Internet Literature: Shen Haobo
By Eric Abrahamsen, published January 15, 2008, 7:19p.m.
The first internet literature piece is an interview with Shen Haobo (Shěn Hàobō, 沈浩波), who has dual identities as an avant-garde poet and the head of a publishing company. Most of his poetry can be found online via the venerable Shijianghu website, and his company is Xiron (dǎtiě wénhuà, 打铁文化), which specializes in publishing internet literature. The following is based on a conversation that took place November 12.
The Secret Life of Publisher Shen
Shen Haobo has been working in the publishing industry since graduating from college, though he did not start his own company until 2001. Xiron is one of the businesses that operate in the wide gray band at the edge of the formal publishing industry, by buying publishing numbers (kānhào, 刊号) from publishing houses and putting out their own books. Xiron came to prominence by publishing (zhūxiān, 诛仙), a martial arts fantasy which first appeared online, and has since put out several other major hits, including That Ming Dynasty Stuff (míngcháo nàxiē shì’r, 明朝那些事儿) and the first version of Chun Shu’s Beijing Doll. Xiron publishes upwards of 200 books a year, over 70% of which started out life on the internet.
At the same time, Shen is a well-known avant-garde poet, writing difficult, politically sensitive work that attracts a small number of loyal readers. Shen had previously tried publishing collections of his own poetry, only to have them banned, and now maintains a very clear divide between his work as a publisher and his identity as a poet. He publishes what he knows will make the most money, and writes the poetry that he feels moved to write. He no longer thinks of publishing his poetry beyond the internet; he does not read the books his company publishes.
Internet Publishing vs Traditional Publishing
Before 2003/04, ‘internet writing’ existed as a phenomenon, but not yet as a publicly-discussed concept. It’s only in the past two or three years that the trend has matured into an industry, with developing business models for literary sites. Shen does not directly attribute the rise of internet literature to the inadequacies of the traditional publishing industry, rather he says it is a “natural evolution”
In Shen’s opinion, traditional publishing houses have not changed much in response to these new developments. “They are too bureaucratic,” he says, “they can’t change that quickly. Besides, new publishing companies have already cornered this market. A company like mine is far faster and more flexible than the traditional publishers, they can’t keep up. They may take two or three weeks to select a title; I can pick five in a day.”
Shen’s confidence in his business model is rooted in advance knowledge of readers’ tastes: the books he chooses to publish are ones with very high click-counts on the online forums, and their popularity with readers is thus to some extent already assured.
Business models for literary websites are maturing, though they are still in flux. Shen describes a few different methods of doing business: the most common involves making writers’ works freely available to readers, but charging traditional publishers a kind of agenting fee to pick up works featured on the site. A newer method is to provide readers with a sample of the work, and then charge readers to get the rest of it.
Shen feels that this second model is not sustainable. “It’s too restrictive, and places too many burdens on the work itself. The beginning needs to be full of hooks to draw the readers in, and the for-pay section needs to be quite long, so readers feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.”
Another trend Shen sees on the horizon is subscription fiction on cell-phones. “People in Asia are much less resistant to reading onscreen,” he says. Cellphone fiction is already big in Japan, and “Japan is China’s future.”
Poetry vs Short Stories vs Novels
Shen’s idea is that the web is hospitable to certain types of writing, ill-suited to others. It’s just the thing for avant-garde poetry: short pieces, a small but rabid fanbase, and no hope of publication via traditional channels. “Everything that needs to happen in the world of poetry can happen online,” he says. “We can write, publish, read and discuss each others’ poems. Reputations rise and fall, schools of poetry form and disperse. This all happens online, independent of the traditional publishing industry or government interference.”
Long genre novels are also successful, as their fast pace and easy digestibility make up for the awkwardness of online reading. More literary short stories and novels, however, fall through the cracks – too challenging to keep the average reader interested, and not targeted enough to attract a loyal core following.
Furthermore, the resources required to produce long-form fiction demand some sort of financial stability – many fiction writers end up working for the Writers Association or teaching at a university, and don’t have the ability to simply write and post their work online. But “you can write poetry in your spare time!” jokes Shen.
On the general question of genre vs literary fiction, Shen believes that genre fiction will always remain more prominent than literary fiction online, simply as a general rule of the markets and readers’ tastes, but he also believes that pure literature will always find its place, however small. There are a limited number of channels for ‘pure’ literature; authors and publishers must work to find the shrinking number of readers who are interested.
Highbrow or literary fiction is a rare thing on the web. Shen knows of plenty of websites and digital publications (bi-weekly email magazines, etc) which have started up only to fail within a matter of months. For all that traditional literary magazines and publishers have lost relevance and readers, Shen believes that these are still the venues where literary fiction is strongest, and its resurgence, when in comes, will take place in these paper venues as well.
How the Internet Changes Writers and Writing
From the poet’s point of view, the issue is not the way the internet has changed the way writers write, but that it’s made writing possible at all. Poems that might once have gone directly into the poet’s drawer are now getting circulated among a dedicated readership, and that makes all the difference. Another changes is that the cycle of style and fashion in poetry goes faster – while a school of poetry make have taken ten years to develop and become obsolete in a traditional publishing environment, the same cycle can take place in two years online. Shen does not say if he thinks this is a good thing.
For other fiction, the distance between writer and reader has been reduced to nearly nothing, and the feedback cycle is instantaneous. Writers can learn what readers think of their work mere minutes after they’ve made it public. “This means that writers adjust their writing to the desires of the readers,” says Shen, “which in turn reduces the writing itself to the least common denominator, making it more popular and less literary.” He believes that if the old sword-and-sorcery writers (Jin Yong et al., considered rather vulgar and pulpy in their day) were writing now, their works would lack what little literary quality they did possess. “This is inevitable if the only judge of quality is direct reader feedback,” says Shen. “It reduces the importance of literary critics and academics. The readers will do their best to remove anything too refined.”
Chinese Literature and its Discontents
The conversation ranged away from the internet in particular and into more general questions of what ails Chinese letters at the present. Having impugning the taste of Chinese readers as a group, Shen admits that “the problem doesn’t lie solely with the readers. China has had a vast literary tradition, but that tradition is entirely finished. Chinese fiction needs a new direction. The May 4th movement represented a new direction, but Communism ended that.” Shen feels that the majority of Chinese writers haven’t quite accepted the death of China’s classical literary tradition, and are stuck in a sort of limbo of irrelevance, still tied down by tradition, wrestling with western influence, unsure of the path forward.
He believes Chinese poetry has come out rather well: it was not hit as hard by Communism and the Cultural Revolution as fiction was, and managed to maintain its spirit unbroken through the decades following the birth of the PRC. Following exposure to western poetic developments Chinese poetry had a period of blind emulation, which led to the digestion of these imported styles and the development of new directions. Writers of fiction don’t fully understand the trends and developments of foreign literature, they are still under its shadow and are having difficulty re-discovering their own voices. “Writers and poets need to introduce the spirit of foreign literature to their readers,” he says. “Chinese writing needs to shed the last vestiges of peasant culture; it needs urbanization, and more modern ideas.”
Shen also cites the same two factors that come up in most discussions of why Chinese literature is flagging: the lingering effects of 1989, and the increasing commercialization of Chinese society. “The increased state control that followed 1989 was a slap in the face to writers – many of them went to jail, and when they were released five years later, found something to do besides writing. At the same time, the market began to open up, providing the opportunity to make money, and many people chose to focus on that.”
For all this, Shen must retain some hope for literature – he’s planning to use the profits of his pulp-fiction empire to fund a literary magazine, one which carries quality writing, to be printed on paper.