

B : good overview and introduction to contemporary Chinese fiction, but doesn't dig deep enough into what China actually reads

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 12/2/2022 .
Financial Times . 28/1/2022 Isabel Hilton
New Statesman . 23/3/2022 Katie Stallard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/2/2022 Jamie Fisher
Publishers Weekly . 30/12/2021 .
Wall St. Journal . 14/5/2022 Lee Lawrence

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book makes a powerful case for Anglophone readers who want to understand China to look past the headlines and turn to literature. The country’s creative writers navigate both encroaching censorship and relentless commercial pressures. Yet in fantastical, satirical and provocative ways, their work vibrantly reimagines China’s past, present and future." - The Economist

  • "It is a fair guess that most readers of The Subplot will never read the bulk of the literature Walsh describes. Yet she argues persuasively that the foreign reader who wants to understand Chinese society should explore the fictional worlds that lie beyond what she calls the “broad-brush political and economic narratives of the public domain.” (...) The world she explores is a vigorous panorama of multiple genres that encompass the rural nostalgia of “cottagecore”, espionage fiction, crime stories and fantasy martial arts heroics. Little of it -- despite official exhortation -- seems to sing the praises of the Party, preferring to grapple with the massive social and personal dislocations of recent times." - Isabel Hilton, Financial Times

  • "In a concise and fast-paced 136 pages, Walsh guides the reader through the extraordinary literature that has emerged from those contradictory impulses (.....) The Subplot will make you want to read more Chinese fiction, though perhaps not of the online variety. But Walsh's book also gives the reader an understanding of what is at stake as the country's political life continues to tighten under Xi Jinping." - Katie Stallard, New Statesman

  • "Walsh covers the basics in passages on Yan Lianke, Yu Hua, Can Xue, Su Tong and other titans of the past 20 years in mainland fiction. (...) Walsh delivers a wry cornucopia, inviting for general readers who don't know Mo Yan from Han Han." - Jamie Fisher, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(S)he prizes breadth over depth, and fails to make a strong case about what Chinese literary tastes could mean for the West. Readers with an interest in the country's art will appreciate the expansive reading list, but otherwise may be left wanting." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Throughout, Ms. Walsh weaves together thumbnail descriptions, historical contexts and trenchant analyses. She does this so deftly that we move seamlessly from, say, an idealized vision of life as a young woman in premodern rural China (...) to science-fiction penned by astrophysicists, coders and engineers in which the authors probe the limits of transhuman life or spin cautionary dystopias. (...) Ms. Walsh is unabashed in her admiration for the creativity in Chinese fiction and the inventiveness with which some writers have consciously dodged or confused the anaconda (.....) But she also soberly appraises present and future dangers." - Lee Lawrence, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Subplot, Megan Walsh offers an overview of contemporary Chinese fiction and publishing (specifically, the situation in the People's Republic of China, rather than Chinese-language writing more generally). The focus is very much on the current situation ("the last ten to twenty years"), though she does look back and trace some of the changes that have taken place from longer back -- notably regarding the shifts in government censorship and control, from Maoist times to now. Her task is somewhat complicated in that she is writing for a foreign audience but most Chinese writing is not available in translation; in writing about traditionally published (i.e. in printed/book form) Chinese fiction most of her examples are of books and authors whose work is available in English (indeed, many of them are under review at the complete review), and while this may be helpful in that readers may have some familiarity with these, or can easily find titles of interest, it's unclear how well this reflects what is actually being published and read in China (not least also because she includes quite a few that are not freely available in mainland China itself, i.e. books and authors that are probably not what China is actually reading).
       Indeed, especially with regards to traditionally published writing, Walsh does not seem to quite live up to, as (part of) her subtitle has it, What China Is Reading. For one, there is the interesting but under-explored phenomenon that fiction in translation -- which seems to enjoy considerable popularity -- is treated and seen differently:

