Books

Excerpt from ‘Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self’ by Gish Jen

Published by Harvard University.

The novel, and especially its characters, are Pinocchio. They are Frankenstein’s monster, full of uncanny drive, and, when all is well, they are beyond a writer’s control. Every fiction writer worth her salt knows how a character will up and walk off with a piece. You know that to write is as much to give your characters their freedom as it is anything else; and you know that in the end, nothing matters more than that they should breathe and stretch and laugh in your face.

So all right. We read for this, we write for this, we talk endlessly in the contemporary literary world about this. But are our characters and novels truly free, or are they merely one more way in which culture, our supposed enemy, has us in its employ? . . . [C]lassical Chinese might have served to discourage any stray Prousts from cropping up; and, though, as open-minded modern Westerners, we might admire some examples of interdependent art such as Fan Kuan’s landscape, we in truth mostly shake our heads at all that reinforcing of a self that in our less guarded moments we have been known to characterize as robot- or sheeplike . . .

[T]hink of the hallmarks of the literary — think of the THINGS we deem sacred: the freedom of our characters, the portrayal of interiority, the focus on the individual. Think of our preference for the elaborated and the fully imagined, and think of our anticipation, if not of the linear, exactly, certainly of the progressive. Think of our extolling of originality and authenticity, with “authenticity” often synonymous with resistance, if not outright hostility, to society; think of our insistence on autotelism. Is it not striking that every single one of these hallmarks is also a hallmark of the independent self?