The May 7, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books carries an essay entitled, “An American Hero in China” that is all about Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) and states how “In China he (Hessler) has been transformed into a writer of cult-figure proportions whose fans analyze his love life, his translator’s finances, and his children’s education.”
This essay was written by Ian Johnson, author of ten books, including Travels in Siberia. His connection to Peter is that in 1999 he hired Hessler to be a researcher in the Beijing bureau of The Wall Street Journal. He writes that “he (Peter) had already spent two years in the small Chinese city of Fuling as an English instructor at a teachers’ college.”
Hello, Ian, Peter was in the Peace Corps! In this long, long piece in the NY Review of Books, Johnson never once mentions Helller’s Peace Corps connection. I can’t believe that Ian is that stupid…No, he is afraid, my guess, that mentioning the ‘Peace Corps’ makes his title “An American Hero in China” not salient enough.
Johnson goes onto write that he “likes” Pete’s writing but finds himself “befuddled’ as he sits in the audience at a lecture where three hundred people had crowded into the basement auditorium of an office tower in Beijing to hear a discussion between two of China’s most popular writers, one whom is Peter Hessler. Is Johnson pissed that Hessler is so loved and respected in China and he isn’t?
After all, Ian, might be thinking: I came first to China!
Johnson, a Canadian, was a student in Beijing in 1984-85. He also wrote for The New York Times (as did Peter) and has written (like Peter) for The New Yorker. Johnson has spent half of the past thirty years in Greater China, but no one is lining up to see him, have him autograph a book. What gives?
At Hessler’s appearance in Beijing, the organizers had asked people to register ahead of time. More than one thousand signed up for the three hundred seat. Johnson writes, “People stood in the back of the room holding copies of his books, or milled around in the hallway hoping to catch a few words.”
So, why is Peace Corps Peter Hessler so loved in Beijing. His books have sold over 500,000 in China in just four year. And back here at home, he had sold over 400,000 copies.. Ian writes, “a figure that easily makes him the most influential popular writer on China in decades.”
I can guarantee you that Hessler has sold 10-times more books than Canadian-born journalist and China lover, Ian Johnson.
(At the end of the day, it is not their reviews that writers read; it is their sales numbers.)
Not only is Hessler hailed by the Chinese wherever he goes, but also by, as Johnson points out, “One of the West’s greatest historians of China, Paul Cohen.” Cohen wrote an “exceptional, twenty-one-page appreciation of Hessler in The Journal of Asian Studies. (Johnson, by the way, sits on the board of that publication.)
What Cohen writes about why Peter is so successful and liked in China, he says, Peter…”observes, he describes, he explains, but, although occasionally dismayed at the behavior of individual Chinese, he almost never is judgmental about the Chinese collectively.”
Johnson’s article in the Review is about what happened last fall when Peter was in China on a press tour. Johnson attended several of Peter’s appearances. At one event, someone came up and asked Ian, “He worked for you at The Wall Street Journal? What was he like? Tell us a story?”
Let me tell you, there is little in life that is more galling to a writer who writes in the same genre to have such a question asked. I remember talking to Peter Straub as a fantasy convention and having a fan ask Peter, who had co-authored a book with Stephen King, what King was like. Peter, to his credit, gave a positive, cheery reply and when the guy was gone, he ordered another drink and said something like, “You can’t imagine how much I dislike that question.”
Other Chinese fans tell Johnson, as he relates in this article, that what is so appealing about Peter’s prose is that he (Peter) “cares about the lives of ordinary people.”
I guess that is something PCVs learn in-country doing the ‘toughest job you’ll ever love,’ something Ian Johnson wouldn’t know anything about.