The Tale of Genji, Sassy Reviewers, & Clickbait

tale of genji cover2

My Knopf paperback of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji arrived in the mail today. It has a lovely, delicate cover, the print is the perfect size for reading by a nearsighted woman with bifocals (me), and it is illustrated with exquisite woodcuts from a 1650 Japanese edition.  It is also very hefty, about the size of War and Peace (1090 pages).

tale of genji_woodblock

A woodcut from a 1650 edition.

I already am finding  Edward G. Seidensticker’s lyrical translation (1976) of this 11th-century Japanese “novel” more elegant and readable than  Dennis Washburn’s (Norton, 2015), which I began last summer. Both have their merits,  but  Washburn’s prose is often awkward and wordy, perhaps more literal: I’m sure each translator has a different philosophy.  I’ve often thought twentieth-century translators wrote better than the new crew of writera  (the Maudes’ translation of  Anna Karenina is the best).  Well, I’m a  worshiper of the past.  It’s not a nostalgia thing:  it’s why I studied classics.

Of course Washburn will be somebody else’s classic, too.

Here are the opening paragraphs of both translations.

First the stunning Seidensticker:

In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.  The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful.  Probably aware of what was happening, she felt seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court.

And here is Washburn’s more verbose version.

I N WHOSE reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favor above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them.  As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail/

Very different books, yes? It’s a matter of preference.

I’ll check in here occasionally to express my thoughts on this classic.


Reviewers can be nice, reviewers can be nasty.  I have no doubt that a sassy review at a mainstream publication  has the power to  kill a book.

But sassiness is not only endemic at mainstream book review publications.  It is also in many ways the main character at Goodreads.  Mind you, there are Goodreads reviewers  who  write thoughtfully and analytically  about the context of Lawrence Durrell’s modernist novels, but yesterday I was floored by a one-star review of The Tale of Genji by someone named “Smenkhare.”

“Smenkhare” doesn’t have an elegant way with words.  He/she writes:

i hate this book only a little less than i hate ‘twilight’. the historical and literary significances are really impressive (it was the first novel written – and by a woman, for that matter), and it’s the source of pretty much everything we currently know about heian court life, but genji is the wimpiest, rapiest protagonist ever. he is literally so mind-crushingly whiny, childish and just plain unlikeable that in my opinion, he ruins what is otherwise a pretty compelling story.

“Smenkhare” deals in superlatives, you will notice.

N.B.: I should tell you: The Tale of Genji is NOT the first novel.  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote novels long before the 11th century .  Seidensticker  refers to The Tale of Genji as “a very long romance,”and Washburn “a long fictional narrative.”


Jessica Crispin?

No, I’m joking.  But she has gotten a lot of play at the Guardian lately.  In a new essay at The Guardian, she says she stopped publishing her popular book blog/webzine Bookslut partly because advertisers have ruined the internet.

She writes:

I know that nostalgia is a stupid emotion, but still I regret the day money found the internet. Once advertisers showed up, offering to pay us to do the thing we were doing just for fun, it was very hard to say no. Or understand exactly what the trade-offs would be.

She discovered through her stats that readers were less interested in reviews of the small-press books she favored than in the same few books reviewed in every mainstream publication. She writes,

You have to indulge in clickbait. You have to narrow your conversation down to the one that is already happening elsewhere.

I’ve never heard that word “clickbait.”

Your_brain_on_clickbait-400x258We’re pretty much under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. Clickbait wouldn’t work here:  there aren’t enough readers. Heavens, I get complaints if I “disrespect” Jane Austen, which I don’t do, but which someone thought I did.  I don’t  sell ads–it’s too much trouble to be an Amazon associate and add book links to Amazon, on top of all the scribbling I do. Anyway I’m only a one-woman operation and “review”only a couple of books a week. The rest of the time I’m writing about vaguely bookish topics that don’t sell anything except whether I heart (or don’t heart )reveiwers/writers/ bloggers, depending on what I’m saying.

True, when I get sassy and  critical the numbers of readers spike. After Jenny Diski’s recent death, I noticed dozens of people flocking to  a post in which I defended Doris Lessing from Diski’s  LRB columns complaining about Lessing’s opinions and behavior when Diski was kicked out of Peter Lessing’s school and invited to live with the Lessings..  I immediately hid the post–took it out of the “published” categroy and made it private–because I did not want to upset Diski mourners or  fans. After all, de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“about the dead say nothing except good.”).  I don’t knuckle under to everybody, because (a) it doesn’t pay (yet another money metaphor), (b) I’m not great at slavishly concealing my opinion, but I really don’t want to add salt to any wounds.

