The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōshetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction. Edward Fowler

Fowler, Edward. The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōshetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Fowler’s study on shishosetsu argues it should be considered a genre in its own right that is distinguished from other types of confessional fiction not by “how closely it follows ‘real life’ but how singularly it operates as a mode of discourse.” (xx)  In the first half of his book he sets forth this discourse, the overarching theory of it, its historical grounding in other types of literature both from European tradition and Japanese tradition, its specific language, and the controversies and criticisms around it in three different stages.  He proceeds to closely examine the works of three different shishosetsu authors, only one of whom is commonly discussed as representative of the genre.  He proposes that shishosetsu are defined by having the “self” being separated and withdrawn from society (xxiv), uninterested in highly stylistic “poetics of representation” including verbal play that was associated with Edo literature, but instead was “highly conscious of a third aspect of presentation, which might best be described as the actor-audience relationship” (xxv) that he does suggest comes from Edo period drama and poetry that was highly conscious of audience.  The concentration on the author’s life “had the effect of drawing the reader closer to the narrator-hero and creating a bond that was often stronger than the reader’s affection for any single text.” (xxv) He argues the shishosestu depends on a myth of sincerity and authorial presence that comes from their portrayal of events in their own lives, not reacting against realist or naturalist traditions (like romantic tradition in European literature).  The criteria for being identified as a shishosetsu do not depend on first person narration (as so often been insisted), they can be in third person narration but must contain on a “hero [that] is clearly modeled after the author.” (4) This is in part because of the way in which Japanese language calls attention to “self-expression in Japanese is forever a contingent activity, dependent on the relationship between speaker and hearer and, by extension, between writer and audience.” (6)   He argues that, while some have located the formation of the modern self in the shishosetsu, “actually [it] questions what it ostensibly champions….[it is] a theatre where the hero acts out his ambivalence toward the self.” (14)  He does, dangerously, suggest the shishosetsu is a break with all previous forms based on the fact that “radical transformation of the old literary language into something approaching the colloquial, the experiences of modernization and urban growth, and the influx of western thought” rendered ‘classical’ literary forms too conventional or too outdated.  While this may have some traction, his suggestion that those old forms died out entirely and the Taisho writers were practically hunting for new forms and then created the shishosetsu is belied by his earlier discussion of other types of literary genre.  This time period is a struggle, and one that does impact much of modern Japanese literature, but not by heedlessly abandoning everything that came before it or having lost it and starting from scratch.

He suggests there are three major waves of criticism of shishosetsu – the first right as shishosetsu was itself being written (though nearer the end of its period) in the mid 1920s, the second in the mid 1930s and the third in the mid 1950s. Nakamura Murao, in 1924, claims the “true novel” (honkaku shosetsu) should principle concern itself with “the realistic depiction of characters in society” (44) and shinkyo shosetsu was only concerned with the author’s relationship to his private life, and was too bogged down by that to ever be another Tolstoy.   The true novel can transcend the author’s personal experience, but watakushi shosetsu were inferior because they didn’t contain this transcendence. One of the early defenders, Kume Masao, suggests that it is one of the purest forms of prose because the author can be candid and is not required to fabricate his thoughts, though he later also notes it is still a work of art, not “mere” biography.  Uno Kogji is also pro in that the form allows the author to “plumb the depths of the self” (48) in a way that is more sincere than fictions artifice.  Ten years later Nakamura changes his tune and links shishosetsu with “pure literature” precisely because it is an “honest depiction of the author’s own life” (49) and Fowler argues this myth becomes the criteria for evaluating all Japanese prose fiction, because it is intertwined with the notion that “pure” literature is an original site of self, only available to those who go digging for it.  He sites Akutagawa and Tanizaki as critics of these early tactics.  The second, in the mid 1930s, was between those who wrote it/praised it and the Shinkankaku-ha (Kawabata at the beginning and Yokomitsu Riichi as the main writer, went from 1924-1930s, published Bungei Jidai magazine) because shishosetsu was too introspective and not socially conscious enough.  Yokomitsu challenged the notion that this was a kind of “realism” where the author faithfully chronicled personal experience and ignored the fact that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac’s realist prose depended on accident and the social context, linking the particular and the universal (52).  Kobayashi Hideo’s “Watakushi shosetsu ron” (1935) is a postmortem that defined shishosetsu studies.  He places Futon as the prototype, suggests the reason why shishosetsu is different than European literature is the idea of self came over from it “without domesticating the social, intellectual, and scientific institutations on which it was based…[that] has always been situated in a broad social milieu.” (54) So they transplanted “naturalism”s techniques without transplanting the philosophies from which it derived. Kobayashi “suggests that the only modern writers who were in a position to reflect seriously on the nature of the self in society were Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki. Authors of unusual learning, they understood fiction’s ability (and Japanese naturalism’s inability) to universalize experience.” (57) (They, of course, stand outside of the shishosetsu tradition).  Third period (postwar) is exemplified by Nakamura Mitsuo, who suggests shishosetsu authors didn’t properly understand the conflict between society and the individual, since society for these authors was such a small circle, and is relentlessly critical.  He is compares Toson’s Hakai (1906) to Katai’s Futon (1907) and suggests the whole movement was swayed by Futon’s “claustrophobic self-consciousness” (60) into writing not about one’s life in universal terms.  Fowler implies we out to ignore the critical aspect of this and see Futon as part of a process of writing Katai was experimenting throughout his life that was a way to write a great novel but escape the overwhelming presence of the narrative form legitimized by European culture. Last he talks about Ito Sei’s emphasis that “the self and the personal voice to which [shishosetsu] gives rise are the primary concerns of modern literature” (62), and he is clearly influenced by him.  It is no means an inferior form, says Ito, but an alternative that allows a different philosophy. Now, Ito seems to think this means fiction was thrown out in the trash, and even Fowler can’t actually assert that.

Fowler goes on to look at Kasai Zenzo, Katai, and someone else, then suggests that the legacy of shishosetsu is that even though junbungaku “has lost its strict autobiographical connotation, and both the form and content of ‘serious literature’ have regularly strayed from the shishosetsu mode” (291) the “depiction of a particularized, personal, narrowly defined world” has a legacy in modern literature as “real” to the Japanese.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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