I’ve been reading Alice Munro. She is an amazing writer. I’ve not seen many writers who can skillfully create entire lives for characters within so few pages. I think she’s tied Yiyun Li as my favorite short story writer.
Which leads me to the story behind this post–I was interested in finding whether anyone had made the comparison in styles between Munro and Li, so I googled it. Quite a few reviewers did make the comparison, but more interesting was this site of literary reviews, where there is one reviewer who hates Yiyun Li’s writing and has friend who hates Alice Munro’s writing. When I read this, I wondered: how is it possible to hate Yiyun Li’s writing? How is it possible to hate Alice Munro’s writing? Do these people have no souls? I decided to keep an open mind, and so I clicked through to Yennie Cheung’s review of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. You can see her review here; my own review of the same book was here.
I was surprised to find that I liked Ms. Cheung’s review. It was very well written, and she brings up a number of good points that I had never considered. She writes how Yiyun Li misstated the Buddhist pairing in the title story, saying that it should be “Gold Boy, Jade Maiden” rather than “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.” (I can’t verify this, but if anyone wants to jump in, please do.) She then talks about the Chinese proverbs that I and others have admired in Yiyun Li’s stories, describing them as cliches. She writes:
Beyond the titular misnaming, there’s the use of proverbs and allusions that seem fresh and insightful only in English. What is a proverb, after all, but a Chinese cliché?
According to Ms. Cheung, Americans are “blissfully ignorant” of Chinese stuff, so they eat up Yiyun Li. She writes:
While Gold Boy, Emerald Girl may be a good peek at modern China for the uninitiated, its storytelling fundamentals feel semi-solid at best. The cultural differences between Li’s characters and her audience may work in her favor, but don’t mistake missing details for minimalism, poor plot structure for character introspection, or audience confusion for authorial mystery.
There isn’t much else to say about this. I’m amazed by my own ignorance of Chinese culture if this is true, but at the same time, I still think that Yiyun Li is a spellbinding storyteller from the perspective of readers who may not be as familiar with Chinese culture. It shouldn’t take away anything from her, since she does write for an American audience in English. But it does once again point to how gatekeepers, reviewers, readers, and consumers have points of view that are strongly influenced by their cultures and points of view.
(Chinese people and others feel free to comment.)