Tuesday 22 April 2003

Shishosetsu and the myth of sincerity

Jill Walker had heard about but not read Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Om bar, which “the literary crowd at the university and Café Opera agreed was a malicious act of vengeance against Hjorth’s ex-partner, who happens to be a professor of literature [at the University of] Bergen. The novel was unanimously decried as terrible, awful, embarrassingly bad, as well as morally despicable.”

When she read the book, Jill was surprised and impressed:

It’s amazing. Relentlessly honest, but not at all in the simplistic sense of gossip and scandals. Yes, it can be read as a very thinly disguised account of the author’s relationship to the professor, but its factual accuracy (or lack of such) is irrelevant because the honesty here is of an altogether different nature. It is in the emotions portrayed: merciless love that shoves aside all normality, all sense, all expectations as to how we (women? mothers? people?) are supposed to behave. The extremity of it is terrifying and recognisable. I see it in myself and in my friends (calm, married women turn thirty and explode), though we pull back before we lose ourselves, only glimpsing the destructive potential of such obsession.

The debate about this book has been symmetrically opposite to some of the recent complaints about truthfulness and blogs. The novel that is too close to reality is ridiculed and condemned. The blogger, on the other hand, is expected to adhere strictly to what actually happened.

How strange.

“The novel that is too close to reality is ridiculed and condemned.” Not universally. In the shishōsetsu—one of the most influential genres in the Japanese novelistic tradition—the praise and admiration bestowed on a book depended almost entirely on how closely it adhered to the reality of the author’s life.

Three books on the shishosetsu: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit's Rituals of Self-Revelation, Edward Fowler's The Rhetoric of Confession, and Tomi Suzuki's Narrating the Self

The titles of the three main studies in English of the shishōsetsu—Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s Rituals of Self-Revelation, Edward Fowler’s The Rhetoric of Confession, and Tomi Suzuki’s Narrating the Self—neatly illustrate how strongly the shishōsetsu narrative is grounded in the writer’s lived experience.

In the introduction to his study, Edward Fowler provides a useful overview of the genre’s main characteristics:

the shishōsetsu (more formally watakushi shōsetsu; commonly translated as “I-novel”), [is] an autobiographical form that flourished in Taishō Japan (1912-26). The shishōsetsu, narrated in the first or third person in such a way as to represent with utter conviction the author’s personal experience, is riddled with paradoxes. Supposedly a fictional narrative, it often reads more like a private journal. It has a reputation of being true, to a fault, to “real life”; yet it frequently strays from the author’s experience it allegedly portrays so faithfully. Its personal orientation makes it a thoroughly modern form; yet it is the product of an indigenous intellectual tradition quite disparate from western individualism. Progressive critics have ridiculed it over the decades as a failed adaptation of the western novel, while traditionalists have reveled in its difference. The difference lies not so much in its autobiographical “purity” (as the Japanese literary establishment, or bundan, would have us believe), however, as in its ultimate distrust of western-style realistic representation from which it has presumably borrowed so heavily. Its critically mixed reception notwithstanding, the shishōsetsu has been championed by many important writers and occupies a central position in modern Japanese letters. Coming to terms with it means coming to terms in many ways with the entire literature.

The Rhetoric of Confession contains—nested between a lengthy introduction outlining the difference between Japanese and Western narrative method and a brief epilogue dealing with contemporary shishōsetsu—three main sections: an examination of the social, linguistic, and literary foundations of the shishōsetsu; an explanation of how the form developed and its reception by readers and critics; and, finally, detailed studies of three shishōsetsu authors.

The title of Part 1—The “Transparent” Text—as well as the titles of its three chapters—Fictions and Fabrications, Language and the Illusion of Presence, and Shishōsetsu Criticism and the Myth of Sincerity—should offer some clues as to how reading and thinking about both shishōsetsu and shishōsetsu criticism over an extended period (albeit in English, rather than the original Japanese) has shaped my thinking about the inherent contradictions in writing for what is widely regarded as a self-revelatory medium, the weblog.

Why does the shishōsetsu fascinate me? Because it uses, in Edward Fowler’s words, “the techniques of essay, diary, confession, and other non-fictional forms to present the fiction of a faithfully recorded experience.” In other words, it collapses genres that are commonly regarded in the Western tradition as quite separate and exploits the tension between fictional and non-fictional modes of representation.

Why does the shishōsetsu fascinate me in relation to blogging? Partly because of similiarities between issues that have arisen since I acknowledged that some elements of my weblog entries were fabricated and how those same issues were regarded and articulated in Taishō Japan. Mainly because I suspect that both the way the problems were resolved over time and the differing Japanese and Western perceptions of the shishōsetsu might offer clues about writing for a self-revelatory medium.

