Pamela Crossley is a Chinese history professor at Dartmouth College and the author of The Wobbling Pivot: China since 1800: An Interpretive History (2010), as well as influential studies of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and leading textbooks in global history.
Why I write
Why breathe? I don’t like what happens when I don’t.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
If ‘writing’ means actually entering new words into a file destined for publication somewhere, I do it most days but not all, for anywhere from five minutes to 14 hours. I am a professor, so I do a lot of other writing that – in accord with my intentions or not – will have occasional effects on certain individuals or institutions, but for the most part will become part of the universe’s entropic load of discharged information. But if ‘writing’ means composing, revising, speculating, hoping, protesting, satirizing with extreme prejudice, or praying, in other words doing all the mentalizing that eventually puts words on the page or takes them off, one wakes and sleeps doing that. It is why when we think of ‘literature’ we don’t just mean what people have put on bark or stone or wax or vellum or paper or optical storage media, we include what people have recited and performed and sung. In our present environment, thinking and writing are merging. Thiting. Wrinking. And more people are doing it every single day. Beware.
Worst source of distraction?
Travel. Despite the noblest cause, the most gentle hosts, the most profound revelations… an absolute calamity of diverted life. But a minimum is an unavoidable duty.
Best source of inspiration?
Learning is inspiring; it is all that the universe is here for. Reading, seeing, hearing, daydreaming are all inspiring. My hydrocephalic blind puppy learning to jump into my car. Horses, their history of courage in service to humans and the cruelty they get in return. The Irish being in the forefront of famine relief. The Song being the Eurasian empire to resist the Mongols the longest. Jefferson bankrupting himself to bail out a neighbor. Zhang Xueliang surrendering himself to Chiang Kaishek. All inspiring.
More immediate inspiration, a direct application of one of the following: Bach’s double concerto in D minor. Macnee and Rigg in ‘Quick-Quick-Slow Death.’ (Almost) anybody singing ‘di rigori armato il seno.’
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Hmm, I never really associated ‘writer’s block’ with doubt. I think it might be about something else. My confidence in writing is not what the world is about. I write, but so what? It is perfectly sufficient to attempt, by one grand strategy or another, to express what appears to be true, and then to move on, as the rest of the world will. Producing words is not difficult. Producing thought that is both comprehensive and persuasive is. Writer’s block can be induced by reading reviews of one’s own work. Don’t do it. The subject isn’t that interesting, and you can’t do anything about it.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I don’t stalk writers. I don’t find anybody hypnotic or addicting. A bad writer has a good day and says something memorable, I note it. A good writer churns out a lot of useless drek, I page past.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I have read a lot of them, but not enough. When thinking of the ‘best’… Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuang Zhou, Sima Qian, Liu Yiqing, Tao Qian, Luo Guanzhong, Cao Zhan, Lao She, Qian Zhongshu… Who has written better than these? Probably somebody I will remember tomorrow. The only thing I have against them is that they are all men. Chinese women writers are interesting, but not towering. Women have been writing a long time in China, in all genres, why haven’t they produced a candidate for greatest writer? In the past, circumstances forced women to write either in clichés or in the tiny mirror of self-narrative. Today’s Chinese fiction generally seems to be the legacy of traditional women’s writing, maybe for the same reasons.
Best book about China?
Everybody who is a scholar of something or other is impatient with any book ‘about’ that something or other. You have to see all such books as limited, tendentious, pretending to a lot of assurance and understanding that really isn’t possible. So, I like a lot of books about quantum physics but I don’t like books about China too much, including my own. There are some that hold up better than others. Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period and Dictionary of Ming Biography are sublime. Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor, Pacing the Void, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, Taxing Heaven’s Storehouse, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War, Rebellion and its Enemies, Studies on the Population of China, Crimson Rain, Fighting Famine in North China, all outstanding, all have something wrong with them in the eyes of everybody writing about China. If getting more things right than wrong is a criterion, these books will all float to the top. But I am leaving out almost all the books I would recommend to somebody seeking to find out something reliable about China.
Favorite book? Writer?
Answering two questions at once here: First, I only know the smallest sliver of writing by the smallest sliver of people who have written. Among the small number of writers I know of, I am only guessing who I like the best. To the cold eye of literary appreciation, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina looks like a winner. Real oysters, real hands, real trains to Moscow with real snow blowing into the carriages. Still, I would say my favorite author is: Faulty Appropriation. For instance, Edith Hamilton translated Aeschylus: “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God,” but Robert Kennedy misquoted it on the night of Martin Luther King’s death as “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Kennedy’s is better. The collective human ability to hear, misremember, adjust, improve is my favorite author. That is why we all quote quotes that were never uttered. It is how we get some of our best plots and characters. Or, put another way, my favorite author is the process by which the King James translation of Ecclesiastes was produced, the process by which we got Homer and the Arthurian cycles and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The real trespass is not recalling and restating but is not knowing, or just lying about, where you got it in the first place (I got my knowledge of Kennedy’s misquote from Christopher S. Morrissey). If you insist upon an ‘author’ confined to a single mortal body, let’s choose Twain. He wrote to Helen Keller that writing is plagiarism (which I think relates to my misremembering idea; I probably misremembered it from Twain). He fearlessly and fraternally stared down the worst of humanity. He can’t be translated, even into English. Self-serious people always misread him. And reports of his death are still exaggerated.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
It’s probably something I haven’t heard of yet. But it might be Charlotte’s Web.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I wrote about a lot of things, in a lot of contexts, before becoming a scholar of Chinese history. I still do. My first publication was in a city newspaper, age 15, and I began publishing regularly after leaving high school. When I look at the first publication now (and journals from that time) I realize that in terms of polish it has been all downhill since then. This is what happens when you learn foreign languages. You smash up your first writing language. In a good light you can get interesting effects, but the luster is lost forever.
How did you get started writing?
I got started writing with paper, a pen and some free time. It was early. I got started publishing in a professional way when I went to work for Rodale Press, the organic gardening and recycling pioneers, during high school. I worked on Environmental Action Bulletin. Then in college I won a couple of fiction prizes, edited the college newspaper, and got started with paid book reviewing before I graduated. I had a very strong interest in journalism but there was a problem – an inability to tolerate the journalistic life. Fortunately I had a deep comfort with the past. Historical research and writing, and the historian’s biorhythm, is more for me.
Does writing change anything?
Everything changes everything, so, ‘writing’ changes everything. Imagine if nobody ever did it. Consider that every culture has composed its language, and done it maximally. They have produced the same genres, the same tropes, the same metaphors, sometimes the same plots and characters. Writing is predestined, and the effects of writing are ineluctable.