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Archive for the ‘literary fiction’ Category

While suffering a terrible bout of writer’s block, I thought more on the concept of the “Great Asian American Novel.” Artists don’t strive for “good enough” in their work. They strive for greatness. That doesn’t mean they need to win awards and medals or see their work achieve critical success. We strive to create an expression that captures our essence, that conveys to the minutiae the world filtered through our eyes, minds, through that which we know to be us. The words, pictures, and symbols do not just tell a story, but deliver a single powerful voice.

Few ever achieve the greatness endeavored and we never concretize our voices in the abstraction of art. There’s Ayn Rand and her Atlas Shrugged, a work she claimed herself to be the best she could have done, her greatness, a work that perfectly conveyed her philosophies; but few of us ever write our Atlas Shrugged. Another literary aspiration, equally important, not as large-scale, is writing with a target purpose of saying what we have to say, like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Changrae Lee’s Native Speaker. These books are like quotable quotes. They convey a universal but specific thought with ingenuity and brilliance. Of course the two literary objectives seem to overlap, but the first is really about us and the second is about our province.

The Great Asian American Novel has to be about both us and our province. It must produce a single compelling voice that haunts the readers, a voice that materializes by our sides like a real life being. It must also depict truisms of Asian Americana, a book that refuses to be colorblind, a book that paints the latticework of a single snowflake to memorialize long after it has melted.

Thinking on Asian American writers and readers, I wonder why so few “Asian American novels” win the approval of Asian American readers. Heck, these authors often fail to gain the approval of mainstream critics as well. It’s because few if any Asian American novels have wholly painted a latticework of that single snowflake, and that is why few of us can name off the top of our heads a Great Asian American novel.

In my New York home, I have a library of Asian-interest books that rivals AAWW’s catalog. In college, privileged with Daddy’s plastic money, I horded every Asian American book publication I heard of, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, anthologies, everything. I own books you can’t even buy anymore, though of course I don’t own everything and there’s lots of holes in my collection. In university bookstores, I’d walk past the required reading lists for my own classes to check out other shelves and toss into my basket anything at all Asian related. The books line two wall-to-wall built in bookcases, lay in stacks on my nightstand while my favorite ones are displayed in the shelves above my old study desk.

Among that collection, I would say only one writer has achieved greatness: Changrae Lee. Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft were the closest manifestations of art Asian American literature has come. I appreciate what Theresa Cha’s Dictee tried to accomplish and the prose in all of Maxine Hong Kingston’s books are poetry at its finest, but neither of these two books made me stop dead in my tracks and say, “Wow.” Don Lee’s Yellow made me say “Wow” and convinced me a new turn in trends for AsAm literature had arrived, but his writing is missing something, though I’m not sure what; maybe soul or passion or something like that. There’s no mastery of passion yet to be found in AsAm literature, at least not at the level of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges.

There’s also the litter of Gen-X Asian American women writers who make me cringe, like that chic (I forget her name) who wrote Eating Chinese Food Nakedor Evelyn Lau, the Canadian ex-prostitute. There’s admittedly a lot ofsoul and passion there, but it’s not really soul or passion, but moreaccurately the by-products and excrement of soul and passion smearedcarelessly across the pages. Passion is the turbulence that great artcontrols. I haven’t yet see any of these AsAm female writers controltheir passions, though admittedly they’ve got plenty of it, which isstill a good thing I suppose. Oh and I’m not even going to talk about Gail Tsukiyama or Adeline Yen Mah or The Dim Sum of All Things. *shudders*

A recent phenomenon, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine is Sleeping caused me to take notice, but is she an Asian American writer? I haven’t figured that out yet. There’s no mention of her ethnic descent in any of the articles on her and she certainly does not address it in her fiction. Thus, while a great literary novel and even if she is of Asian descent, Madeleine isn’t a “Great Asian American Novel” because there are no artifacts of Asian Americana in it. Stellar Kim, a frequently anthologized writer shows a lot of promise, but she has yet to produce a novel. Frances Hwang also has what it takes to write the next Great Asian American novel, and yet still nothing on that front either. Samantha Lan Chang, I think thus far the only Asian American female to win the Stegner Fellowship in Fiction, has some serious talent, but for whatever reason that talent wasn’t exercised in Hunger or Inheritance. Disappointing. Instead, writers like Min Jin Lee take center stage with all the attention and it’s no wonder that literary critics don’t take Asian American fiction seriously.