Periodically, when the nuances get too much for me, I even shut off my comments.  Sometimes I like silence.  Lawrence Durrell in Justine writes, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”

I do keep up with six or seven blogs–not nearly enough, I know–and try to leave comments, hoping I write enough to show my very real interest.  It all takes a certain amount of time, because I’m not a master of the comment.  I think it would be easier if I branched out and read blogs about subjects I know very little about.  I’m not in any particular network of blogs:  I just visit the ones I like!

So have I used any clickbait?  What do you think about clickbait and sassiness?

10 thoughts on “The Tale of Genji, Sassy Reviewers, & Clickbait

  1. Like you I think I’m pretty much under the radar – and I wouldn’t want to use clickbait. I read for pleasure, basically, and if I don’t enjoy I won’t read and I tend not to be critical therefore. Having said that, I did a post once headed “Why I don’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky translations” and it still gets an awfully large number of hits…. =:o

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Karen, I can imagine the Pevear & Vol responses. (I’ll have to go back and look at your post.) They are very controversial, aren’t they? I enjoyed their Dead Souls and Doctor Zhivago, but I do remember a “group read” when many very much disliked their Dr. Zhi.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First, I like your giving us the two openings of the “Tale of Genji” and your letting choose the one we prefer. In French, we would say that they represent one, “l’esprit”, and the other, “la lettre”. Both perspectives are interesting.
    Sassy reviews? The best (for me) are the terse and sparse critics in the vein of the short aphorisms of the French moralists – sorry my Frenchiness is oozing from me today. I tried to write some of these on my blog, but I always find, there are pros and cons, and end lamely. It is perhaps easier on Goodreads, which seems more anonymous.
    Clickbaits? I am still astonished and delighted to receive clicks and comments on my blogs! And book reiews are more musings about books embedded in life musings. I am not talented enough to use clickbaits!


    • Yes, everybody likes a different style in translation!
      Oh, you could use “clickbait,” if you just wrote about the new Richard Russo (which I’m sure I’ll like), the new Louise Erdrich, and the others people like to read. But it wouldn’t be you!:)


  3. I have that editio of “The Tale of Genji” — I did try the book but after a while found it dull. Not enough dramatic scenes, the characters not seen deeply enough somehow. I preferred “Lady Nijo’s Story,” a memoir by a specific woman. A tragic life — she makes Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Thanks for the comparison of translations.

    I don’t know about sassy reviewers, reviewers who deliberately use snark to gain prominence or a following. Myself I scuttle off from that sort of thing, but there is a trashing of Richardson by a New Yorker reviewer I myself “trashed” last night:

    I bring it up because 1) its surface seems so plausible, it seems in tone anything but injudicious and shallow and yet it is. And 2) this is a type of review, Gopnik writes them sometimes and other New Yorker writers. The print mainstream publications have their kind of falsely thoughtful reviewers.

    Clickbait: sometimes I fall for it and then want to kick myself for wasting my own time.


    • Well, this is my second try! I do like the translation but it is very long, and not in a tradition I know about. I missed The New Yorker article on Samuel Richardson and will read yours.
      I so often fall for clickbait, but there’s usually not much there.


  4. From what I understand, Washburn’s translation of GENJI aims to make the text as accessible as possible to a modern Western audience while still retaining Murasaki’s general style. He does this by explaining things in the actual text, rather than in footnotes; therefore, his version is rather wordy compared to his predecessors. Seidensticker’s translation has been criticized for taking Murasaki’s long, poetic sentences and chopping them down to short, compact ones. I think Washburn’s translation falls between Seidensticker’s austerity and Tyler’s accuracy.


    • Fascinating! I ended up reading Washburn’s translation, partly because it was portable on my Kindle, but also because it did capture a cultural atmosphere that I wasn’t getting though Seidensticker’s short sentences. Washburn’s notes were also very helpful. I don’t have Tyler’s, but have heard good things.


      • I’m working my way – slowly – through Tyler’s translation now. There is an almost forbidding purity to it – he explains everything in footnotes, of course, but the text makes no concessions to the reader (for example, he maintains the tradition of referring to characters by their titles rather than the unofficial names readers have used over the centuries). There is some gorgeous language to be found there, but sometimes I find myself wishing I had Washburn’s more accessible translation on hand. On the other hand, the jokes and puns the characters make have a lot more zing when characters don’t stop to explain them, as they do in Washburn. I suppose it boils down to personal preference.


        • It is so odd that the Tyler is the only one I don’t have! I found every translation to be (almost) a completely different book, but the Washburn did prove the easiest for me, because of the footnotes. What appeals to me now is the Arthur Waley published in a series of slim volumes. Wouldn’t it be nice not to read it in a doorstop?:)


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