Is online fiction the future of literature?
This is a small batch from the weekly literary program: Ink&Quill.
A white-collar worker in Shanghai, thirty-year-old Yuan Yuan spends her free time like most millennials these days: hanging out with friends, going shopping, playing video games, and watching all kinds of trendy films and TV shows.
But there is one hobby, or in Yuan's own word, a "guilty pleasure" that she seldom admits to aloud:"I started reading online fictions since my freshman year at college. I guess it's my roommates who introduced these websites to me. Since then, I have become addicted. Believe it or not, I try to cut it out. Yet whenever I find something really interesting from one author, I can spend one or two weeks reading through all their works, it doesn't matter whether it is during my commute, at work, or at night. Sometimes, I tell myself I need to stop reading by midnight, since I still have a job to do early in the morning. But on most occasions, before I even realize it, I have already stayed up all night."
Just like traditional literature, online literature covers a wide-ranging genres, among which fantasy and romance are the two most popular themes.[Photo:Asianewsphoto]
Wow, that does sound like a literary binge. So what kind of stories is she obsessed with?
"Romance for example. But I prefer novels without much of a romantic focus." Yuan names a few: "I am also interested in detective stories, adventure, fantasy, and fiction portraying everyday life of certain professions."
Wait, let's hold on a second. Doesn't traditional literature also cover all these genres she just mentioned?
"Compared with online fictions, traditional paperback books are humdrum in topics and in content and they also set the bar too high for certain readers. But online fiction is another matter." Yuan Yuan begs to disagree:" As long as you like the characters and the setting in the first chapter, you could carry on with ease. I mean, people read online fiction to relax, to seek out the cathartic pleasure. That's what these stories exist for, isn't it? Especially after you move into the workplace, these novels can help you release pressure and adjust your mood. They provide an alternative universe and a temporary haven."
To a certain extent, the advent of digital device facilitates the rapid development of online literature as commuters could pass the time by reading stories on their mobile phones. [Photo:VCG]
That probably explains why over 352 million Chinese people, accounting for nearly half of the internet users in the country, are bound up in online fiction.
But the appeal of web-based literature is not all about its unfettered themes and a sense of relaxation it brings. Since almost every work published online is a serial novel, eager readers have to wait for the latest chapter of one story, stimulating camaraderie and a sense of participation.
Here is Yuan Yuan, the seasoned online fiction aficionado again.
"Since stories are often serialized on literature websites, readers can leave comments or share their thoughts with authors. This kind of communication feels awesome." A seasoned online fiction aficinado, Yuan Yuan observes that some writers will even change the plot based on the discussions they have with readers, which provides a very interactive reading experience for some netizens.
The advent of the internet, not only attracts readers who crave for daily diversions, but also draws in aspiring writers.
As key consumers, young people are shaping the landscape of online literature.[Photo:VCG]
An editor from Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, Wang Yue recalls:"Online literature has been thriving since the late 1990s. I remember when I was in junior high school in the early 2000s when web-based literature began to grow. Around that time, many literature websites such as Jinjiang Literature came into being. These platforms have provided space and opportunity for amateur writers to show off their talent."
To make the business more lucrative, website organizers track down writers whose works exhibit a great potential to garner large readership and then persuade them to offer paid subscriptions. Usually, a three-thousand-word chapter will charge 15 US cents and the revenue will be shared by both the website and the writer. So the larger your fan base is, the more cash you bring in. If the fan base is large enough, your literary creation might get snapped up by studios to make its way to the silver screen or get transformed into other entertainment products.
Zhang Peng has been writing web novels for four years. He explains to us what prompted him to become a full-time online novelist:
"Back then, my friends and I all read online fiction. In the beginning, all those stories looked pretty amazing to me. Yet gradually, some of them no longer excited me. So I wondered if I could write something as well. That's how I started. My parents were not very impressed about my career path. But as time went by, they realized I could actually earn a living from this. At the moment being a full time online writer is not a risky career path they once imagined it to be."
Best known for his pen name, Tang Jia San Shao, Zhang Wei (middle) is China's highest-paid online writer. [Photo:VCG]
Unlike Zhang who writes to make ends meet, some writers depend on web novels to make a fortune. In 2016, Tangjiasanshao, China's wealthiest online novelist, raked in 122 million yuan or 18 million US dollars. In an interview with the New York Times, he claimed that all profit from online subscribers only make up 2 to 3 percent of his total income and the majority of his revenue comes from the printed versions of his books and other spinoffs, such as movies, TV shows and games.
His success has inspired many more to follow in his footsteps.
According to Li Chaoquan, a researcher from China Writers' Association, by the end of 2016, there were over 2.5 million people registered to become online writers while more than 100 million novels were published.
