From China to Britain, a Book Odyssey
by Freddie Toastfork
With the unveiling of the five hideous mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there has never been a better time to raise the profile of Chinese literature in Britain, particularly for a number of companies specialising in publishing translated Chinese literature in Britain. So that's why I'm here, to provide my integrated consultancy services and encourage those companies to get their books into the shops and flying off the shelves, as part of the British Council's current Do China Favours With No Apparent Reciprocity campaign.
At this point you may be thinking. "How do you know what works in the book-selling world? I've never heard of you. Who are you?" Of course you've never heard of me. I was always in the background, working from the shadows. Pulling strings, toggling switches, slowly rotating dials until they produced an audible electric hum. But the fact is, I'm the expert on book marketing. I practically invented the modern concept of selling novels. If it hadn't been for me, nobody would have even heard of books, let alone read them.
I came up with all the classic methods to induce book purchasing and the catching of eye to cover. Hideous shiny embossed lettering on the cover? I came up with that. Making the author's name bigger than the title? That was me. 'Recommended' novels stacked in a less formal manner on tables in the middle of the shop to create a friendly, market stall ambience? Me again. Cluttered quotes from critics on the dust jacket? Actually, that was J.G. Ballard's idea, but I came up with putting quotes and award names on giant round stickers that obscure most of the cover.
Now, the main problem is that while the money-burdened public like serious world literature, that doesn't mean they're going to read it. We don't care if they read it either, as long as they buy it. So, my advice to anyone wanting to sell classics of Chinese literature is this: lie.
Specifically, the blurbs on the back covers should be punchy paragraphs of mendacity. The public want to be really grabbed by the blurb - they don't want to hear from some crusty academic saying how great the new translation is.
Let's try some examples.
The Family by Ba Jin
In rural China, respect is everything. In his latest hard-hitting thriller, ex-cop author Ba Jin takes on a brutal journey into the heart of organised crime. Xiao Dong is a young man about to "make his bones" for his crime family, but can he go through with it? His target is a wealthy businessman who will not kowtow to the Family - and the father of Pingping, the girl he loves. "Gripping, taut, a bloodied tour de force," said the London Review of Books.
Camel Xiangzi by Lao She
Xiangzi is special - there aren't many camels that live in their own apartment in Hong Kong, and even fewer that can talk! But Xiangzi feels lonely and alienated in the big city, so when a local zither enthusiast offers him a place playing the trombone in a modal jazz ensemble, he jumps at the chance. An international hit with young adults and literate camels alike, Camel Xiangzi is a heartwarming story of life on tour, the struggle for success and staying true to yourself.
Rainbow by Mao Dun
Mao Dun is sometimes hailed as 'China's answer to Nick Hornby'. In Rainbow, we can see why. The story follows teenager Nick as he grapples with the troubles of life, love and rock'n'roll in late 70s Iowa. Nick's family is troubled, his school grades are low, but one passion holds his life together - the newly formed rock group of ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Rainbow. When Nick gets the chance to tag along on Rainbow's US tour, it seems as though all of his prayers have been answered, and he even falls for the girl of his dreams. But traces of the past, and a bizarre conspiracy surrounding the band's vocalist, Ronnie James Dio, may yet come to haunt him...