Fowler explains that while the shishōsetsu’s name suggests it should be read as fiction, most Japanese critics (and readers) treat it as non-fiction:

By far the most common approach to the shishōsetsu has been the nonfictional one, for the general critical perception has been that it is resistant by definition to analysis as an autonomous text. Unlike “pure literature” in the west, which calls to mind an author aloof from his writing after the manner of Flaubert or Joyce, “pure literature” in Japan (a category to which the shishōsetsu belongs) is considered inherently referential in nature: its meaning derives from an extraliterary source, namely, the author’s life. The Japanese as readers of shishōsetsu have tended to regard the author’s life, and not the written work, as the definitive “text” on which critical judgment ultimately rests and to see the work as meaningful only insofar as it illuminates the life. The Japanese reader constructs a “sign” out of the signifying text and the signified extraliterary life, with no misgivings about this apparent blending of “intrinsic” literary and “extrinsic” biographical data. Literature which is not “pure” (i.e. literature that does not serve as a window on the author’s life) is relegated to the realm of “popular” reading and considered less worthy of critical attention.

In his introduction, Fowler also explains how the shishōsetsu author was highly conscious of one particular aspect of classical Japanese literature, “what might best be described as the actor-audience relationship”:

Classical poetry and drama, for example, especially in the centuries immediately preceding the modern period, are noted for their strong tradition of audience participation in the reading—one almost wants to say mutual production—of a text. Haiku artists like Bashō and Issa filled their poetic stages with their presence in a way that made every observation, however grounded in experience or in nature, a virtuoso linguistic performance. Readers were attracted to the persona as much as to the poem and read each verse or sketch against the larger image of the poet they had constructed from the corpus.

In a similar way, the shishōsetsu “thrived on an intimate actor-audience rapport made possible by the audience’s homogeneity and limited size”:

Readers of the shishōsetsu in its heyday (the second and third decades of this century) numbered only in the thousands. They would recognize the authorial persona in any story regardless of the main character’s (or narrator’s) name or situation. The convention of the author as an actor who played himself had the effect of drawing the reader closer to the narrator-hero and creating a bond that was often stronger than the reader’s affection for any single text. Out of this relationship emerged the institution of the bundan, which means, simply, literary circle(s) but which in the Taishō period referred specifically to that close alliance of writers, critics, and interested readers who had an emotional or intellectual stake in the equation between art and private life. Neither author nor reader took seriously the realistic convention of an anonymous, omnescient narrator who remained hidden behind the characters he created. For both, reality in literature stemmed largely from the narrator’s ability to speak in literally the same voice as his hero and thereby invite reader identification.

It’s impossible not to draw a comparison between the Taishō period bundan—the rhetorical triangle (as Jeff Ward might describe it) of writers, critics, and readers—and what one might call a Blogarian bundan, also made up of writers (of original posts), critics (other bloggers who respond on their own blogs and readers who leave comments), and interested readers (who feel compelled neither to blog nor to comment but are sufficiently engaged to read a weblog over time).

In the light of the debate that’s occurred over the past week or so, this passage from Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s Rituals of Self-Revelation resonates:

…the specific interpretation of the naturalist demand for truth in the sense of unsparing personal revelation and its adoption in literary practice by Katai, Tōson, Hōmei, and others gave the bundan the character of a controlling body, which could attest to whether the work involved corresponded to the facts and could so certify or deny the degree of sincerity, that is, the artistic value of a work. Reviews were essentially an examination of the relationship between fact in the work and in reality, which the general reader could follow upon their publication.

The only problem is, as Jeff Ward pointed out:

Facts only mean something when they are directly experienced. When they are written down, they are subject to distortions and lies that have little to do with the original event. It depends a lot on who says them.

It’s for exactly this reason that I’ve suggested that “honesty” and “sincerity” in self-revelatory weblog posts are, at best, problematic; or, at worst, illusory. Again, Jeff Ward:

We weasel our way around it by summoning motive to justify our bending of the truth. Often these motives are rhetorical and transparent—but just as often these motives are opaque, hidden, personal, and not apparent even to ourselves. We construct our image of self by creating consistent fictions. There are seldom easy points of reference to measure truth, especially regarding our selves.

Similarly, Fowler, Hijiya-Kirschnereit, and Suzuki—using different arguments and analytical methods—all call into question the transparency and sincerity of the shishōsetsu. About Shiga Naoya, the acknowledged master of the form, whose nickname was shōsetsu no kamisama (the god of the shōsetsu), Fowler says:

That a writer like Shiga really does sound more sincere than others, then, is a tribute not to his honesty but to his mastery of the rhetoric (the intimate voice, ellipses, allusions, etc.) of authenticity.

