The new Winter issue of The Paris Review, no. 246, includes an Art of Fiction interview with the Chinese writer Yu Hua, the author of novels such as To Live, Brothers, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. We asked Yu to contribute a syllabus to our ongoing series, and he obliged with a list of recommendations that he’s provided to his students—but, as he says in his interview, remember not to be narrowly focused on reading lists: “Literature is not the only thing in my life. I encourage my students to think this way, too. Recently, I told one of them, ‘Let’s meet this afternoon to talk about the story you wrote,’ and he said, ‘Professor, I’m going clubbing tonight.’ I said, ‘All right, have fun.’ ”
I am a professor of creative writing at Beijing Normal University, and with few exceptions, most of my students have no experience writing before enrolling in my course. We begin with short stories before transitioning to novellas, a literary form uniquely popular in China—works of fiction between thirty thousand and a hundred thousand Chinese characters. Julio Cortázar’s “The Southern Thruway” and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach are both excellent examples.
When recommending literary works to my students, I base my suggestions on two principles. The first is to avoid works that are already extremely well-known in China, which most of my students will have read during senior middle school or high school. (The Old Man and the Sea, which I ask them to reread, is an exception to that rule.) The second principle is to tailor my lists to students’ individual writing goals.
I have one student whose mind is filled with strange and unusual thoughts; I advised her to read “The Southern Thruway” three times and then search for a scene from everyday life to use as a starting point from which her own narrative could gradually expand, so that the magnification of the narrative would be dependent upon real-life details, which can allow the writer to reveal the vastness and complexity of human nature. I also asked her to read Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” three times, as an example of how the literature of the absurd can actually arrive at the real more quickly. In other words, our starting point is “the real” and that is where we ultimately return—even if “the real” to which we return has become completely unrecognizable.
Another student of mine has a talent for writing fiction that plays with structure and form. I assigned him Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” so that he could see what a good story with a conventional form looks like. Moreover, Dürrenmatt’s detective fiction is completely different from Poe’s. When Dürrenmatt writes about the murder case, he seems to be casually jotting down the details and atmosphere of the moment, while Poe’s narrative is extremely focused, always revealing at least one razor-sharp detail.
I also recommend collections by individual writers to my students, often using my research funds to purchase books for them. One example is The Stories of John Cheever, a collection of sixty-one stories that he personally selected; another is Yejian gushi (Midnight stories) by Su Tong, which features forty-three short stories from different stages of his career. I don’t require my students to read all of these stories. If the work connects with them, I tell them to keep reading. If not, I let them know it’s okay to give up. If the emotional connection isn’t there, it isn’t the student’s fault—it’s simply not yet the right time.
When I assign McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, I tell my students that the goal of literature is not individuality but universality. It is precisely that sense of universality that allows us to read works from different eras, different countries and cultures, and still have an emotional response. This novella is particularly well suited to demonstrating how a writer can begin on the individual level and arrive at the universal.
When it comes to writing fiction, Yasunari Kawabata was my first real teacher. I recommend his story “Onsen yado” (Hot-spring inn) to show my students that you can write a literary work populated exclusively by secondary characters, devoid of any main protagonists. Halldor Kiljan Laxness’s “Saga úr síldinni” (Black carp), which has also not yet been translated into English, is also an important piece of writing, and from it I hope students can understand that novels don’t have a monopoly when it comes to expressing “the epic”—short stories can do that too.
I tell my students that the most important qualities for a writer to foster are their powers of imagination and observation. João Guimarães Rosa’s “The Third Bank of the River” is a representative work when it comes to literary imagination—not a wild and unbridled imagination but one rooted firmly on the ground. There is nothing remarkable or unbelievable about the way Rosa tells his story, but it turns out to be anything but quotidian.
When it comes to masterpieces of subtle perceptiveness, there is also William Trevor’s “A Bit on the Side.” His observations about the finer details of life are revealed in his characteristically calm narration—almost like the serene surface of a perfectly still lake. But once that balance is disturbed, the end is near.
Whenever I recommend “The Moor” by Russell Banks, my students love it. One wrote: “The way Russell Banks used such a limited narrative space to express the passage of time in such a heartbreaking manner truly touched me. As the narrative moves forward, the way in which ‘my’ memories of Gail transform and the way in which those supposed lies ‘I’ told Gail all converge as ‘time passes by, never to return again. While those lingering vestiges I see before me are everything I have.’ ”
“The Moor” is Russell Banks’s only work of fiction to have been translated into Chinese; I first encountered it in a collection edited by Haruki Murakami, titled Birthday Stories. It was only last November that I learned about Banks’s passing on January 8, 2023. After getting over the initial shock, I was overcome with sadness. I met Banks at the Jerusalem International Writers Festival in May of 2010, and he was a very warm and gracious man. He told me there were two things he hoped to do before he died—one was to visit China. I asked when he planned on visiting, but he didn’t respond. Paul Auster, who was standing beside him, jokingly answered for him: “Sometime before he dies.”
Recommended Readings for Students
Halldor Kiljan Laxness, “Saga úr síldinni” (Black carp)
Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”
Jorge Luis Borges, “The South”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Gimpel the Fool”
William Trevor, “A Bit on the Side”
Joao Guimarães Rosa, “The Third Bank of the River”
Su Tong, “Watermelon Boats”
Marguerite Yourcenar, “How Wang Fo Was Saved”
John Cheever, “Goodbye, My Brother”
Russell Banks, “The Moor”
Gabriel García Márquez, “Tuesday Siesta”
Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”
Bruno Schulz, “Birds”
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter”
O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel
James Joyce, “The Dead”
Anton Chekhov, “The Steppe”
Guy de Maupassant, “The Ball of Fat”
Yasunari Kawabata, “Onsen yado” (Hot-spring inn)
Ichiyo Higuchi, “Child’s Play”
Julio Cortázar, “The Southern Thruway”
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Judge and His Hangman
François Mauriac, A Kiss for the Leper
Translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry.