Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing between the Lines

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

9
Fiction Criticism and How the Story Is Told

It is the thesis of this book that many of the changes in the evolution of the traditional Chinese novel from the early stage of collective authorship to the height of the tradition in the Qing dynasty are bound up with the efforts of traditional Chinese fiction commentators in their dual roles as critics and editors. It would be folly, of course, to ascribe wide-ranging changes of this sort to a single cause, but in the present chapter we will look at the influence of traditional critics on how stories were told.

The representation of life in literature is largely conditioned by the conventions of literature itself rather than direct and unmediated observation of life by autonomous individuals. Literature is a system, and each literary genre has a poetics, unwritten and/or written. To be intelligible to its readers, each new work must relate itself, critically or uncritically, comprehensively or partially, to that system of poetics (which may in itself be monolithic or pluralistic). The two major components of the poetics for each genre are famous and influential works of literature, which become either models to be imitated or milestones to be surpassed, and the writings of literary critics, which can constitute an articulate and systematized written poetics. Traditional fiction critics had a powerful input into the establishment of both the canon and generic requirements of fiction through their commentarial and editorial work. Their writings, however, tend to be atomized and particularistic. It is up to us to search out systems and structures in their work.

According to "common sense," the critic's relationship to art is parasitic and ex post facto. The critic is supposedly always one step behind the creative artist, never able to catch up and notoriously fallible in predicting future trends. In this passive conception of their role, critics describe, more or less systematically, the outstanding features of the literary works that concern them. Sometimes these descriptions are presented in prescriptive form, or taken to be prescriptive, and this is one way the work of literary critics can influence the content or form of future literary works. An example is the influence of Aristotle Poetics on subsequent writing. In his discussion of tragic

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