Many books have been touted as a Great American Novel of its time. These books, often found on high school reading lists and introductory English course syllabi, include black writers because nobody feels comfortable with an All-American list that does not include Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, or Ralph Ellison, and even Latin American writers because of our kinship to south of the border neighbors, but Asian American writers? Other than maybe reading Amy Tan’s short story “Rules of the Game” which, whenever presented in a high school English class causes all the Asian American kids in that class to shirk in their seats, nothing at all in school curriculum give students a sense of Asian America. The Great Asian American novel would finally accomplish that goal.

So did Amy Tan write the Great Asian American novel of her time? Probably. Arguably, yes. However, I await the AsAm writer who can show mainstream America that the bar can be set much higher.

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Word count is one of those things new writers worry about but deny worrying about because we’re not supposed to be worrying about it. According to Wikipedia’s entry on word count, the typical word count of a novel is at least 80,000 words. I’ve heard through the publishing world grapevine than most agents and editors will generally take a query for a first novel more seriously if the word count is between 80,000 and 100,000.

Instead of sleeping, I compiled in an Excel sheet novels I read growing up. They’re mostly classics because those are the only ones where word count is easily obtained. More contemporary fiction would require more digging. I wouldn’t say I personally love every one of these books, but I would regard them as classics, as great novels in themselves, even if the particular author wasn’t that impressive of a writer.

Author — Book Title — Word Count
(in case it wasn’t obvious)

Alan Paton Cry, the Beloved Country 83,774
Alice Walker The Color Purple 66,556
Amy Tan The Kitchen God’s Wife 159,276
Amy Tan Joy Luck Club 91,419
Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged 561,996
Ayn Rand The Fountainhead 311,596
Betty Smith A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 145,092
Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 135,420
Daniel Defoe Moll Flanders 138,087
Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights 107,945
Erich Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front 61,922
Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises 67,707
Frank Norris McTeague 112,737
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment 211,591
George Eliot Middlemarch 316,059
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four 88,942
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird 99,121
Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin 166,622
Henry David Thoreau Walden 114,634
Honore de Balzac Pere Goriot 87,846
J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 73,404
James Fenimore Cooper Last of the Mohicans 145,469
Jane Austen Persuasion 87,978
John Knowles A Separate Peace 56,787
John Steinback The Grapes of Wrath 169,481
John Steinback East of Eden 225,395
Joseph Heller Catch-22 174,269
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 49,459
Kurt Vonnegut Welcome to the Monkey House 99,560
Leo Tolstoy War and Peace 587,287
Margaret Atwood Alias Grace 157,665
Mark Twain The Adventures of Huck Finn 109,571
Mark Twain Life on the Mississippi 127,776
Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior 70,957
Milan Kundera The Unbearable Lightness of Being 85,199
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 63,604
Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray 78,462
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 46,118
Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles 64,768
Toni Morrison Song of Solomon 92,400
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway 63,422
William Faulkner As I Lay Dying 56,695
William Golding Lord of the Flies 59,900

 

The Stats:

Average word count of the Great Novels is 136,604 words. That’s like the literary institution’s recommended word count for first novels plus a long novella! But the arithmetic mean isn’t very helpful here because we’ve got some doozies on this list.

Median word count is 99,341 words. That’s longer than Wikipedia’s estimation of the typical novel length, but just about right as a target word count for budding novel writers.

Longest novel on the list is Tolstoy’s War and Peace (surprise, surprise) at 587,287 words. Note that Ayn Rand’s cult classic Atlas Shrugged isn’t that far behind, at 561,996 words.

Shortest novel on the list is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of my personal favorites, at 46,118 words. Most of Hemingway’s novels make pretty slim books too.

Word count on the Bible, Old and New combined: 774,776 words according to Source A and 788,280 words in the King James according to Source B. But the Bible’s word count isn’t relevant here because first of all, it’s not by one author unless you want to go there with me and say it’s God and in that case, well, it’s God, so yeah.

Then again, considering the oeuvres of certain writers, like John Steinbeck, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, and even Amy Tan, they’ve already written way more than 700,000-ish words.

 

Need A Life:

I can’t believe I just sat here and compiled that list. By the way, I came up with each book off the top of my head, either by author name or by title. I wrecked my brains from the excursion. I need to go do something like shop for shoes or eat ice cream now…. Ugh.

