Is Literature Useful as an Instrument of “Soft Power?”

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

the woman from shanghai

By Edward Nawotka

In today’s lead story about the Chinese book market, Dr. Luc Kwanten of the Big Apple literary agency says that in recent years China has been promoting the export of its literature — either by supporting translations or participating in book fairs — as an exercise in “soft power.”

“Soft power” is itself something of an amorphous term, but it can generally be agreed upon that for it to work, it needs to be seductive and/or attractive — it needs to lure people into . What’s notable about the Chinese literature that has made it out of the country is how critical many of them have been to the country. Books like The Woman from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang and even global bestsellers, such as Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong and Brothers by Yu Hua, have been, generally speaking, unflattering.

Ditto for books like Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series, which has gone a long way toward tainting the image of Sweden as a humane, quasi-socialist state that cares for all its citizens.

The US too has had its own soft power initiatives, such as the government’s use of writers as “cultural ambassadors” and the NEA setting up “Big Read” events overseas.

Still, is literature truly useful as a tool of soft power? Or is it too wild and unpredictable? Movies and television often need to play well abroad in order to recoup costs and are even sometimes produced in such as way as to flatter foreign audiences. Literature, which is not freighted with such expectations, is wilder and certainly more unpredictable, making a potentially a poor instrument of soft power, in my opinion.

Let us know what you think in the comments below or via Twitter using #ppdiscuss.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.