(A master of the rhetoric of authenticity. Sounds rather like George Segal.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that Shiga Naoya (and Nagai Kafū, whose best work subverts shishōsetsu conventions) are my favorite authors nor that a few years ago, when asked why I’ve put so much time and energy into studying Japanese, I replied: “So that one day I can read [Shiga’s] An’ya kōro (A Dark Night’s Passing) and [Kafū’s] Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) in Japanese, rather than English.” I really want to experience the myth of sincerity—without the layer of mediation imposed by a translation.

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Fascinating and informative. Amazing to find such a fully formed critical vocabulary for describing the "blogging bundram," and its tyrannical -- or histerical -- call for authenticity. I think though that you have to trace American standards back via Oprah, to t-groups, support groups, and consciousness raising groups in the 60s. "I'm OK, your OK." Let it all pour out, like AAA. Perhaps the root source of salvific sincerity is the Catholic Confessional.

Be very interested to see how you move forward from here. What makes me uncomfortable, or on guard, is the limpid sincerity of your tone. Don't you find it awkward to be so entrammeled in the plain style of sincerity, while seeing it, quite correctly as a deceptive hall of mirrors?

Is your deepest topic, then, to illuminate from within the deficiencies, the constraints, of accepted conventions of sincerity, the ones that are for so many others, constituitive of the failed fiction they call their "self"?

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 23 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Fascinating indeed. I now understand more about your position on the whole truth issue. I'm going to have to think a lot more about those novels and their relation to blogging, but I wanted to thank you for the post.

Posted by language hat on 23 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sleep-deprived (still, damn it) question: How does a rhetoric of authenticity arise if no one ever tries to be authentic to begin with?

I mean, sneer at me and my like all you care to, but it seems to me that you can't play these games unless I'm there to co-opt. Without me, all your rhetoric is going to have to derive from people like, say, politicians, whom no one believes anyway.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Of course, those books (or at least, those on the shishôsetsu that I've read; I don't remember if the titles are exactly the same as above or not) on the genre mention the European antecedants. In a sense, really, they're descendants of the more commonly known roman à clef genre (like George Sand's novel about her and Chopin, from the end of their relationship, which I was just reading about this weekend).

I think the most vital point about what you post above is that of the rhetoric of authenticity. In the case of novels, the default assumption tends to be (unless you're a certain sort of lit crit) that of fiction: what's in the novel is believed. When given a reference to the outside world: the "I" in the novel is to be the author, his wife in the book the author's wife, the mistresses and loafs and hangers on and tragic friends are all applied as a veneer, in the reader's understanding, to what's known of the author's life. O-ho, goes the reader, That must be how it is with them. Unless the novel contradicts what the reader "knows" about the "real-life" situation, it's taken as true. (This reading is also applied to non-keyed novels sometimes, to the embarrassment of the author, who has to explain No, I Wasn't Abused, It's Fiction to upset relatives.)

This is even more so in genres where the expectation is that of truth. I think most people use the internet more for facts and opinion than fiction, therefore when they stumble onto a fiction page, they apply non-fiction reading techniques to it. And that's where you get your outrage, I suppose, with "faked" diaries. (It's an old, old story. This fictionality in blogs? It reflects very well debates about online journals and diaries from the mid to late 1990s, hence my general amusement about it.)

In a sense, it goes back, in linguistic theory, to the conversational maxims (be brief, be complete, be relevant...). Violating the maxims without pragmatic reason (while saying "The room's gotten cold" is a possibly irrelevant statement, if you're by an open window it's interpreted in English as an indirect request to close the window) is interpreted as hostile. If the expectation on the internet is Be Factual To The Best of Your Ability, whether it's news about the world or news about your world, unmarked fictionality would violate that expectation and distort the communicative flow. Hence, violent response to it.

So I'd think anyway. (Which would explain why roman à clef are tittered over, but an example like Kaycee is a complete outrage to many people. Of course, in that later example deliberate impersonation seems to have been the intent, but. Oddly enough, this one guy who I first found on the internet writing the [unmarked as such] fictional journal of a woman.... While I don't care that he did that, though of course others did and to a great extant, I still view him through a sort of feminized gaze. Which is interesting in its own right.)

Posted by Kristina on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Kristina: So does lying never bother you, or only in written form?

Posted by language hat on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

No, lying does bother me in venues where I expect conversational maxims to apply: journalism, face to face conversation, classrooms, meetings, etc. I think it's partially because I came of "age" as it where (probably a better term would be "experience") when a (perhaps "the", but I wouldn't put my money on it) personal expression experience was just starting to take shape on the internet. What I read on the 'net (being aside from resources where I relied on their authority: science, news, linguistics, dictionaries) consisted of fiction, roleplaying, and odd and in-between things like Pandora's Box of Tricks and something called Asleep (I think that was the title: it had an essay about sheep to explain why the internet and self-publishing was not only possible but useful). The term weblog wasn't used much, if it even really existed.

