Apologies to Pearl S. Buck

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last weekend was Chinese New Year, a time when many people are introduced to bits of Chinese culture. So I have to make this confession: I hate The Good Earth.

I know, it's a classic. Oprah loved it enough to make it a book club selection in 2004. But if you are now typing me an angry email defending the book, wait. This is not a discussion of the merits of the book, but an explanation of why I find it deeply problematic.

I don't hate it because of the content. It's not my favorite, but it's a powerful story that's been popular for more than three-quarters of a century. Likewise, I don't hate it—as was once suggested to me—because it's a book about China written by a non-Chinese author. Even if Pearl S. Buck hadn't spent most of her life in China, she'd have every right to write about it.

No: I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it's presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu. Since its publication, the book has regularly been assigned in high schools as much for its alleged window into Chinese culture as for its literary value. And they're not alone. Look at some of the discussion questions from Oprah's book club:

Talk about your first impressions of the simple life of Wang Lung. Does it seem appealing to you? What specifics about Chinese traditions or culture do you learn early in the novel?

In Chapter Nine, Wang Lung cries recklessly, "Oh, you are too wicked, you Old Man in Heaven!" Talk about this in relation to other religious elements in the book so far. What does the Chinese attitude towards religion seem to be?

What do you think of the dilemma O-lan initiates in suggesting they sell their daughter for a chance to go back to their home? Talk about Wang Lung's response to her and the Chinese traditions this illuminates.

Much of the latter part of the novel is taken up with death, marriage and procreation. Discuss what you have learned from this book about the Chinese culture in relation to these major life milestones.

I appreciate what Oprah has done in getting people to read, but prompts like these make me want to tear out my hair. The most influential woman in the U.S. is encouraging readers to treat The Good Earth as an encyclopedic depiction of all of China. Worse, questions like these also suggest that the experiences and attitudes of these (made-up!) characters can be extrapolated to all Chinese people: "Here is something one fictional character says. What does the Chinese attitude towards religion seem to be?"

The Good Earth, in other words, is too often billed as an easy way to learn facts about Chinese culture. It's the literary equivalent of a parent blending spinach into brownies. Nutrition made palatable—you won't even know it's there!

Let's put things in perspective. The Good Earth was published in 1931. A few things have happened in the intervening 79 years: World War II, the Cultural Revolution, and the entire Cold War, for starters. How can readers assume that this novel still represents "Chinese culture"? What would we think of a Chinese person who read As I Lay Dying (published in 1930) and assumed he understood all of American culture—American traditions, the American attitude towards death, the American attitude towards religion—based on that one work of fiction? At the very least, we'd question his critical thinking.

A better question: how can readers assume that any novel represents an entire culture? Unfortunately, many do, especially when the culture is a "foreign" one. Browse Amazon reviews and you'll see a surprising number of readers who believe one novel can summarize a country, its culture, and its people. A reader of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns commented, "This book manages to simultaneously capture the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years and how women are treated in conservative Islamic societies." Regarding Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, others gushed, "This book puts a name and face to the people we are helping to free," and
"Reading this book you learn a lot about the recent history of Afghanistan. You learn what her people are like, and you learn what fate befell them." Readers of Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize–winning novel The God of Small Things, set in 1960s India, reacted similarly. "This book should be highly recommended as the first reading to anybody who wants to learn about Kerala," wrote one. Another criticized the book because it didn't meet his educational expectations: "I had hoped to gain a better understanding of Indian culture, but personally felt the author only grazed the surface of this issue."

This conflation of novels with cultural guidebooks makes me nervous.

Can fiction teach us? Absolutely. Fiction has the power to illustrate place, era, and atmosphere in vivid detail. But it is not Anthropology for Dummies. When reading fiction, we cannot automatically assume that what we read is fact. Take Edward P. Jones's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Known World, as a cautionary example. It's so crammed with detail that many readers and reviewers assumed it was extensively researched. The Boston Globe noted that "Jones has clearly done a tremendous amount of research to bring this time and place to life." Entertainment Weekly even criticized Jones for getting carried away: "[H]is book is clearly the product of copious research, and sometimes he seems so intent on letting every story he's unearthed be heard that he sacrifices structure and momentum." In fact, Jones has repeatedly asserted that he did virtually no research, calling the book "98 percent fiction." Oops.

If you want to know whether what you have read is accurate, look it up. Read other books on the subject. Trust me, the author will be delighted to have sparked your interest. Yes, some books are intended to provide an accurate, National-Geographic picture. But some aren't, and we cannot simply assume that's the case. We readers have the responsibility—as thinking people—to remember that fiction is not necessarily representative, or even true.

We especially have this responsibility with fiction about cultures that are not our own. With nothing to weigh it against, it's too easy to assume one book represents Afghanistan, or India, or China. But that's irresponsible. Say you know nothing about Nigeria and you meet one Nigerian man. Would you assume all Nigerians were like this man, that they all held his opinions, that he spoke for all of them? I hope not. That's the purest form of stereotyping—equally bad whether applied to people or entire cultures.

Writers ask us to imagine experiences not our own, listen to other voices, and consider ideas we have not yet encountered—in short, to open our minds and widen our horizons. Blindly assuming that a novel somehow encapsulates an entire culture does just the opposite. It deafens us to other, possibly contradictory perspectives and experiences; it limits our view and allows us to close our minds. Treating a novel like The Good Earth as encyclopedic and representational reduces the writer's work from art to Cliffs Notes on culture. Apologies to Pearl S. Buck for that.

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