Collective Authorship and Reception: Rethinking the Meiji Literary World

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While literary analysis has traditionally focused on literature attributed to a solitary individual, the reality of how literature was viewed in Meiji Japan (1867-1912) defies this categorization. In fact, assessing literature only through the framework of authors as individual writers obscures the system of collective authorship and attribution that was a norm, rather than an exception. Meiji literature was often published within a system of coterie magazines that fostered experimental writing within the context of a group. Literary magazines and even newspapers played a large role in serializing fiction as well. The idea of authorship as surpassing the sum of individual writers and the possibility of their writings forming a collective body of work in itself can be seen clearly in literary reviews of the time. Many attribute works to the publication in which they appeared as a kind of primary "author," and even critique entire issues as self-contained collections of literature. Major publications often featured a shinbun zasshi, or “newspapers and magazines,” column in every issue to keep readers updated on their assessments as well as to simply inform them of what had been published recently. The concept of journal a primary context for literature implies a kind of holistic identity in a way, and was not an uncommon mode of reception within the literary world. Today, I will explore the phenomenon of collective writing, publishing, and reception through looking at examples of reviews that treat magazines as the context of interpretation, responses to this type of critique, and an example of what happens when a text is recontextualized through reprinting in an author-centric anthology.

Those who study Meiji literature, or women’s literature more broadly, might be familiar with the spectacle that was the journal Bungei Club’s special issue focusing on women authors that appeared in December 1896. It might not be so well known if it hadn’t published work by Higuchi Ichiyō – an author now so famous that she appears on the 5,000-yen bill. As you might expect, there were a number of responses to that issue as a whole when it was published, and it makes sense that it was treated more as an anthology than a magazine. After all, the works were included precisely because they were all written by women authors, and “women’s literature” – with its already delineated boundaries – invites critics to respond to it as a whole.

However, the women’s issue of Bungei Club was hardly the only one evaluated in this way. Reviews of other issues crop up in literary magazines like Bungakkai, whose “critique” of the magazine mostly involves a summary of the primary works in each issue, then a quick comment that gives an overall impression like “as the year-end issue, it somehow made us feel a little lonely.” General-interest magazine Kokumin no Tomo, too, follows this formula and critiques individual works under the Bungei Club banner, and also ends with a quick overall reflection. We also find reviews of Bungei Club that address an entire volume rather than a single issue. Yet, in reviewing volume four of the magazine, while Bungakkai observes that one can see signs of Ichiyō in many places, still sticks to the formula of simply summarizing outstanding works. Nevertheless, Bungakkai seems to regard it as its own body of work, an anthology defined by everything printed in the magazine. It’s as though this should be the primary way of organizing and criticizing literature – not, as we might expect now, by author or even by genre or theme.

Although its women’s literature issue was certainly extraordinary, Bungei Club was hardly remarkable in being reviewed issue-by-issue. In 1888, reviews of the literary clique Ken’yūsha’s Garakuta Bunko and the magazine Miyako no Hana appeared in the general-interest Kokumin no Tomo and, somewhat unlike the Bungei Club reviews, were evaluated on the whole rather than as collections of separate but related works. For example, Garakuta Bunko is like a bunch of “bric-a-brac … lined up in an antiques store” that is full of writing on love, passions, the “floating world,” and works reminiscent of Edo-period kokkeibon and sharebon. In other words, it has a character as a whole.

How were publications and writers responding, in turn, to this kind of reception? The coterie magazine Bungakkai is a good example of how review of entire issues was not just accepted but encouraged, and taken as part of the journal’s very identity. This magazine, first published in 1893, had special sections on bright colored paper in its second and third issues that reprinted reviews of its inaugural issue found in other publications. Bungakkai is clearly celebrating that it received a number of substantial responses, from as far away as Kyushu. It’s notable that these responses tend not toward critique or judgment, but toward describing the stated mission, character, and content of the journal, often in the context of the editors' previous work at the woman-oriented Jogaku Zasshi. The reviews are setting up expectations and a context for the character of the works that will make up Bungakkai by extrapolating this from how the journal has positioned itself. By including these responses prominently within its own pages – as though they are part of Bungakkai too – it’s embracing a view of itself as having a cohesive identity, rather than as a collection of works primarily to be evaluated by author, that just happen to be collected in a single magazine.

Not every review tackled an entire issue of another publication. Critiques of individual works certainly filled the pages of every periodical. Yet it’s remarkable, from our current perspective of author- and genre-based evaluations of literature, to see that works are attributed to the journals that published them, just as often as to the writers who produced them.

First, I will turn to a review of novelist Ozaki Kōyō’s works appearing in the journal that he himself edited, Bunko, the successor to Garakuta Bunko, which we have just seen reviewed itself. Fūryū Kyō Ningyō was published in 1889 and reviewed in Kokumin no Tomo by Fukushū Gakushi (otherwise known Ishibashi Ningetsu, the now representative Meiji critic). It’s attributed in the very title to Bunko itself, not Kōyō: it’s “Bunko no Kyō Ningyō.” (Or, “Bunko’s Kyō Ningyō.”) That’s not to say that Bunko is the only author of the work in this review; in fact, Fukushū goes on to talk about Kōyō’s cult-like popularity and holds Kōyō responsible for the novel’s shortcomings. Still, the title itself makes a statement, as does the title of his review of another Kōyō novel, Irozange, which appeared in a series of new novels: “Shincho Hyakushū no Irozange.”