For that reason, and from experience over and over, I think probably it's that my expectation of the genre of "weblogging" is different from many others. I think the genre itself is ill-defined and fluid, which is really just a sign of its youth. So, in some cases on the internet I can be lied to, but it's harder to lie to me specifically by misrepresenting yourself on a webpage or blog, because I don't have that "truth" expectation in terms of personal expression, at least at the start.

That's my best explanation for why I simply go "Huh. Okay." when I find out about these scandals. I'm not saying everyone should have this sort of approach, and I realize it's an uncommon one, which is why I look at the issue with "Well, why would people have these vastly different responses?", which is where my maxim theory comes from.

The odd thing, to my mind, is that the debate happens over and over again, and almost exactly the same arguments and issues come up. You can find traces of this even in contemporary Victorian autobiographical/journal writing; the shishôsetsu did not come without critics either. Which seems to indicate a certain universality to the frustration.

Posted by Kristina on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I apologize: in the last paragraph, I meant to say "in contemporary Victorian criticism concerning autobiographical/journal writing". Interestingly enough, in the case of people whose memoirs or journals were published, posthumously or not, there was the expectation that the resulting text should not say too much, be too honest, and draw a respectful veil over events. In other words, that it not hurt the survivors. (Providing I'm remembering my seminar right.)

Even in the cases of diaries, modern or old, like Murasaki Shikibu's (and likely, even Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book), the work could be edited and reshaped for publication. Anne Frank revised and rewrote her diary as her expectations for it changed. Nowadays, this would be considered self-censorship and less honest, less real, less true than the raw, unfiltered, rough draft: and therefore, less *worthwhile*. It's useful to remember that the blending of immediacy and honesty was not always the highest valued trait throughout all time, however.

Posted by Kristina on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"Why does the shishōsetsu fascinate me? Because it uses, in Edward Fowler’s words, 'the techniques of essay, diary, confession, and other non-fictional forms to present the fiction of a faithfully recorded experience.' In other words, it collapses genres that are commonly regarded in the Western tradition as quite separate and exploits the tension between fictional and non-fictional modes of representation."

These are the same reasons I find W.G. Sebald's "novels" Vertigo & The Rings of Saturn so endlessly fascinating--or Naipaul's Enigma of Arrival, for that matter. Does anyone else discern parallels?

Posted by Nicholas Laughlin on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Kristina wrote:

"Oddly enough, this one guy who I first found on the internet writing the [unmarked as such] fictional journal of a woman.... While I don't care that he did that, though of course others did and to a great extant, I still view him through a sort of feminized gaze. Which is interesting in its own right.)"

Which immediately put me in mind of Ki no Tsurayuki's "Tosa Diary", written by a man who took on the persona of a woman -- using the Japanese phonetic alphabet (onnade, or woman's hand) instead of the Chinese characters favored by men.

J. Thomas Rimer notes that the "Tosa Diary", "which came to server as a model for the developing genre, mixes fact and fiction to produce a special poetic flavor."

Kristina also expressed my own view when she wrote: "lying does bother me in venues where I expect conversational maxims to apply: journalism, face to face conversation, classrooms, meetings, etc."

Language Hat, I'm glad you found the post interesting. Hopefully, as I write more about the shishosetsu, we can continue to discuss its relation to blogging.

Tutor, I agree that the "limpid sincerity" of my tone is problematic. Clearly the challenge is to emulate -- as far as I am capable (he said, modestly and sincerely) -- Shiga's mastery of the rhetoric. As for my deepest topic, I suspect it is to illuminate from within "the deficiencies, the constraints, of accepted conventions of sincerity, constituitive of the failed fiction I call my 'self'."

Nicholas, I agree with you that there are strong parallels between shishosetsu and W.G. Sebald's "novels" -- it will probably not surprise you that Sebald is far and away my favorite contemporary writer.

Posted by Jonathon on 24 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sincerity and the Turing Machine. The artist masters the code -- to fool us as the painter tricked the birds with his picture of grapes? Or, to make sincerity strange? To alientate us (Brecht's theory of art) from our sincerity so that we might understand it with aesthetic distance?

A child at play -- "I am a Pirate!" Is he not sincere?

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 25 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"to make sincerity strange"

I was immediately reminded of the Russian formalist concept of "ostranenie", the making strange of the familiar. I'd be surprised if Brecht's theory of alienation (Verfremdungseffekte) didn't owe a lot to the Russians.

As for the sincerity of the child pirate, do you remember the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer comes into Jerry's apartment wearing The Puffy Shirt?

Jerry: You look like a pirate.

Kramer: I want to look like a pirate.

Posted by Jonathon on 25 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour