The sensational commercial success of Amy Tan’s debut novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), and the book’s subsequent cultural ubiquity led Karl Taro Greenfeld of The Paris Review to comment recently that “if Oprah Winfrey had had a book club in 1989 she surely would have selected it” (13). Yet it is perhaps precisely because that powerful arbiter of middlebrow taste did not yet exist that The Joy Luck Club became as much of a sensation as it did, for in many ways, the book club and the novel fulfill similar functions. Just as Oprah’s Book Club has been lauded for its remarkable ability to transform obscure novels into overnight bestsellers and expose its largely white middle- to upper-class female demographic to a plethora of so-called minority works, The Joy Luck Club has been praised in both the popular and critical milieux for its ability to foster a “sister-centered” (Welsch 29) sense of community both within and beyond the text itself.
Yet it is this very same talent that has earned both Tan and Winfrey the derision of numerous literary critics; Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, remarked that “[t]here is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about [Winfrey’s] book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it” (qtd. in Minzesheimer). In similar fashion, Asian American literary critics have, on the whole, taken umbrage at Tan’s penchant for constructing a bridge to and among her “predominantly white and female” readership (Wong 180), resulting in a loyal following that Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has derisively dubbed a “sugar sisterhood” (181). Like Stossel, Wong and many like-minded Asian American critics have argued that Tan’s novels are far too “soothing” to be “serious”: their “exoticizing” (191) depictions of China and traditional Chinese culture, in particular, “enable Orientalism to emerge in a form palatable to middle-class American readers” (181).1
The aim of this essay is neither to endorse nor refute such perspectives. What strikes me as especially interesting about the extremely polarized response to The Joy Luck Club is rather its persistent preoccupation with the serious and the playful—whether defined as the popular, the “easy,” the “palatable,” or the [End Page 68] saccharine—as dialectical oppositions. This binary scheme is, as the critics above make clear, not simply a matter of literary taste or genre but of literary politics and, by extension, of identity politics. The large-scale dismissal of Tan’s debut novel by Asian American critics suggests that “nonserious” Asian American literature is synonymous with “bad” Asian American literature in that it caters to rather than challenges stereotypical assumptions about the racial group as a whole.2 But that appraisal seems paradoxical, if not downright counterproductive, when one recognizes that it discursively replicates one of the most basic stereotypes about Asian Americans: that their achievements as a model minority are the product of a near-ascetic eschewal of all things fun and an almost fanatical dedication to the serious pursuits of economic and scholastic success. From this perspective, Tan’s novel has been derided for accomplishing precisely what Asian American studies as a whole has historically considered its political imperative.
What is additionally ironic about this critical dismissal is that The Joy Luck Club, as the eponymous mahjongg3 group from which it draws its title suggests, is itself a book deeply invested in games and play as serious enterprises. In fact, Wong’s critique of the “sugar sisterhood” that exists among the novel’s readers essentially reproduces Tan’s own observation that games such as mahjongg fundamentally license as well as occlude kinship formations both within and across racial or genetic borders. Indeed, there exists a central yet critically overlooked element of verisimilitude between novel and game, on the one hand, and between Tan’s readers and her mahjongg-playing characters on the other. After...