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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / anthology

Loud Sparrows

selected by
Mu, Chiu, and Goldblatt

general information | review summaries | our review | links

To purchase Loud Sparrows

Title: Loud Sparrows
Authors: various
Genre: Anthology
Written: (Eng. 2006)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Loud Sparrows - US
Loud Sparrows - UK
Loud Sparrows - Canada
  • Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts
  • Selected and translated by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu, and Howard Goldblatt
  • Foreword by Bei Dao
  • Introduction by Aili Mu and Julie Chiu

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Our Assessment:

-- : enormous variety, solid presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 31/12/2006 Susan Salter Reynolds
The NY Rev. of Books . 16/11/2006 Perry Link

  From the Reviews:
  • "Most of the pieces are beautiful and thought-provoking. Some are silly, some are too easy. But a breeze of aesthetic freedom flows through all of them (a diversity, a youthfulness, a spring in their step), making them fun to read. Experimental fiction may have more outlets in China than it does in America, where the publishing world struggles on a procrustean bed of rigid categories and corresponding marketing plans, squeezing out all the lovely, unfinished, hard-to-read, unfilmable material by unknown writers. Such a wide range of human emotions in various situations emerge from these pieces -- a kind of intimacy that has an entirely different quality from the pieces that one might find on the Internet." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he fine translations in Loud Sparrows are a good introduction to it. The pieces are varied, lively, often charming, and occasionally brilliant -- and they make no strong demands on the reader. (...) The cleverness of some of the short pieces only makes it all the more evident that they are diverting attention from hard and pervasive political realities, not least the fact that a short piece imagining a new kind of party could land the writer in prison." - Perry Link, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In their useful Introduction to this volume Aili Mu and Julie Chiu explain what is apparently a Chinese(-language) phenomenon: the 'short-short', very short stories that are enormously popular in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan -- with, for example, the Journal of Selected Short-shorts reaching a circulation of 640,000 in 2001 (incredible for a fiction-magazine in any language). Though not (necessarily) ultra-short in length -- many included here are in the three-page range -- and not unique to Chinese (variations on the short-short exist in many literatures (see, for example, Örkény István and his trademark Egyperces novellák ('minute-stories'))), the genre, as it were, seems more fully developed here than anywhere else. With Loud Sparrows the editors look to introduce the Chinese short-short to English-speaking audiences -- a taller order than one might expect, but one which they carry off with aplomb, if not entirely success.
       One problem with presenting the short-short is that it is so popular -- i.e. that there are so very many examples to choose from. In addition, there are distinctive elements to the literatures of (mainland) China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and they can be hard to mix in an anthology such as this (or mixing them can require more explanation that the editors have room for here). Loud Sparrows contains a staggering ninety-one short-shorts by some sixty authors -- a lot of fiction, and a lot of often very different voices. On the one hand it's a fantastic and fascinating variety, on the other hand -- despite the brevity of the pieces -- it's an overwhelming jumble.
       The editors do try to help the readers along by, for example, dividing the stories into fifteen categories, i.e. making for some (generally thematic) groupings, which is certainly helpful, but only to a certain extent. The categories are often very loose-fitting (and the final one, 'Looking Backward and Looking Ahead', with only a single story, makes for a very abrupt conclusion.)
       In addition, there are numerous brief quotes from writers about the short-short-genre, tucked in between the stories themselves, suggesting how writers see the genre and what can be done with it. Finally, each of the fifteen sections begins not with a Chinese short-short, but one written by translator Howard Goldblatt. These are shorter than most of the Chinese pieces (half a page or so), and meant to serve as general sorts of introductions (of a more creative sort):

These flash pieces, instead of directing reading, are intended to create mood, whet readers' appetites, evoke their emotions, appeal to their intellect, and set the stage for their reading.
       Like the rest of the collection, it's an ambitious idea -- and fairly hard to live up to. Goldblatt's pieces are appealing enough, but can't really fulfill these high expectations.
       The stories themselves are by a tremendous variety of writers. Some of the names may even be familiar to Western audiences (Mo Yan, Wang Meng, Xi Xi), but for the most part it is a babble of voices that is presented here. There's some appeal to the great and constant variety, but it can also be wearing: the pieces may be short, but they often try to do as much as longer stories and that, in conjunction with the many different approaches on offer, makes for an anthology that can seem more exhausting than exhaustive. Indeed, because of the range of material (and voices) on offer the book feels much fuller than its 240 or so pages suggest, and it definitely lends itself to browsing and piecemeal-reading, rather than necessarily front-to-back reading.
       Not all the stories make an impression, but the quality is generally quite high. There are some clever takes on the space-limitation, with stories presented in forms varying from the straightforward to the very experimental (with the more traditional approach definitely dominating). The extent of the 'Chinese' feel to the stories varies, as they range from universal tales to commentaries on specifically Chinese situations, but all are readily accessible to foreign audiences (there are endnotes for only three of the stories, and that seems about right). There's some insight into specifically Chinese conditions and situations, but it's as much the way the writers present the material and tell their tales that is most impressive, piece to piece.
       It can seem that Loud Sparrows tries to be and do everything. In reading it, one may find oneself wishing for a tighter focus: more stories by fewer writers, a smaller range of styles or subject-matter, etc. etc. Loud Sparrows really seems to cover it all, and while that does make for a good introduction, it really is only an introduction, leaving one wishing for more -- by certain authors, about certain topics, in certain forms. Still, there's a lot that's appealing here, and it's well worth dipping into (repeatedly).

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