When I saw this book prominently displayed in the Eslite (誠品) bookstore opposite National Taiwan University at Gongguan (公館), I was immediately drawn to its title. Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History — this, I thought, was something that had to be read. A new account of Taiwanese literature doesn’t appear every day, after all. It would be a perfect volume, I imagined, for both a thorough perusal and future reference.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it wasn’t a literary history at all but a collection of articles that took their inspiration from a conference on Taiwanese literature held at Columbia University in New York City back in the spring of 1998.
Most prospective readers will take it for granted that “A New Literary History” will be a continuous history of important books and writing. Such an account might be penned by different authors, but it would nevertheless add up to a comprehensive, and probably impartial, narrative. Such things may now be out of fashion, and considered impossibly simple-minded. Nevertheless, this is what “A New Literary History” suggests.
But literary academics — and theorizers of all kinds — have long puffed themselves up by claiming to account for all known phenomena. Creators mocking their commentators also constitute a very old tradition, however, most vividly represented by Jonathan Swift’s impaling of wordy would-be philosophers, and scientists who absurdly labored to extract sunlight out of cucumbers.
This having been said, I can report that Writing Taiwan is occasionally interesting in certain ways. It’s by and large very academic, of course, and the ordinary reader will be baffled by much of the terminology. But then the ordinary reader isn’t this book’s target readership. Its target is students, some of whom testify that teaching from a similar ideological base caused them acute self-doubt, wondering what could be wrong with them when they couldn’t understand half of what they were being taught.
In an eloquent Introduction, Carlos Rojas — who also translated two of the articles himself — lays out the book’s general plan. It’s divided into four sections, he writes, covering theoretical considerations, modernism versus “nativism” in Taiwanese literature, time, and lastly space. The feeling, however, despite the writer’s lucidity, is that Rojas is marshalling his disparate contributions into formal categories into which they don’t always quite fit, and making grand claims for them that, by their very nature, they can’t really aspire to.
And the categories are nothing if not inflated. Take space, or “tropes of spatiality,” for instance. What the co-editor actually means by this includes the simple study of maps — “spectral cartography” in his own chapter on the contemporary Malaysian-born author Li Yongping (李永平) — and the layout of cities that forms part of the interest of the 1997 novel Ancient Capital (古都) by Zhu Tianxin (朱天心).
Examples of good work marred by deference to current academic gurus are everywhere. One is a consideration of Taiwanese novelist Su Weizhen (蘇偉真) by Gang Gary Xu. His comparison of themes in Su’s The Island of Silence (1994) to those of the theater theorist Antonin Artaud, prompted by the concern of both writers with Bali, are fascinating. Only when you come across allusions to theorist Julia Kristeva, and a lament at the “Orientalism” bewailed by Edward Said, do you register disappointment that Xu couldn’t manage to be more independently minded.