Pulp fiction: E-books challenge China's publishing regulations

Online literature makes way for more controversial and experimental genres

Last October, President Xi Jinping told a room of authors, actors, and scriptwriters to help clean up ‘undesirable styles’ lurking on the Chinese internet. He was alluding to the experimental genres that have been flourishing online, generically referred to as ‘Internet Literature’.

Some are illegal, such as ‘Boy Love,’ stories about young gay men written for women. Others, like ‘flash fiction’, where some stories are barely longer than a Weibo message, are merely controversial. The most popular is lowbrow romantic fiction – Mills and Boon with Chinese characteristics.

Releasing material online is a way to circumvent the tightly regulated world of offline publishing, where pornography or politically sensitive material is banned, and it is having a profound effect on how people read in China. ‘Conventional print publishers in China are under pressure to publish “high-quality” books, and it is not possible for them to specialise in publishing pulp fiction, so it’s a great niche for online publishers, who are more commercial,’ says Michel Hockx, professor of Oriental Studies at SOAS, University of London, and author of Internet Literature in China, published earlier this year.

Online stories are often published as serials to prevent contentious content building up and target school students reading for amusement or entertainment. The latest story to top the charts is League of Legends – Unparalleled, based on the fantasy video game. Also popular is Zetianji, another fantasy tale set in a parallel universe, and Glory of Champion, which tells the story of a rising football star.

Crucially, this young market is willing and able to pay. According to Yang Chen, general manager of China Reading Limited, owner of the two largest online literature companies in China (Shengda Literature and Tencent Literature), the e-reader market is worth 6-7 billion RMB per year alone, excluding additional revenue streams, such as offline publishing, films, TV dramas, animations, and video games.

Online literature took off in China in the late ’90s. William Zhu, a Chinese-American who launched his business from Shanghai, was the founder of the first successful literary website, Rongshu Xia (Under the Banyan Tree). Together, with the rise of Weibo, the webzine spurred writers to publish their work online rather than through traditional channels. This gave rise to early pioneers, notably Huajian, author of China’s first micro-blog novel, Love in the Time of Microblogging, published in 2011.

Wen was inspired to write a love story by people he met on the internet. The first installment invited subscribers to interact and suggest plotlines in a process called ‘pro-sumption’ – production and consumption happening simultaneously. Within the first six months, he had made 250 posts, each 140 characters long, attracting more than 23,000 readers. The sector grew to the extent that by the end of the last decade, the website Qidian (Starting Point), one of the main providers of online genre fiction in China, was among the top 500 most visited websites in the world.

‘The rise of online literature undoubtedly represents the rising need for nourishment of the minds of Chinese readers. However, looking at the bigger picture, it also reflects changing reading habits in China. Now, because of the rise of mobile devices, readers can read literally any time, anywhere. This means that their fragmented time is used fully, which has brought on another boom in the number of readers and the time spent on reading. Finally, China’s service industry is growing, and the number of freelancers, and therefore, online writers, is growing, too – especially professional online writers,’ says Wen.

Wen believes people are looking for something accessible. ‘I saw so many people turning to a short-form blog. They read posts through their mobile phones on the subway and on the computer in their grey office cubicles. They are looking for something easy to digest, so I made my novel bite-able,’ he told the Global Times shortly after the release of Love in the Time of Microblogging.

Today, about 527 million Chinese netizens regularly access the web via their phones, making China the world’s biggest smartphone user base. Online literature is therefore a natural extension of existing reading habits, and one that comes with the bonus of bypassing offline censors.

Online literature is not an Eastern phenomenon – American fan fiction sites have existed since the early 1990s. The best recent example is Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally developed from a Twilight fan fiction series before becoming a bestselling novel worldwide in 2012.

Yet Hockx says that while Fifty Shades of Grey’s arrival in the mainstream was a relatively new phenomenon for the West, similar success stories are far more common in China. ‘While you have fan fiction communities all over the world, they’re not taken as seriously abroad. In China it’s discussed in newspapers as a new type of literature in the making. People are having discussions about it; should we support it, should we not?

‘It’s much more problematic in a system like the Chinese one, where the Government insists that it represents the people, but the people are producing something very different – these grass roots things are always really interesting.’

This year, the Government reiterated that there was too much ‘unhealthy’ content online, and suggested state and print publishers should work together to raise standards. But roughly 500 novels are published every day in China. Internet literature has its own section in bookshops, and its writers are members of the Chinese Writers Association. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.

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