Internet Literature: Short Conversations with Readers (2)

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Ding Jieru

Ding Jieru was a Chinese literature major, and is now a graduate student in Chinese literature at Beijing Normal University.

"I started going online in 1999, first to play games and chat, but then someone told me about Rongshuxia. From 2000 I started writing there, a bunch of 'youth literature' type fiction, and I made some friends that way. I was very pleased with myself, and have saved a bunch of the longer comments left by readers.

"There wasn't much of a commercial element to Rongshuxia then, though it was something of a cultural phenomenon. Right at that time was the first New Concept Writing Competition (新概念作文大赛) for high-school students. It was the first time that students were actively encouraged to write creatively, something other than what a teacher had assigned. That competition was held jointly by Rongshuxia and a magazine called Sprout (萌芽).

"When I was studying literature for my undergraduate thesis I used the internet for looking up materials and theses other people had written, but if I wanted specific information I'd go to the library. The internet was more for fun. I do some reading online now – mostly at Sina and Qidian (起点文学网). Also there was a literary website run by a friend of mine, called Heidian [no longer operating], which had some more underground stuff on it, a little more serious. I read the genre fiction on Qidian mostly just for fun. Actually, there is sometimes some good stuff on Qidian, but you have to really look for it, or hear about it from someone else.

"The problem with the smaller, more literary sites is that the writers are pretty much the only readers. One writer writers something, his writer friends read it. They write something, he reads it. There's no broader readership base, and they have very, very little influence beyond their own group.

"I read online, but I definitely buy the books I like, and I'll buy complete sets of books by my favorite authors. If I'm reading serious literature I want a book, but if it's something relatively light I'm perfectly willing to read it onscreen.

"There's an age issue here. In the beginning I loved reading stuff online, and I particularly enjoyed getting into arguments about literature online. But past the age of 23 or 24 I started losing interest, and wasn't much willing to spend time on the sites. Particularly after meeting some of the writers in person! That definitely contributed to me losing interest. But I think it's mostly the younger generations who are using the literary websites; older writers and readers might not go online at all.

"There's also something different about the post-80s [born after 1980] writers and readers – they're far less earnest than the writers of the previous generation. They don't want to sit down and think about things, or discuss literature. The older writers could talk all night about aesthetics; younger writers think that's boring.

"The new trend towards toward blogs hasn't impeded literary discussion, because people still comment on each others' blogs. Plus, people are putting more thought and effort into a blog post than they are into a forum post.

"We used to all make friends in person, and after that hang out online together. When bbs forums were big, you'd just follow the people you were already friends with. Now it's the opposite – I'll get to know someone through their blog postings, because it's a more personal forum, and then maybe meet up in real life.

"A lot of writers are very well known for keeping blogs. They'll write about themselves there, but also post fiction they're writing. Everyone waits for new posts, and reads them, and then leaves comments on the posts. There's a lot of interaction, and that's what makes it interesting. If the writer's work is popular, it can really turn into a free-for-all.

"There's so much multimedia stuff on the web, visual stuff. That's what internet users are accustomed to, and it's affected their reading habits. They like to read things that have visual elements, or appeal to current fashions: there's even a trend of fiction being read like a radio play, and then streamed over the internet. So-called serious literature can't compete with this. The pop fiction online is all of a very visual nature, it tends to read like novelizations of films.

"I think serious literature is going to have more and more difficulty finding an audience. If those writers want to attract more readers, they're going to have to package themselves more intelligently. Just like the modern artists at 798 [a fashionable art gallery district in Beijing], how many people understand that stuff? And yet it's packaged very well, and people buy it."

"There's very little literary criticism that's worth reading; most of it is crap. If I want to read worthwhile literary criticism, I go to professors or critics I know, whose classes I've taken or whom I've met personally. It's very hard to find people whose taste you can trust. Essentially, I don't trust anyone's taste if I haven't met them and talked with them. That goes for critics and friends; things I read online and things I read in the papers. But once I've decided I trust someone, I take all their judgements and recommendations very seriously."


# 1.   

"There’s an age issue here...I think it’s mostly the younger generations who are using the literary websites; older writers and readers might not go online at all." (Ding Jieru, above)

Quite so. But if young people are hanging out, reading and blogging online -- rather than reading hard copy -- it's not just that the media is "cool" or interactive.

It's also largely because China publishing houses want to avoid being fined or otherwise penalized for publishing politically incorrect works. So they have handed book selection and editing over to intellectuals over 40. The result:

* Books that make it into print meticulously avoid serious social criticism, even in works of fiction. Much of what a so-called "editor" does in China today comes down to identifying and re-writing or simply deleting such problematic material. This leaves a lot less time to do things like interact with and cultivate budding writers.

* The great majority of these "professional" editors are themselves hyper-intellectuals who disdain Internet literature, and look down on the writing -- content-wise, style-wise -- of hitherto "unpublished" twenty-somethings. These hard copy editors are not editing for young readers; they are editing for people of their own generation, i.e., 40 and older.

Bruce Humes

Bruce Humes, January 26, 2008, 9:16p.m.

# 2.   

I guess I'll take your word on this; it's true I've heard other people say similar things about the cantankerousness of the older intellectuals, though I always thought they were the university professors and literary critics, not the publishers. For this series I was thinking of translating a 2006 dust-up between Bai Ye, an old-guard critic, and Han "He's Like a Real Rebel Only Prettier" Han, the poster-boy of the post-80s generation. It turned out to be a less enlightening exchange than I'd been hoping, though.

My own experience jives mostly with your first point. The editors I've met are not harsh intellectuals, but bureaucratic cowards in the purest incarnation of that stereotype. People without a scrap of interest in their work, performing their duties at the minimum necessary to avoid being mistaken for part of the furniture, while investing prodigious energy in dodging responsibility for anything whatsoever.

That's changing a little bit now, but horribly slowly.

Eric Abrahamsen, January 29, 2008, 4:36a.m.


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