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Production of classic online literature advances with times

ZHOU ZHIXIONG | 2022-04-07 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

An exhibition booth of the Fifth China Online Literature+ Conference in October 2021 at the Exhibition Center of Zhongguancun National Independent Innovation Demonstration Zone in Beijing. The conference focused on the creation and production of outstanding online literary works and transforming online literary masterpieces into other forms of entertainment. Photo: CFP

Literary classics are works that endure the test of time and possess an eternal literary charm. When reflecting upon the history of online literature, it becomes clear that under the new literary mechanism, now is the time for online literature to expand into classics.

Characteristics of online literature
In terms of writing mechanisms, online literature is quite different from traditional literature. When compared with print literature, online literature features author anonymity, rapid publication, and interactive online communication. The convenience of typing has spawned lengthy web novels, even some super-long works. Apart from typing speeds, the economic drive of commercial VIP reading mechanisms have also inspired longer online novels. Often, online literature classics are extremely long novels.
As a communication mechanism, online literature is published instantly and interacts with readers in real time. Such direct interactions allow writers to fully consider readers’ reading experiences when creating, and authors even adjust the plotline of certain works by directly incorporating readers’ opinions. Compared with traditional literature, online literature is more consumptive, user-friendly, and places greater value on readers’ reading experience. In a way, the dynamic interactions inject momentum for writers, so do readers’ subscriptions, likes, and rewards. Such heavy reliance on readership ensures that online literature classics have a large fan base and a good reputation.
Due to the structure of evaluation mechanisms, online literature authors face their readers directly, and readers’ evaluations are economically tied to VIP reading mechanisms. Therefore, readers’ comments and reactions to specific works are not only a matter of whether the work is of good quality, but also closely associated with the author’s reputation and income. 
In addition to readers’ comments, online fiction websites also have a great impact on the genre. Home page recommendations, ranking list recommendations, and mutual promotions between website contract authors will all help widen the readership. Various website activities will facilitate communication among novelists and improve their writing. When the online IP industrialization mechanism is established, online literature sites take the initiative to create celebrity writers to develop popular works for the IP industry to generate more profit, which also expands the influence of web novels and fuels the classicization of online literature. The government’s policy orientation also speeds up this trend.
Evaluation system
Some people criticize online literature as coarse, shallow, vulgar, overly commercialized, and even call it garbage. These comments have some merit, but they apply modern Chinese literary evaluation standards directly from pure literature to online literature, which is not entirely fair.
Online literature falls under the purview of mass culture, so it needs to follow mass culture’s evaluation standards. In recent years, academics have been striving to establish a Chinese online literature evaluation system that gives full consideration to industry practices. To say the least, it should include “ideological criteria” and “artistic standards” in traditional literature as well as readership influence and commercial gains. Here, “ideological criteria” cannot be reduced to depth of thoughts; rather, this measurement should consider the integration of traditional cultural values and our modern spirit, and the social effect of value-oriented works. Similarly, the “artistic standard” should not only measure a work’s pioneering and explorative artistic merit, but also refer to the creativity, imagination, and personal style of the work. This kind of compatible evaluation is based on online literature’s status quo in China, it combines the readers’ preference and the social and economic benefits of the works and is gradually taking root among practitioners.
As for readers, their evaluation often centers on online novels’ writing style (whether language is beautiful and charming), creativity and imagination (creative plot design), overall narrative (whether it has a unified style and logic), ending (whether structure is complete, or has a hasty ending), and audience attention (is the reader drawn into reading).
Diverse literature rankings and awards are an important approach to the classicization of online literature, and also a practical process as we form criteria for online literature classics. Similar to traditional classic literature, originality is a critical evaluation factor. Those pioneering works may not be artistically mature, but the concepts are fresh, and sometimes prove to be substantial and long lasting. This type of work is often praised as a classic in online literature. 
If we take light novels, popular novels, and mass culture as our reference point, web novels are definitely part of contemporary popular literature, so Chinese online literature classics can also be called contemporary popular literature classics. However, web novels are different from traditional popular novels. The former has a distinctive internet culture. It not only has Chinese cultural traits but is also influenced by world culture. Meanwhile, it shares traditional popular novels’ commercialism, while it also becomes an important part of the national cultural industry’s development strategy. 
