Unpopularity Contest

“Your biggest problem,” shouts a sadistic instructor at a confused group of writers, “is that you’re too mass-market!” The first story in Da Tou Ma’s How to Write a Worstseller tells of an unusual workshop whose participants learn how to curb their sales appeal. The author seems to be poking fun at literary snobbery, even as she cleverly uses this satire to claim her place as a serious writer.

Da Tou Ma is quickly making a name for herself on China’s literary scene. Her three books – How to Write a Worstseller (2017), Skinner (2017), and Murdering the Television (2015) – have earned her praise from established figures such as Jin Yucheng and Luo Yijun, and English translations of her stories have recently appeared in the Beijing literary magazine Spittoon. Her writing is lively, original, and smart, effortlessly combining literary aims with the readability of – yes – a bestseller.


“你们最大的问题啊,是太畅销!” 一位施虐狂般的导师吼道,底下坐的是一群困惑的作家。这是大头马的作品《不畅销小说写作指南》中的第一个故事,讲述一群作家在一场写作培训班上学习如何让自己的作品不被畅销。作者看似是在嘲刺当今文学的势利性,却又巧妙地利用这种讽刺,来宣称她自己是一位严肃的作家。

大头马在中国文坛迅速成名。她的三本书《不畅销小说写作指南》(2017)、《潜能者们》(2017)和《谋杀电视机》(2015)均获得了金宇澄和骆以军等人的称赞。最近,她的作品还被翻译成英文发表在北京文艺杂志《Spittoon》上。她的写作风格活泼、新颖、机智,也像畅销小说一样轻松易读。

Her unusual pseudonym, which literally means “Big Head Ma,” began as a childhood nickname. “When I was little my forehead was big – not that it’s small now – so my friends and relatives, and the kids at school, used to call me ‘Big Head,’” she explains. “And since my Mom’s last name is Ma, her coworkers at the office, where I’d spend most of my free time after school, would call me ‘Little Ma.’” That’s why, in the early days of the internet, when she had to pick a screen name, “Da Tou Ma” was a natural choice—and it stuck. As a child, she used it for her first articles and posts, and before long it became a part of her identity, online as well as off. “Gradually the name became my name in real life. Everyone, even my parents, calls me Da Tou Ma,” she says.


“大头马”这个有意思的笔名源自她童年时的绰号。“我小时候脑门大 (现在也不小),是身体上鲜明的特点。所以亲朋好友和同学都喜欢喊我‘大头’。” 她继续解释,“又由于我母亲姓马,小时候放学后经常到我母亲工作的地方打发时间,她的同事都喊我‘小马’。”因此,当刚开始在网上要投稿和发帖时,她很自然就想到了‘大头马’这个名字。慢慢地,这个名字也成为了她现实中的身份。“大头马逐渐成为我现实中的名字。包括我父母现在都这么叫我。”

Da Tou Ma finds inspiration both in her everyday life and in her expansive reading habits. Recently she’s been especially drawn to nonfiction in science, economics, and politics, while also making her way through classic Chinese authors like Lao She, Shen Congwen, and Lu Xun. “I try to imitate the styles, structures, and tricks of the experience of what I’m reading,” she says. “There are all different kinds of sources of inspiration.”

Her ability to use different styles, structures, and tricks is nowhere more evident than in How to Write a Worstseller. In each of the book’s eight stories, supposedly written by a one of the participants in the workshop, she inhabits a different persona, from a playboy who goes to weddings to pick up women, to the enigmatic author of a guide to apologies, to a chemistry student whose trip to Amsterdam takes a harrowing turn. Switching back and forth lets her try out different tones and voices, and gives the book a dazzling virtuosity.


