Canadian author Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, first arrived in the Chinese world in June 1981. She was traveling with a group of Canadian authors who, as guests of the Chinese Writers’ Association, visited Beijing, Xi’an and Guangzhou. She even celebrated her 50th birthday in China.
Back then, China was in the grip of the so-called “scar literature”, a literary trend that emerged in the late 1970s to commemorate and convey the sufferings of numerous intellectuals during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It was a period in which many Chinese authors were too busy exploring their trauma and oppression to notice anything from the West. As a result, according to Chinese media, Munro later expressed her disappointment in China’s lack of response to the outside world. “Chinese writers are more cautious than I expected – they hardly communicated with us. Neither did they show any interest in our writing style,” she is reported as having said so.
After that, Munro became a three-time winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for fiction (in 1968, 1978 and 1986), shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and eventually won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. It was only in 2009, after Munro was shortlisted for the Man Booker, that she was re-introduced to the Chinese world. For example, according to Chinese media, China’s Jiangsu People’s Publishing House purchased rights to six of Munro’s books in early 2009. Yet, after four long years, none of the books was published.
Also, in May 2009, China’s Zhejiang People’s Fine Arts Publishing House paid US$2,000 for the rights to Munro’s Open Secrets (1994). After four long years, the book was not published, either. This violated the publishing contract that specified the Chinese version should be published within two years. As a result, the rights were taken back by Munro’s agent.
As of the writing of this article in late October 2013, Munro only has one book available in China – Runaway (2004). The book was published by China’s Beijing October Arts and Literature Publishing House (under Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd) in 2009, with only 30,000 copies sold throughout the next four years.
In Taiwan, Munro has two books available – Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) and Runaway, which were published by Taiwan’s China Times Publishing Company in 2003 and 2009, respectively.
However, as can be expected, Munro and her books have suddenly become a hot topic in the Chinese world since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Taiwan, Ecus Publishing House has purchased the rights to Munro’s Too Much happiness (2009). It will be published in March 2014.
In China, Munro’s Runaway is rapidly selling out, although Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd has quickly decided to print 400,000 extra copies. The same publisher is also hard working at the translation of Munro’s Dear Life (2012), which will be published soon.
All sorts of reviews of and comments on Munro’s books are suddenly prominent in China’s cyberspace, with numerous Western news and literary reports on the Canadian author being freely translated into Chinese. This includes Margaret Atwood’s two articles, “Alice Munro’s road to Nobel literature prize was not easy” and “Alice Munro: an appreciation”, both of which were published by The Guardian.
At the writing of this article, Runaway is still No.1 on the bestselling lists of China’s top three online bookstores, DangDang.com, Amazon.cn and JD.com. On the day the Nobel Prize was announced, DongDang.com sold 3,000 pre-order copies of the book, while Amazon.cn received more than 1,000 pre-orders in one hour. On JD.com, the book sold 5,000 pre-order copies on that day. The price of the book on Amazon.cn is currently set as ¥19.10 (US$3.13, down from the normal ¥28.00 [US$4.59]).
Then ensued a fierce battle between China’s Yilin Publishing House and the aforementioned Jiangsu People’s Publishing House over six of Munro’s books – Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), The Progress of Love (1986), The Love of a Good Woman (1998) and the previously mentioned Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Too Much Happiness. Having dragged their feet over four long years, Jiangsu People’s Publishing House suddenly announced they were ready to publish all six books. But Yilin Publishing House also claims to have purchased the rights to these books and added a seventh, Open Secrets, as part of a set.
As both publishing houses belong to China’s Jiangsu Phoenix Publishing & Media Corporation Limited, after much negotiation, it was decided that Yilin Publishing House will publish all seven of Munro’s books. At the writing of this article, the Chinese publisher has already announced the cover designs and launched a pre-ordering process on the aforementioned three online bookstores. The set of seven print books is priced at ¥228.00 (US$37.39), with Amazon.cn lowering the pre-order price to ¥148.20 (US$24.27), DangDang.com to ¥171.00 (US$28.05) and JD.com to ¥150.50 (US$24.60).
In comparison, currently on Amazon.com, the prices of the aforementioned nine of Munro’s print books are as follows:
- Dance of the Happy Shades: US$12.68 (down from US$15.95)
- Lives of Girls and Women: US$12.16 (down from US$15.95)
- The Progress of Love: US$12.50 (down from US$15.95)
- The Love of a Good Woman: US$12.33 (down from US$15.95)
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: US$13.13 (down from US$15.95)
- Too Much Happiness: US$12.75 (down from US$12.95)
- Open Secrets: US$12.26 (down from US$15.95)
- Runaway: US$12.36 (down from US$15.95)
- Dear Life: US$10.01 (down from US$15.95)
Finally, in the words of prominent Chinese author Su Tong (who is best known in the West via his 1990 book Wives and Concubines, which was adapted into the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern by Chinese director Zhang Yimou) — Munro’s books are great, but industry insiders are still worried about their perception in the Chinese market. “Traditionally Chinese readers are used to full-length novels, which have more market potentials,” Su was quoted by Chinese media as having said so. “Short stories have a very small market – even famous authors such as Hemingway occupy a much smaller market share in China with their short stories, when compared to their full-length novels. I am curious to know whether such a phenomenon can be changed by Munro’s books and her winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature.”