In fact, Chinese online literature has now formed an industrial chain of novels, cartoons, animation, film and television dramas, games, and other entertainment industries, and their social influence has surpassed that of previous forms of popular literature. 
Typologic literature
Typologic novels are often the most influential genre and have the strongest features in Chinese online literature. This genre can also best reflect online literature’s overall development and achievements. Since online literature mainly consists of typologic literature, evaluation of online literature classics must also fully consider typologic characteristics.
Norms constrain variation, while variation breaks through norms. Any constant evaluation norm has a dynamic side. Old norms are broken, so that new norms can be established, thus the genre can be expanded and enriched. For example, in recent years, under the advocacy and encouragement of literature websites and national online literature authorities, more and more excellent online literature works have been produced which dwell on realistic themes. This breaks with online literature stereotypes. 
Reality-themed web novels are very different from traditional realism, and different from fantasy, alternate history, and time-travel web novels, but there is continuity in writing style. The most common practice is to combine “shuangwen” writing, in which the protagonist often has a heart of gold and readers can gain a sense of surrogate satisfaction as the character “responds to the concerns of real life,” so that the works are not only down-to-earth, but also are pleasing to read.
In some female time-travel novels and alternate history novels with female protagonists, women are independent and self-reliant, this gives many readers great pleasure to read, and is spiritually empowering. In these imaginative stories, women’s online novels tend to embody realistic concerns and the spirit of the times.
However, we should have a clear understanding of the web novels’ shortcomings. In a short period of time, it is difficult to eliminate the problems of routine, unoriginal plots, and assembly line production for web novels. Obviously, web novels are still “literature,” rather than popular books. Classic online literary works must be original, and perfected art forms, to stand out from the crowd. Some works have a wide social influence but are coarse and plain in language, while works with beautiful language, exquisite structure, and lasting appeal are sometimes labelled “hipster fads.” In an ideal state, classic web novels should be able to tell a long historical story and create vivid character groups such as the detailed depiction of the “Riverside Scene at the Qingming Festival,” with wild imagination and unlimited artistic creativity.
The online literature business model is doomed by contradicting demands of speed and precision. The solution for most online novelists is to sacrifice precision and cater to reader and market needs, which often drains writers’ vitality and artistic reserve. Writers have no time to recharge, rest, adjust, carefully examine, and polish their work. We must admit this literary production business model is antithetical to the requirements of literary classics. 
The social effect of many influential works is amplified by media and the hype effect of netizens. Commonly, bad money will drive out good money. Professional online novelists rely on writing to make a living, so when they face tremendous pressure to produce to survive, their main concern is whether the work will sell. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to generate literary classics. Some online writers also consciously evolve their writing style, but if they change their style, they lose fans, resulting in a decrease in subscriptions. Sometimes this forces them to fall back into their original creative rut.
At the same time, it is also difficult to identify classics in online literature. Among numerous web novels, only those that pass readers’ standards and have a good reputation can enter the recommendation list. However, classics are not simply about commercial data. The core criterion of classics is creativity. Literary awards and novel rankings need judges who read web novels extensively, and who are discrete and capable of identifying singular creative works among thousands of offerings.
Chinese scholar Chen Jianhui divides literary classics into “classics of the times” and “eternal classics.” He believes that in contemporary literature, it is not easy to produce “eternal classics” in a strict sense, but there are many works with this potential. This judgment is applicable to online literature, which rarely produces “eternal classics,” but is not short of “classics of the times” and writers with the potential to create them.
The classicization of online literature is a requirement of the times. Many online novelists have taken advantage of dividends from the reform and opening up, and some have earned high incomes through writing, winning broad social acclaim. This shows that they have become important forces on China’s cultural front. 
In recent years, China has paid increasing attention to online literature. The Chinese Writers Association has set up an online literature center, and Zhejiang, Guangdong, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and other locations have issued a series of support policies to boost the development of online literature. 
China has the largest readership in the world. Online literature’s prosperity is in line with the development of our national cultural industry, the law of the market economy, the cultural needs of the people, and the requirements of the times. Building upon existing achievements, we should spare no effort to produce “eternal classic” online literature works in the future.
Zhou Zhixiong is a professor from the School of Literature at Anhui University.
Edited by YANG XUE