Internet Literature: Short Conversations with Readers (4)
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
Wang Zhen is the Deputy General Manager of Penguin’s China office. She reads avidly online, both for her work and out of person interest.
“I started going online about 10 years ago, mostly to a site call Jinjiang Wang (晋江网) – actually I still do most of my reading there. Jinjiang is very famous among female readers, as it carries mostly romantic fiction. It used to just copy content from Taiwanese sites, but about four years ago it started having original content, as well.
“About three years ago I started looking at Qidian (起点), but again I mostly read the romance stories, and also the tomb-raiding (盗墓) stuff – sort of Indiana Jones style adventure. Also ghost stories. Everything I read is very short, very quick, very entertaining. It’s also nice because you can’t find a lot of that content in books at all. Stuff like ghost stories or tomb-raiding is considered unhealthy (不良, bùliáng) content, harmful to society, so it’s only available online. There’s even gay literature online*.
“I read historical novels on Tianya (天涯), and sometimes go to sites that aggregate fiction from other sites, like Liancheng (连城). They don’t mark where their content comes from, but you can Google bits of the text and find the source. Sites like this are difficult for the major literary sites to deal with: they can complain, but the aggregator sites can just say they’re running a personal, not-for-profit service, and they can’t be sued. Usually if the content is paid content, the aggregator sites won’t host it – though sometimes they do anyway.
“Recently I’ve been reading on my cellphone. Almost none of the literary websites have actual cellphone subscription services, but they do have plain-text versions of their content which you can load onto your phone. You can adjust the font size so that it’s more comfortable to read, which is much easier on the eyes than actually going online and viewing the websites using your cellphone browser.
“There are cellphone reader services now as well. I use one called Baiyue (百阅), and MBook (掌上书院) is also popular. Basically it’s software you put on your phone, and they make content from other sites available for download. It started with fiction, but now they provide audio and visual content as well. It’s free, but I’d be willing to pay five or ten yuan a month for faster download speeds. Right now there are 53,000 users a day, it says, and the service gets pretty slow. Actually, if the literary sites were smarter they’d be providing this content themselves. Sometimes Baiyue falls behind the sites’ serializations.
“I read mostly for relaxation. I’ve got an hour-long commute each way, and I get a lot of reading done then. It’s become a habit for me and a lot of people I know – first thing in the morning you check your email, and then check if any of the novels you’re reading have new chapters online. I heard that the peak usage times for these sites are 9am and 4pm: right after people get to work, and right after they leave.
“Qidian was the first to start charging for content, I think in 2005-2006. At first it was just 6-7 fen per chapter, hardly anything, but it’s more expensive now. For the romance section you have the option of paying 15 yuan per month and getting access to the whole section – I wish the rest of the site had that option. Qidian’s authors can also make a lot of money – I read that there are more than 100 Qidian authors who make above 10,000 yuan per month.
“I do feel that online reading and cellphone reading is very convenient for me. When I go on business trips I like to take one or two novels along, and now I don’t have to haul them around in my bag. I wouldn’t buy these books on paper – they are meant to be light, disposable reading, and there’s no sense in keeping them around. Plus, they come out so slowly compared to the online content. If you’re reading a series or something, they’re just too far behind.
“Interactivity is a strong feature in online fiction. I sometimes read recommendations by other readers, and on Jinjiang Wang you get three recommendation votes per day which you can cast for other people’s writing. If they get enough votes their work might become paid content. There are also QQ (China’s most popular online chat protocol) groups for most books and writers, and some collaborative writing projects. There’s a whole genre called 同人 (tóngrén), where people write new stories based around minor characters and plot points from existing works.
“I do a huge amount of reading for my work and for pleasure. Literary fiction I only read in paper format; I wouldn’t read that online. For the reading I do for Penguin, I would guess half of it is online, half on paper.”
*This turned out to be not quite true: what Wang Zhen was looking at was a genre called 耽美 (dānměi), which is a term and a phenomenon imported from Japan. Essentially, it is stories about love affairs between very beautiful boys, more romantic than sexual, written for the consumption of young women. Girls who read these stories are known as 同人女 (tóngrénnǔ), not to be confused with the tongren genre mentioned above.