 

Word count on past PEN/Faulkner Award winners:

Chabon, Michael The Amazing Adventures… 216,020
Banks, Russell Cloudsplitter 260,742
Franzen, Jonathan The Corrections 196,774
Cooper, Susan The Dark Is Rising 82,143
Danticat, Edwidge The Dew Breaker 60,082
Phillips, Caryl A Distant Shore 103,090
Packer, ZZ Drinking Coffee Elsewhere 68,410
Robinson, Marilynne Gilead 84,845
Cunningham, Michael The Hours 54,243
Kennedy, William Ironweed 67,606
McMurtry, Larry Lonesome Dove 365,712
Kingsolver, Barbara The Poisonwood Bible 177,679
Guterson, David Snow Falling on Cedars 138,098
Hegi, Ursula Stones from the River 197,517
Canales, Viola The Tequila Worm 42,715
Jin, Ha Waiting 89,297
Jin, Ha War Trash 130,460

 

A few surprises here. I thought Ha Jin’s Waiting was longer than 89,000 words because that book lumbered like some sort of literary elephant and took me more than one night to read. Normally books don’t take me more than one night to read. I’m also surprised at the brevity of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Thus far, I have about the same word count as Danticat’s Dew Breaker, but the characters have a lot more work to do before the end.

 

Word count on novels that fall under Amazon.com’s category of “Asian American Literary Fiction”:

Title–Author–Wordcount

A Gesture Life Chang-Rae Lee 112995
Native Speaker Chang-Rae Lee 108568
Aloft Chang-Rae Lee 112481
The Tapestries Kien Nguyen 107251
The Village Bride of Beverly Hills Kavita Daswani 65450
In Full Bloom Caroline Hwang 91577
Breaking the Tongue Vyvyane Loh 135294
Zen Attitude Sujata Massey 76157
Queen of Dreams Chitra Divakaruni 93176
Buddha Baby Kim Wong Keltner 80032
The Dim Sum of All Things Kim Wong Keltner 81994
Pastries Bharti Kirchner 101217
Mambo Peligroso Patricia Chao 93491
Somebody’s Daughter Marie Myung-Ok Lee 87811
The Island of Bicycle Dancers Jiro Adachi 77821
One Hundred Million Hearts Kerry Sakamoto 73996
Dream Jungle Jessica Hagedorn 90764
The Gangster of Love Jessica Hagedorn 90909
Long Stay in a Distant Land Chieh Chieng 59856
Beijing Doll Chun Sue 59913
Shanghai Baby Wei Hui 79507
Invisible Lives Anjali Banerjee 55328
The People’s Republic of Desire Annie Wang 106032
Candy Mian Mian 80434
The Space Between Us Thrity Umrigar 102992
Transparency Frances Hwang 65817
Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners Y. Euny Hong 81287
Typical American Gish Jen 79105
Hundred Secret Senses Amy Tan 117799
When the Emperor Was Divine Julie Otsuka 34381
Becoming Madame Mao Anchee Min 104979
Empress Orchid Anchee Min 134598
The Inheritance of Lost Kiran Desai 106698
Country of Origin Don Lee 84335
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Lisa See 99945
Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri 62164
The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri 104172
Free Food for Millionaires Min Jin Lee 207907
The Woman Warrior Maxine Hong Kingston 69989
Sons of Heaven Terrence Cheng 86681
When My Sister was Cleopatra Moon Frances Park 56480
American Son Brian Ascalon Roley 54858
My Year of Meats Ruth L. Ozeki 104746
When the Elephants Dance Tess Uriza Holthe 164718
Night of Many Dreams Gail Tsukiyama 79151
The Language of Threads Gail Tsukiyama 83953
Lost Names Richard E. Kim 64073

 

(Not including the books named in other tables above that would count as “APA Literature”)

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A well-known playwright in the Asian American community wrote me recently and said, “Everything I’ve done–in theater, in publishing . . . is more activism than art.”

I write with an activist spirit, but I prefer not to compromise art simply to promulgate my personal ideologies. The line between activism and art is hard to locate, however. I write to express my essence and as an Asian female living in the United States, racism, feminism, and cultural imperialism come into play. Not writing about my experiences in these realms would be disingenuous. Writing about it runs the risk of coming across as proselytizing, as somewhat angry and bitter, as flaunting the I’ve-been-marginalized card.

When re-reading my manuscript (what I have of it so far), story and politics intertwine like fibers of rope. I cannot pull out one without unraveling the other. Is that really what I want? I’ve read works where story and politics are layers. I haven’t the artistry to make my novel layered. It’s just rope.

As an Asian American artist, one faces an audience of stiff-lipped folk with their arms folded. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Too much Asian Americanism and people tell you to get over yourself. Too little of it and people accuse you of being white-washed, ignorant, entrenched in self-denial. You can’t write in an art vacuum. You can’t write fiction like a middle-aged white male, but you weather just as much hostility if you write like Frank Chin.

I don’t know whether I should say “My writing is more activism than art” or “My writing is more art than activism” or “My writing is both” or “My writing is neither.” I shouldn’t have to say any one of the above, but that’s most likely not going to be an option. I’m not saying every one of us must explain our actions and expressions, but if you keep on burning crosses on front lawns, at some point you have to stop and give your reasons.

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