Internet Literature: Short Conversations with Readers
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
Wang Danhua is a freelance translator and writer in her late twenties. She has worked at local media outlets, and briefly at a medium-sized publishing house, and often writes articles on publishing and literature for local media outlets. We talked January 14.
“I started going online my sophomore year, in 1999, right when the internet was getting popular. It was mostly just Rongshuxia (榕树下) then, everyone was posting there. It wasn’t a complete free-for-all, there were moderators, and some competition. Of maybe 20 or 30 articles I sent them, mostly essays but some fiction, I think they rejected a few.
“I also spent a lot of time on Xici Hutong (西祠胡同), more for literary news and information than actually reading fiction or writing.
“Later on, some newspaper and magazine editors contacted me about reprinting my articles. I don’t know if they did or not – I wasn’t thinking much about those things then. I said ‘go ahead’, and never asked them to tell me when the articles came or, or to pay me for them.
“I was never trying to use the internet as a stepping stone to traditional publishing, I was just posting things for fun. I started late – I was a bit behind the times. I read an interview with Annie Baby, who was writing online in 1996/97. She said at the time she was just bored, and posting things for fun. Later huge numbers of people started reading and posting comments, and things development from there.
“Now I use the internet mostly for news about books and publishing. It’s more convenient and more thorough than paper media. But if you’re looking for pure literature you’ve still got to look at the traditional literary magazines. The stuff online is still very surface. I still regularly buy Jiangnan(江南), Zhongshan (钟山), Beijing Literature (北京文学), Harvest (收获) and Fiction Monthly (小说月报).
“If you’re looking for new writers, really good new writers, you probably won’t be able to find them online. Online, the popular stuff tends to bury the more serious literature. If you flip through the literary magazines you’re more likely to stumble on something you like. Also, I’ll definitely spend money to buy books I like. I don’t like reading things onscreen, and I don’t think I’d buy an e-reader if one came out.
“The form of literary information on the internet has changed. First it was the big literary sites like Rongshuxia that were popular. Then it was bbs discussion forums. Now it’s blogs, and some of my friends are thinking wistfully of the days of the bbs. The blogs are more personal – people can leave messages, but it’s not the same kind of interaction. And for my own writing, I might not take that much care in writing something for my own blog, whereas I’d take it more seriously if it were for a larger website, and even more seriously if it was for a newspaper or magazine.
“Now, Douban is a good resource for information about books you’re interested in, and seeing other readers’ reactions. If I want to know if a book is worth reading, I’ll look on Douban. If you read actual book reviews elsewhere, those are written by professional critics, and they’re mostly marketing tactics. I read China Reading Weekly (中华读书报) and Publishers Magazine (出版人杂志), but there’s not much real criticism in there, to be frank, it’s mostly sales. I worked briefly at a publishing house, and that was my job – I wrote press releases about new books and sent them around to journalists. I couldn’t stand it. The book might be trash, but the ‘critics’ are just writing what the publishing houses give them. The comments on Douban might be shallow, but at least they’re honest.
“There’s also a lot of authors getting friends to write positive reviews of their books. The readers might not know that, and that’s being irresponsible to them. Reviews need to represent both positive and negative.
“Whatever the weaknesses of the internet, it’s hear to stay, its a new element in the cultural landscape. I’ve got plenty of friends who say ‘Hey, have you read such-and-such a book? I’ll email it to you.’”