Foreign novels generally aren't seen to represent or reflect Chinese culture, and therefore are not deemed a threat to it. What is published by Chinese writers in Chinese is of paramount concern.
       The focus on Chinese writing is understandable, but some additional discussion of foreign literature and how it is seen would surely be of interest, especially in a study of What China Is Reading and Why It Matters.
       Walsh also buries the real kicker deep in the study:
It is estimated that fiction only makes up about 7 percent of the printed books sold in China, while a third of the market goes to self-help books.
       Her discussion, however, is almost entirely focused on fiction -- which is admittedly more interesting, and perhaps even more revealing, but would seem to leave out a rather significant part of the picture.
       That said, her overview of contemporary Chinese fiction is, while broad and quick, a good one, tracing the rapidly changing situation very well. So, for example, she covers the (brief) flourishing of the: "teen idol authors of the 'post-80s' era", such as Wei Hui and Han Han, well -- and, indeed, is very good more generally on how China's rapid societal shifts have been reflected in the writing scene (not least then also in the government's reaction and 'guidance').
       If much of her coverage of traditionally-published Chinese fiction feels more like a literature-survey, Walsh is on stronger footing with her chapter on online writing, with its more immediate connection to readers. (Indeed, as she notes, large-scale success in publishing online demands a constant interaction by authors with their readers -- as well as relentless productivity.) With practically none of this writing readily accessible to English-reading readers, Walsh is also more wide-ranging in her examples, making this the most successful part of her study. The sheer scale of internet writing (and reading) in China makes it significant, while its immediacy allows for greater -- and much quicker, more reactive -- audience and government involvement. Walsh's discussions of censorship are interesting throughout, and while the issue is more straightforward in traditional publishing, actions and reactions are clearer (or more blatant) in the online writing universe.
       Especially in the discussion of online writing, there are interesting observations about its audiences and their expectations and interests, as seen in, for example, the popularity of stories featuring "shameless heroes" who: "excel at 'face-slapping,' the intentional humiliation of opponents" -- noteworthy in a society that still values so highly: "the concept of 'face,' or respect and social standing". The differences in what is popular among male and female audiences are also particularly great (or at least most obvious) in online writing.
       Walsh also looks at comics in China -- noting that the scene is dominated by Japanese manga, but describing interesting small-scale Chinese efforts, almost reminiscent of Soviet samizdat writings. Again, this is writing with a very limited reach -- but perhaps an outsize influence, at least in certain circles of society.
       Of particular interest is also her look at crime fiction -- a term, she notes, that is not widely used in a country where the bread and butter of mystery fiction -- murder, above all, but also other forms of popular-in-the-Western-world crime -- remains relatively rare. Instead:
Following the Tiananmen protests in 1989, in which students called for economic reform, democracy, and the rule of law, a lot of Chinese crime fiction or "legal system literature" turned into a new type of "public security literature". It became a genre that was less about criminality than about law enforcement.
       The range of The Subplot is wide -- including also the burgeoning field of science fiction --, addressing, at least in part, the whole spread of Chinese fiction, in all formats (i.e. including online writing and graphic fiction). It makes for a very good, quick overview of the contemporary scene -- with Walsh also strong on the extent of government influence and action in shaping and changing this scene.
       The study does fall somewhat short in truly examining What China Is Reading and Why It Matters -- not least in limiting itself to fiction. While offering many examples of how Chinese writing reflects changing reader demographics, experiences, and interests, it still feels like just a scratching of the surface. Nevertheless, given how limited the space here is -- the book isn't much more than 100 pages (an amount that some online writers in China sometimes pound out in a day, she points out ...) -- it covers a great deal.
       The Subplot is good, quick introduction to and overview of contemporary Chinese fiction, in all its forms, and informative as to what subject-matters and forms of story-telling authors are engaging with; it also gives a decent sense of how the Chinese government handles (or tries to) much of this creative output. But, with its focus on the producers (writers) and, to a lesser extent, regulators (the government), as to what China (i.e. the Chinese population) actually reads, too much here remains unexplored.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2022

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The Subplot: Reviews: Megan Walsh: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Writer and journalist Megan Walsh lives in the UK.

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© 2022 the complete review

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