To evaluate Võ Phiến and his literature, perhaps we need to resort to a cliché term, that is ‘mission’. Võ Phiến’s literary mission was shortly fulfilled with his debut works, especially Đêm xuân trăng sáng, and was aborted by 1965. He published many other books after that year, though, but all the best qualities of his literature had been used up. Nguyễn Hiến Lê initiated a tradition of comparing Võ Phiến and Nguyễn Tuân, but it’s not even close.
Võ Phiến distorted the true face of South Vietnam literature; he’s an intimidating challenge to literary criticism. His position as an ‘insider’ earns him certain credibility among his readers, but he carried out his duty without necessary diligence and care. Thus, to truly understand South Vietnam literature, the prerequisite is to set him aside.
Many critic careers collapsed due to the misunderstandings of Võ Phiến, just like those in the case of Vũ Trọng Phụng.
Võ Phiến was a diaspora version of Tô Hoài, and both of them are the Vietnamese version of Gabriel García Márquez. Each created their own world – the Macondo village, the world of insects, the erotic countryside in Central Vietnam, and they had built up a grandiose career that sustained during their living time but vanished, partly or completely, in their posthumous time.
Võ Phiến lured people into thinking that the Bách Khoa magazine was paramount while that’s not the case. But above all, he concealed the real insights into the most important figure and the pioneer of South Vietnam literature: Thanh Tâm Tuyền.
Only when we disregard Võ Phiến will we be able to grasp the nature of South Vietnam literature.
Talking about the literary scene of South Vietnam, we must give credit to Bùi Giáng, Bình Nguyên Lộc, especially Hồ Hữu Tường, and we must trace back to the period of Nguyễn Bảo Hoá aka Tô Nguyệt Đình, Vũ Anh Khanh, and Thẩm Thệ Hà.
And of course: Thanh Tâm Tuyền, but he’s not the only one. The two other monumental figures were Viên Linh and Dương Nghiễm Mậu. Although it seems that Võ Phiến played a key role in preserving South Vietnam literary legacy after the Fall of Saigon, it’s in fact these two people who are responsible for it. Interestingly, their paths converged at some point, then diverged, and after 1975, while Viên Linh chose to flee the country, Dương Nghiễm Mậu decided to stay.
(a synopsis of NL’s view on Võ Phiến)