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Rethinking web literature’s market and medium

CHEN DINGJIA | 2021-09-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A person reading an e-book by the window Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

A hot topic in online literature studies this year is its “30th anniversary.” However, it just celebrated its so-called “20th anniversary” in 2018, when there seemed to be an outpouring of discussions on online literature. Who would have anticipated its next ten-year anniversary to take place in three years? Obviously, academia has not reached an agreement on some basic facts about online literature. 

From the perspective of literature development, China’s online literature progressed on the following track. Between 1991 and 1997, it started off by parodying the traditional type of literature, before moving on to the game industry with the help of new technologies from 1998 to 2002. Online literature started to generate profit from 2003 to 2013 with paywalls. 
It was during 2014 to 2016 that online literature truly came into vogue, when online dramas adapted from net novels went viral. Since 2016, online literature has even become popular abroad, attracting a larger international audience. Fueled by technology and capital, online literature is a train that profits from selling tickets to more “passengers.” 
Although technology, capital, and fans are the three pillars supporting online literature, strangely enough, they are so commonplace that they tend to be overlooked when we look at online literature. 
Tech market, power of capital 
From the perspective of cultural history, in the integrated technology market, capital undoubtedly plays a key role in market competition. Even in a knowledge production field like online literature, capital still follows the same logic as in the material production field. 
Following the pattern of capital development, the market for online literature will continue to expand. Consequently, online literature will one day become a part of world literature and be sold overseas. The recently famous term “wang wen chu hai” (which literally means “online literature goes overseas”) is an understatement, because at this moment, web novels are almost everywhere. 
With the spirit of promoting a harmonized, globalized world, online fictions have integrated oral literature and written literature, which is one aspect in which it has surpassed traditional literature. 
Which book, then, should be called the origin for the borderless genre—Chinese online literature? Should it be Struggle and Equality by Chinese American writer Shao Jun, published in 1991, or The First Intimate Contact by Taiwanese writer Tsai Jhi-heng, which went viral in 1998? When considering the globalization of the technology market, we will have a clear answer. 
Medium and double life 
Some have summarized human history with a phrase consisting of “four conquests:” “cars and horses conquer the ground, gunboats conquer the oceans, airplanes conquer the sky, whereas the internet conquers minds.” 
To whatever extent this is true, “the internet conquers the mind” can still inspire us as we study online literature. 
As a jury panelist in some online fiction contests in recent years, I could always hear experts complaining about how some net literary works lack the character of the internet. Some realistic web fictions are almost the same as traditional literature, apart from getting published online.
However, some people see it differently, as they believe that online fiction writers indulge themselves in chuanyue stories where the protagonist travels back in time to historical periods, or xuanhuan stories containing mysterious, fantasy elements. They are convinced that these unrealistic genres will inevitably impact web fictions negatively in the long run. 
In contrast, some web fictionists complain that the juries of web fiction contests are heavily influenced by the standard of traditional literature. As a result, some good web fictions have little chance of making it to the final. 
Naturally, the criterion for good web fictions differs for people from various backgrounds. For instance, opinions differ as to whether online literature should be more realistic or more unconventional. 
In traditional literature, imagination and reality are wide apart. Whereas web fictionists tend to live in a virtual world that seems almost more real than the real world. They do need to eat and sleep, but their dependence on the digital space is astonishing. Quite a lot of young people even enjoy living in a tiny room as “digital natives,” as long as they have the internet. To those digital natives, the mediocre real world cannot compare to their whole new life in the virtual world, where human communication is easier. We have to understand that web fictionists live a life very different from traditional writers like Balzac or Homer. 
Literature concepts are changing as media changes the way we live. The computer-simulated virtual environment is able to provide truly immersive experiences for Marvel fans and online gamers wherever they are. In this digital era, virtual reality and imagination have gone far beyond the borders of literature and art as they enter all aspects of human life. 
Information fusion 
The third dimension to understanding online literature is information fusion, i.e., the multi-level, multi-faceted, and comprehensive integration of text, image, and sound. The “information fusion” here refers not to the “multi-sensor data fusion” in the technical field; it is the very product of the interplay between modern digital technology and traditional poetry, dance, and music from ancient times. Nowadays, highbrow literary classics have become more accessible to a wider segment of the population. The lowbrows, through visual technology, can also appreciate those classics. 
For example, both adults and children can enjoy the TV show Ever Night (Jiang Ye) through “collaborative consumption.” However, in terms of reading the original, literacy becomes the touchstone of the “conditioned response.” 
With the rapid development of information fusion in the information age, the digital reproduction of sound and image has fully fledged. Character style and speech synthesis of the digital doubles are so perfect that fans who enjoy audio-visual feasts would not sense the strangeness in the collage of image and sound. 
Take the overseas development of Chinese online literature for example. In November 2020, the White Book of 2020 Chinese online literature Going Global was released by the China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association. It pointed out that: “As of 2019, more than 10,000 online literary works were exported overseas from China, with readers coming from more than 40 countries and regions along the route of the Belt and Road. And more than 3,000 works of online literature were translated in 2019.” 
Currently, the overseas market for online literature is worth hundreds of millions of RMB, with the number of users reaching tens of millions. The scale of translation is expanding, original works are blossoming worldwide, IPs are going abroad in concert, the global industry chain of online literature is maturing, and an interconnected “online literature community” is coming. 
Over time, web ficitons have become a new international calling card for Chinese culture. “Online literature” is widely talked about, and hundreds of or even thousands of related research papers have been published. However, people appear to overlook the impact of information fusion, especially that of the multi-dimensional linked industry chain, “films & television, animation, and games.” 
As for the overseas communication of online literature, Southeast Asian readers who have been exposed to online IPs earlier, as well as users across the Sinosphere, have been very enthusiastic about the film and television adaptations of web novels such as Scarlet Heart, Empresses in the Palace, The Legend of Mi Yue, The Journey of Flower, and Battle Through the Heavens. And those fans who wish to continue after watching the TV series often pick up the original works to revisit the “classics.” 
Although in North America the so-called craziness for updates on Chinese web novels is somewhat exaggerated, the share of IP traffic reading clearly highlights the advantages of information infusion. As Transsion has gained great success in the African market, China Literature has also rolled out an APP called “Ficool” in Africa, exhibiting great confidence in the readership there. Especially with the extension of this industry chain, online literature, through information infusion, would have a very promising user market. 
Chen Dingjia is a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
Edited by WENG RONG