大头马的创作灵感主要来自她个人丰富的生活和阅读经验。最近,她对科学、经济和政治这些非小说类的书尤其感兴趣。也会从老舍、沈从文和鲁迅等中国古典作家中获取灵感。“我会尝试去模仿我阅读到的文学风格、结构、技巧。” 她说,“多种多样的阅读经验都会成为我的灵感来源。”

《不畅销小说写作指南》即是大头马精湛写作能力的最佳证明。书中收录了八个故事,每个故事在情节里都是出自班上一位学员之手。学员(其实也就是大头马)将自己化身为不同的角色,包括在婚礼上搭讪女孩的花花公子、一位撰写道歉指南的神秘作家,以及前往阿姆斯特丹体验了一场痛苦旅程的化学专业学生。角色来回的切换,让她尝试以不同的语调和声音去写作,充分展现了她令人目眩神迷的文学造诣。

Unlike the workshop leader in her story, Da Tou Ma says she likes both “serious” literature and popular genres, like sci-fi, fantasy, and manga. “I think the best works in these genres are every bit as good as the best works of serious literature,” she says. As for her own books, she doesn’t worry about whether readers will think what she’s writing is high art or just entertainment. “Sometimes I think about the reader when writing, sometimes I don’t,” she adds. “I concentrate more on finishing the work itself.”


与她故事中培训班的导师不同,大头马说自己既喜欢正经一点的文学类型,也很喜欢所谓的通俗读物,像是科幻、武侠、推理小说、日本漫画等等。她说:“我认为这些通俗文学中的优秀作品,与严肃文学中的优秀作品是同样伟大的。”谈及自己的书,她表示並不会担心读者将自己的作品定义为高雅的艺术或是纯粹的娱乐。“有时在创作时会考虑到读者,有时则不会。”她补充道,“我还是更想专注在作品本身。”

She confesses to being a little out of step with other Chinese writers. But she notes a split between those who work inside the system—with the writers associations and state-sponsored publications—and those on the outside. “Writers who rely on the system tend to produce a traditional, mainstream sort of writing, and the homogeneity is pretty severe,” she says. “Writers outside the system have a bit more freedom, and try to use richer and more varied forms and styles.” Though she doesn’t say, it’s not hard to guess which group she belongs to.

Da Tou Ma does think things are changing, though, and that more writers from outside are getting mainstream recognition. “I think this generation’s writing is definitely more diverse, more free, and more flexible than in the past.”


她承认自己对其他中国作家不太熟悉。但她注意到当今作家大体上可分为两种。第一种是体制内的写作者,依托作家协会或官方的赞助来出版作品。另一种则是存在在‘体制外’的。“总的来说,依附在体制内的作家一直在沿袭传统主流的写作方式,同质化现象比较严重。体制外的作家则更自由一些,试图创造更多丰富多样的形式和风格。” 虽然她没有说明,但不难猜出她是属于哪一类型。

然而,大头马认为这一现象正在发生变化。现在体制外也有越来越多的作家,正在获得主流群众的认可。她说:“我认为当代中国作家的作品,显然比起过去更加多元、自由、灵活。”

On a more individual level, she says that biggest challenge she faces is figuring out what to write. “For the first few years I was writing, I focused on basic writing technique. But lately, I’ve found that what to write has become a central question.” No longer content with just writing about personal experience, Da Tou Ma aspires to produce something of lasting value – something that not only has meaning for herself as an individual but can also speak to people outside her immediate circle.

“Answering the question of ‘what to write’ means figuring out how to look at this world and these times, and how to get a deeper understanding of the world and produce work that goes beyond the times,” she says. “That’s the fundamental challenge.”

Click here to read an excerpt of How to Write a Worstseller. To purchase the Chinese edition of the book, click here.


在个人层面上,她表示目前面临到的最大挑战是弄清楚 ‘写什么’。 “前几年刚开始写作时,我都在处理基本写作技巧上的问题。但写到现在,我发现 ‘写什么’ 才是关键。” 大头马不再满足于写个人经历,她渴望能创作出更多具有持久价值的东西。写出不仅对个人有意义,同时也可以对其他人产生共鸣的作品。

“ 当你知道了要‘写什么’,意味着你知道如何去看待这个世界,以及如何更深刻地进一步了解它。能不能写出跨越时代的作品,是所有作家最根本的挑战。”

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Contributor: Allen Young
Photographer: Nathan Wang


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投稿人: Allen Young
摄影师: Nathan Wang