"The scale of online writing and the variety of online literature is breath-taking. People update nearly 150 million words per day, which is absolutely remarkable." Li further explains:"Most importantly, online literature has created a colossal readership, particularly among the younger generation."
Adapted from the online novel of the same name, "Love O2O" is one of the most-watched TV series in China. From romantic comedy "Love is not Blind" to the intrigue-packed historical novel "Empresses in the Palace", many all-time popular stories have been transformed into TV shows, movies, animations, or even, video games. [Picture: IC]
A number of popular Chinese online fiction tales have even got international nods.
Liu Xudong is the vice president of the Jinjiang Literature, one of the largest of its kind. In 2016, his company sold more than 150 titles overseas. Among all the books being sold, themes such as romance, history, and fantasy are the most sought after.
"Currently, most of our bestsellers in international markets are either stories set in ancient China, or modern romance novels. Compared with online literature from other countries, ours is permeated with whimsical ideas, since China's five thousand years of history and civilization is an abundant writing resource. Some of our writers really let their imagination run wild and provide quite fascinating tales. In the very beginning, we sold copyrights to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then around 2013, 2014, people from Southeast Asia started to read our stories. Since then, there has been a growing interest in Chinese web literature in Europe and North America as well. By running small websites and online forums, amateurs translate our works from Chinese into local languages. The impatient ones even use translation software to facilitate their reading."
Wuxiaworld is the largest platform for English versions of Chinese martial arts stories and fantasy online novels.[Photo:wuxiaworld.com]
The Chinese-to-English novel translation website, Wuxiaworld.com, is one of the finest examples.
Founded in 2014, the website is a go-to resource for people who crave Chinese martial arts stories and fantasy online novels but don't understand the language. Recognized as a brand name in Chinese-to-English novel translation excellence, Wuxiaworld is now receiving some four million page views per day.
When asked why Chinese online fiction fascinates so many foreign readers, Lai Jingping, founder of the website, explained: "Well, I think people like it for the same reason that the readers in China like it. We often joke about it, but actually our reader base is identical to the reader base we see in China. It's mostly the under thirtyish people, mostly tech-savvy and male. I think 80% of our audiences are male of between the ages of 25 to 30. So we have a lot of young male readers and they enjoy this stuff. They enjoy fantasy; they enjoy fighting; they enjoy all the imagination and the alternate fictional world that it brings to them. In the United States, there is no online serial novel culture. It's just not there. We have serialized fictions, but that's mostly in serialized comic books, you know, like Marvel comic books. That's great. We have serialized TV series. But there isn't really a sort of serialized web novel or serialized novel that is long. This is really a new phenomenon that China has unlike the United States."
Plagiarism has become one of the major issues hindering Chinese online fiction market.[Photo:VCG]
However, despite its general popularity, Chinese online literature is still not a full-blown industry yet. When more rush into the business due to the tremendous opportunities it presents, online fiction has also picked up a negative reputation, as they are associated with terms such as plagiarism, vulgarization, and erotica.
To tackle the torts, Yu Cike from China's National Copyright Administration announced: "In 2016, our main job was to establish a copyright protection order for online fiction. Our next step is to blacklist those websites that infringe others' rights. I believe after years of efforts, a healthy internet order will be restored."
As for the criticism towards the content, literature websites are determined to give a lofty take to web novels that are usually regarded as frippery, vulgar, and clichéd.
On August 18,2017,online novelists and industry practitioners gather together at the Shanghai Book Fair to discuss how to write realistic stories.[Photo:Courtesy of Yuewen Group]
Li Xiaoliang is an editor from Yuewen Group, China's largest online publishing house. Since 2016, his company has launched nationwide campaigns to promote eminent realistic fiction.
"When online fiction was in its infancy, fantasy-themed works were the majority. Although these books were huge hits back then, gradually readers started getting tired of them. If writers don't draw inspiration from real life, eventually their works follow the same stereotypical formula. Some readers have already started to complain that web novels are no longer that interesting any more. "
But he is optimistic about the future:"The entire industry is becoming increasingly diverse. I don't think realistic fiction would become the mainstream genre. A proper mixture of imagination and realistic elements might become the leading trend."
Cosplayers dress up as certain characters from the online fiction "The King's Avatar" at the 2017 China Online Literature + Conference. [Photo:VCG]
But will this online reading frenzy usher in a brave new world for literature, or just another flash in the pan?
Li Xiaoliang doesn't give us his answer.
But as for Yuan Yuan, who has been an avid reader for the past ten years, things are still looking good:
"I think it's still too early to tell whether online literature will replace serious literature. But I am pretty sure that web novels still have a space to grow. Hopefully years later, some online fictions will prove to be classics, because masterworks of today might be light reading of yesterday."