Jonathon Delacour, at the heart of things, has a brilliant post about a genre of Japanese novel called shishōsetsu, the “I novel,” which uses “the techniques of essay, diary, confession, and other non-fictional forms to present the fiction of a faithfully recorded experience” and is apparently a basic component of the Japanese understanding of what a novel should be. After an analysis of the phenomenon itself, he ties it in to the truth in blogging issue that has been roiling a section of the community. Read it and think.


  1. Not to blow my own horn exactly, but on that note you might find this interesting:

  2. The thing that amuses me so much about the truth in blogging issue (well, other than that it’s old news on the internet, and basically reiterates the old fiction in diaries complaint that so many have been busted on in the past 8 or so years), is how well it applies to the Conversational Maxims. When you break those without pragmatic cause (indirect requests, for example, being permissible), people get violently upset. In the case of fake blogs, like Kaycee’s from a while back, it’s the same. Yet, roman à clef and the descendant that is the Japanese “I”-novel, do not. Different “maxims” regarding the form?
    As a linguist, what do you think about extending the conversational maxim model like that? I’m curious.

  3. Ha! Well worth mentioning, Matt; for those who would like to read a (very funny) comparison of blogging to a different Japanese literary genre, zuihitsu, but are too lazy to copy and paste, here‘s the link.
    Kristina, I’m not sure what you mean by the Conversational Maxims. Can you provide further description, or a link?

  4. It’s pretty much, as I understand it, your basic sociolinguistics (I got it in two separate classes): lists them, but for more detail I’d probably have to go back to my textbooks. Search on “maxims” and “Grice” and I’m sure you’ll find some class notes with more examples.
    Personally, I adore them: they can explain so much!
    Zuihitsu is not a bad analogy, for all that analogizing is your friend and your enemy. On a more well-known parallel, maybe a commonplace book?

  5. Ah, thank you. Again, here’s the link for the lazy. The ones most relevant to my concerns in the blogging debate are the Maxims of Quality:
    1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
    2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
    Works for me. (Assuming, of course, you’re writing in a mode to which these maxims would apply — not overtly fictional, in other words.)

  6. Needless to say, “autofiction” has become a hot topic since this was posted, and Trevor Joyce has sent me Lola Seaton’s New Statesman review of An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter; some excerpts:

    An I-Novel is the first English translation of Mizumura’s second book Shishōsetsu from left to right, which appeared in Japan in 1995. As one might infer from its title – Shishōsetsu is the name of a cherished genre of confessional fiction in Japan – it is an autobiographical novel about Mizumura’s decision. It is “not just a how-I-became-a-writer story; it is also a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story”. […]

    Autofiction has a somewhat fraught reputation in the Anglosphere, but in Japan, Mizumura has said, “over the years, through variations on similar storylines and characters, readers begin to feel that they know the author, both her real life and her realm of imagination, and become attached to her”. Mizumura has described herself as an “inordinately slow writer” and “incurably prosaic”, but the modest dimensions and muted drama of her autobiographical themes – dealing with ageing parents, for example – are accompanied by a steady, meticulous fidelity to experience that makes her avatars’ inner worlds quietly absorbing, even soothing.

    Mizumura’s fiction has a daring, playful streak, too. An I-Novel is not just about rejecting English – it dramatises this rejection in its form: the novel is designed so that it can’t fully be translated into English. This is because stray sentences and phrases in the Japanese original are already in English, which, Mizumura explains, a non-English writer “can reasonably expect her readers to understand”, much as the dollar is accepted virtually everywhere.

    The book’s bilingualism is charged with polemical intent, as Mizumura explains in The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2008, translated in 2014), her captivating work of non-fiction about language and national literatures. The book became a controversial bestseller in Japan and features a kind of commentary on An I-Novel: “The very impossibility of maintaining the bilingual form while translating the work into English, and the singularity of that impossibility, are clear testimony to the linguistic asymmetry we now face in the world.”

    This impossibility compels some serious inventiveness on the part of Mizumura’s acclaimed translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter (and may explain why the English translation has taken more than 25 years to appear). Since it can’t be reproduced, the trace of the original’s bilingualism is signalled through typography – the English in the original is set in bold in the translation (she was “holding a Virginia Slims cigarette in her left hand, about to sip Coke…”). […]

    “Those whose mother tongue is English are unaware of what they would be deprived of if they were writing in a non-universal language… they are not condemned to reflect on language in the way the rest of us are,” Mizumura writes in The Fall of Language. An I-Novel’s structural exclusion of the English reader can seem a little punitive, but it can also be read as an oblique form of address. The freedom to be unreflective about language, Mizumura argues, is existentially impoverishing; to think about language is to think about whatever language is about. Those “who are eternally condemned to reflect on language”, Mizumura concludes, are “eternally condemned to marvel at the richness of the world”.

    Thanks, Trevor! (See also this 2016 post about Mizumura.)

  7. John Cowan says

    And, of course, we now see fiction in blog form all the time, just as we see memoir and … whatever genre LH is when stripped of its comments (which of course would be disastrous).

  8. The controversy was not about fiction as such but about alleged honest memories that turned out to be made up.

  9. January First-of-May says

    Since it can’t be reproduced, the trace of the original’s bilingualism is signalled through typography – the English in the original is set in bold in the translation

    I tend to see italics used for this in web novel translations. If English in the original really is mostly brand names, as the quote makes it sound like, then bolding it would probably make it look like blatant product placement.

    but about alleged honest memories that turned out to be made up

    A lot depends on the context here; it turns out to be not that hard to (deliberately or accidentally) manufacture an otherwise-fake memory so well that it is indistinguishable from honest except by comparing to other sources.

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