China's e-publishing revolution puts writers on a fast track to freedom article by Nicky Harman.
A new phenomenon in China – fiction published exclusively online – is giving young writers the opportunity to get their work read quickly and free from censorship
The middle-aged man was introduced to me simply as "Old Field". He had given up his teaching job, my informant told me gleefully, and now travelled around rural China, blogging about poverty, corruption and civil conflicts. I was in Shanghai in 2005, and this was my introduction to the Chinese blogosphere, where stringent censorship can be evaded if you know how. The Chinese have never lagged behind us in creative uses of the internet.
Fast forward to 2012, and the internet in China has changed almost beyond recognition. Alongside 70 million bloggers, and an estimated 250 million microbloggers who use Sina.com's Twitter-equivalent weibo, there is a new phenomenon – fiction published exclusively online. E-publishing is very big business in China and is a hugely popular way for young writers to get read. They post stories in instalments on original fiction websites and the lucky few even earn substantial download fees and have their books snapped up by the games market and for TV serialisation.
Most of these e-novels are "pure entertainment, written, downloaded, read and deleted all at top speed …" but e–publishing attracts serious writers as well, for a rather different reason: it offers a smidgen of freedom from censorship regulations which hamstring conventional publishers. One very successful internet author is Murong Xuecun. In 2002, he put his first novel Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu online. It caused enough of a stir to be taken up by a publisher, subsequently won prizes and has been translated. Murong has been, and continues to be, an outspoken critic of the Chinese system, which he calls "rotten" and "corrupt", and he continues to publish his criticisms online.
However, serious authors are unlikely to limit themselves to e-publishing. Print books pay better, or at least more reliably, and have lost none of their prestige. (Almost all literary prizes are awarded only to printed books, with the exception of the prestigious Mao Dun Literature prize which admitted e-published novels for the first time in 2011; of an overall 178 entries, none of the eight e-novels won an award.) So Murong successfully straddles these two worlds: he publishes a full version online, and his publisher brings out a bowdlerised edition.
Censorship is less of a concern for western writers, of course, but does China's recent experience of e-publishing have anything else to tell us about the future of the printed book? Booksellers and publishers are gloomy, but perhaps the enthusiasm for ebooks among young people in China offers a ray of hope, an indication that e-publishing could give young readers a lifelong book-reading habit? Sadly, if straw polls on Chinese trains are anything to go by (Me: Who is your favourite author? Fellow traveller: I don't have time to read), there's not much grounds for hope there either. The pressures of work and raising a family are probably even greater in 21st-century China than in the west.