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Microliterature production in light cultural context

ZHAO YONG | 2021-07-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A family reads at a bookstore in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, on Apr. 23, 2020. Reading on smart phones has become an important way for modern people to acquire information. Photo: CFP

The rise of light culture is inseparable from the fading of politics from daily life and a rise in all-pervading commercialism. The penetration of new media, WeMedia, and social media into individual spaces and everyday life is in essence the interference, invasion, and reproduction of capital in the living space.

As a result, comprehensive data mining, value production, and meaning generation takes place in a heterogeneous space which was originally meaningless, marginal, unstable, and fragmented. This triggers an accelerated tendency to homogenization and leads to spatial reconstruction of social relations. Data mining, production, generation, and reconstruction all have a profound impact on value concepts, social cognition, emotional experiences, and behavior of individuals, and they also reshape the cultural psychology deeply embedded in the social structure and socialization process of individuals, inspiring them to move from “heavy” concepts to “light.”
Sometimes these efforts are carried out overtly, whereas other efforts are secretive and go without notice. In the end, the takeover of individual spaces and everyday life occurs openly, yet paradoxically, secretly, by mobilizing individuals’ physical instincts and the herd behavior. On the surface, it seems that individuals’ weak willpower and biological instincts to follow social and cultural trends should take the blame. However, it all comes down to commercial capital’s well-calculated and premeditated design, which conforms to the value norms and the production logic of political economics.
Microliterature is a figurative representation of light culture, and is also an important component of fragmented space. It reproduces living space through the production and dissemination of micro-texts. Capital has commercial intentions and seeks to capitalize on the attention economy, drawing in individuals with click-bait, stimulating endorphins, offering infinite micro-texts, composed of characters and symbols, to fill the arena of information media. 
Microliterature writers are a large and extensive group. Any individual who owns information media tools, such as smart phones, can input text and become a microliterature writer. The number of products is even more impressive, ranging from a thousand-word emotional story on a WeChat public account, a hundred-word essay on life uploaded to Weibo, a joke with dozens of words in an app, a meme in a WeChat moment, to even a few “meaningful” words in the signature column of a personal portrait. All can fall under the purview of microliterature in the broad sense. Most online novels with millions or even tens of millions of words are also microliterature.
The relationship between traditional literature (Chun Wen Xue)and microliterature is akin to that of elite culture and mass culture. However, the two are not in a hyperbolic opposition, but a pyramid-like superimposition, they are connected. Mass culture and microliterature are akin to vast, deep, and untilled soil, full of impurities but also nutrients. It is because the roots of elite culture and literature are deeply stationed and entwined in this soil, that fine cultural and artistic fruit can grow.
Dilemma of traditional literature
If we say that the rise of online literature changed literary production, the way that manual production in agricultural societies transitioned into batch production in industrial mechanization, altering the text length, reading speed, aesthetics, and the pace of production and consumption of literary works along the way, then we can agree that the popularity of smart phones and Weibo and WeChat in 2009 and 2011 further updated literature’s production and consumption mechanisms. 
The relationship between writers and readers of online literature still has the shadow of traditional literature and represents a dual relationship between subject and object. However, in the era of social media, this relationship has been thoroughly overthrown. Every individual can be both a writer and reader of microliterature, utterly blurring the boundary between the two. In this light, countless micro-texts create a vibrant scene, dissolving the sanctity of literature.
Carriers of new literature and new communication forms have given rise to a new production mechanism, impacting traditional literature. The first impact is the decline of the readership of traditional literature. As entertainment activities become more diverse and richer, most of the audience of traditional literature no longer solely pursues this genre, and sometimes turns to other relaxing and pleasant sensory forms of entertainment. Also, the younger generation, who grew up in the market economy with consumer culture, find it hard to establish a psychological and cultural identity within traditional genres. 
In addition, a majority of amateur writers have stopped seeking careers in the industry after they realized that upward channels are somewhat blocked. Not to mention the rise of online literature has inspired many writers to take the initiative and shift their focus. 
Finally, the system for traditional literature is rigid, and people fall into a cycle of writer-journal-critic-seminar self-writing, self-evaluation, and self-expression.
Microliterature mechanism
With the help of social media, microliterature production and consumption are swiftly carried out among writers, readers, and commercial investors. As of today, the vast popularity of Weibo and WeChat public accounts have made microliterature the most important form of literary production and consumption.
If we make a comparison between the production and consumption mechanisms for traditional literature and microliterature, since the founding of New China, we can clearly detect the huge differences between the two.
To start with, if we say the traditional literary production and feedback mechanisms are like an ancient and well-pruned tree, the roots (where most readers stand) are in a barren field now. The trunk of the tree might survive with earnest effort, but nutrient deficiencies at the roots are dragging the system through the mud. 
In contrast, microliterature is more similar to weeds filling the hills. Their appearance is not as striking, and a single plant may be small and easy to overlook, but they are growing wild, spread by wind and water, across unlimited time and space. On the surface, the whole system seems to be random, fragmented, unstable, and without a central theme. However, in essence they are down-to-earth, adaptable, vibrant, thriving, and at any time ready to learn from the past, to achieve self-regulation and a dynamic balance.
Second, the production mechanism for traditional literature has constraints in terms of literary categories and quantities, but this problem doesn’t exist in microliterature. While traditional literary production follows the Confucian concept of “literature is the vehicle of ideas” and stresses literature’s social role, which expects writers to know what they are writing about to ensure that their works convey correct ideas, microliterature is keen on achieving greater, faster, better, and more economical results, highlighting two-way interactions, peer exchanges, and at times a “not-so-memorable” reading experience. 
As a result, traditional literature is more cautious, serious, and slow-moving due to the irreversible nature of content production and dissemination, whereas microliterature features casual, relaxed, and immediate communication, relying on online platforms’ functions such as instant feedback, editing, and deletion. 
As for communication modes and characteristics, traditional literature production has a flat, linear nature, while microliterature boasts its multidimensional, pluralist, highly-connected, and fragmented nature.
Finally, traditional literature production adheres to the principle of organization. Literary production is organized as a whole within the system, led by elite intellectuals to make sure the political stand, artistic level, and quality of content are up to standard. Microliterature is, in most cases, spontaneous, stripped of the shackles of the system, so that individuals have autonomy over the theme, form, and content of their writings. 
Traditional literature likes to plan an “annual topic selection,” “key recommendations,” “famous writer series,” and “thematic writing” to manage and promote itself. The production mechanism for microliterature follows the principle of marketization, pursuing “100,000 + traffic,” “hot articles,” “readers’ rewards,” “instant forwarding,” “top searches,” and even advertorials. 
At the same time, traditional literature often relies on writers’ introspection, rather than readers’ interest and feedback to create, whereas microliterature looks to readers’ demands to decide the form, quantity, and content of writing.
In the long run, it was inevitable that “heavy” traditional literature would struggle with the dilemma of our times. Therefore, it might seem that the booming microliterature  industry trend has taken the place of traditional literature, but in fact, it has its own internal production mechanism that determines its own destiny in the contemporary era. The rigidity of traditional literature’s production mechanism will inevitably take a toll on productivity. Microliterature has developed from the bottom up, so despite its problems, it appears to be fresh, vigorous, and full of infinite possibilities.
Zhao Yong is from the School of Literature at Northwest Normal University.
Edited by YANG XUE