Another later review in the same magazine of a new novel in Shincho Hyakushū it begins by informing the reader who wrote it, but the title still gives the series, not the writer, a kind of primary authorship. In this case, the review is of Miyazaki Sanmai's Shōkaroku, and is titled “Shincho Hyakushū Dai-nana-go Shōkaroku.” Just as with Irozange, the emphasis is on this rather prestigious series of new novels as a growing body of work in itself, rather than on Sanmai as the primary context for his own work. It’s important here to the critic to introduce the novel as part of the collective body of work that is the series of new novels, Shincho Hyakushū, rather than part of the body of work of that individual writer.

What does this tell us about publication-oriented reception, and collective authorship within magazines and literary clubs? We can see a strong emphasis on media here, and especially on the physical form in which works appeared. Some sections of these reviews would make little sense to a reader encountering the same novels later in reprinted book or anthology form. For example, Fukushu criticizes Kōyō for spending too long on some dialogue in "Kyō Ningyō" by complaining that it spans three whole issues of Bunko. Without knowing that the novel was serialized, and how long we might expect each section to be in Bunko, this has little meaning for us as readers. Similarly, we lose the context of what those publications meant: Bunko was a small magazine filled with the works of other members of Kōyō’s clique, while Shincho Hyakushū was a series of short novels finely bound, by a variety of authors. We might say, then, that the idea of authorship here is not only collective and publication-focused, but inextricably tied into physical form as well.

A slightly different example is found in the review column of another magazine, Mesamashigusa, in 1897. This column stands out for reviewing countless works by title and not infrequently leaving out the authors' names. I would like to focus on a case that does highlight the author, via an author-centric publication, and it clearly illustrates reviewers’ focus on media and form – even outside of collectively-authored works. The review is a posthumous look at Higuchi Ichiyō’s story "Nigorie." "Nigorie's" publication in 1895 and this review are spaced nearly two years apart, with this specifically taking on its publication in her posthumous anthology of complete works, Ichiyō zenshū, published in 1897. Looking at works as though collected in an anthology is an apt way to describe reviews based in magazine publications, but here the case is more literal in that the works are arranged by author, collected from a number of sources. Here in Mesamashigusa, the context is seen as sufficiently different from a magazine issue – a collaboration by multiple writers – as to warrant a review within a new context of Ichiyō's body of works. Despite both publications bearing her name, and the work obviously not having been rewritten, the authors of this review contextualize it specifically as a part of her new anthology.

In fact, this review is not substantially different in content from others that contextualize works by publication. They position it specifically in the anthology: “This is the first work that appears in Ichiyō zenshū.” The review contains the same plot summary and scattered impressions that are typical of those we’ve already seen; it even ends with a one-sentence summarization of the reviewers' impressions. (In this case, it's that despite the criticisms, “there are of course a number of Ichiyō's skillful turns in this story.” ) In this case, we still see the same focus on media and form – the position of the work within an anthology – but we also see a new focus on the author’s body of works as a context in itself, whereas the magazine in which it was published, and what originally appeared alongside her novels, disappears entirely.

The question is why a collection of works under the umbrella of Ichiyō's name necessitated, or invited, a review of a story written over a year before and already critiqued both here and elsewhere. But a magazine or newspaper context is not that of an individual author’s previous works – it’s what’s contained in the issue, and what’s been published in the magazine in the past. Yet despite this difference, the Mesamashigusa review's focus is still on this work's place in Ichiyō's anthology: the emphasis is still very much on media, and on the work at its site of publication rather than as a text independent of the paper it’s printed on.

The comparison with Ichiyō's anthology is a productive one: here, we have a collection of works grouped by author, all written by Ichiyō, but in all of these other reviews, we see works by multiple authors grouped together to form a collectively authored body of work. This contrast between a type of authorship that feels natural now, that of the singular author with a consistent name, and that of collective, publication-based authorship, highlights the varied types of writing and reception that were the norms in the Meiji period. Yet we still see a focus on media no matter the type of collection, and this strongly suggests that authorship at this time could be understood as inextricably bound to media and physical form as well, in a way that it is no longer considered today.

I do not mean to imply that collective writing and reception was the only type of literary practice in the mid-Meiji period. However, this was a common way in which literature was read and responded to, and writers must have expected the possibility of their works being critiqued as part of a publication first, and accepted their own identities as subordinate to the holistic identity of the publication to some degree. I’ve already raised the fundamental question of how and why this phenomenon appears in the first place. By continuing on this surprising case of authorial attribution and its implications, we can work not only toward a more accurate picture of how literary works were received, but ultimately, can also achieve a more accurate understanding and robust theorization of collective authorship at the turn of the 20th century.