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Reader response shapes online literature

HU MINGYU and QIU YUANQI | 2020-09-30
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The TV series Story of Yanxi Palace has attracted viewers both for its storyline and depiction of traditional Chinese culture. Photo: IC


There is a lively interactive ecosystem where online literature is created and published. Writers produce literary works to meet readers’ voracious demand for material and spiritual consumption, generating profits along the way. In turn, reader response affects the content, scale and creation of web novels. Readers’ knowledge and enthusiastic participation in interactive online forums can determine whether or not the market supports the creation and continuation of certain works. 
 
As a result, writers of online literature are dedicated to catering to the diverse, personalized and constantly changing demands of readers, putting readers at the center of the creation process. Reader response thus has a profound impact on online literature.
 
Impact on creation
In traditional literary creation and publication, the dominant power is firmly gripped in the hands of authors and editors. By the time a reader starts a printed book, it is already a finished product. 
However, when web novels are drafted, the openness and immediacy of online reading platforms enables writers and readers to interact and exchange views in a timely manner. With this interactive support, online literature is no longer purely the writer’s text, but a compound of constantly updated story text, writer’s adjustments and reader’s comments. 
 
Reader response plays a significant role in the creation of online literature, because readers’ attitudes toward characters and storylines can inspire the author, improving the content of the work, and even reshaping the plot. Whether dialogue is occurring in the comment section of online literature websites, or on social platforms such as Weibo or readers’ QQ groups, readers can freely and equally communicate with novelists, offer timely feedback to updated chapters, and sometimes prompt the author to change the plot.
 
For example, in the web novel 11 Chu Te Gong Huang Fei by Xiao Xiang Dong Er, which was adapted into a TV series named Princess Agents in 2017, both male characters Yan Xun and Zhuge Yue are romantically interested in the heroine. In the original plot, Yan Xun won the lady’s heart. However, as the story unfolds online, Zhuge Yue was better received by readers, who advocated for the romance between him and the heroine to work out. Eventually, the author re-arranged the plot in the middle of regular chapter releases to satisfy the readers and give the two a happy ending. 
 
There are other cases where readers precisely predict the plot direction, so the author will rewrite the storyline to maintain suspense, attracting readers with fresh plotlines to continue reading.
 
In addition, readers often critically offer feedback to web novels based on their own knowledge. Most reader comments are sincere and originate from true appreciation for the works, so they put forward targeted criticism to content that is worthy of discussion. On the Jinjiang Literature City, a major Chinese-language website for publishing and serializing online novels, it is common to see readers correct mistakes made in novels in the comment section. 
 
For example, in a historical novel, when the author wrote that a protagonist living in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) received an imperial edict from the emperor that began with the sentence of  “The emperor who is chosen by Heaven says…,” readers quickly pointed out that prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), this phrase had never been used. In fact, the phrase was invented by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. However, in some on-screen historical dramas, this phrase was misquoted, creating a false impression it was commonly used throughout the ages.
 
For the writers of online literature, readers are also consumers. Through communication with readers, writers can develop an acute market sense, identify readers’ needs in time, and ride trends in the consumer market, to fully attract readers’ attention.
 
Richer online genres
If writers want to grab a share of the vast online literature market, high-quality content is a must. As numerous surveys reveal, in addition to theme preference, reader’s choice are also influenced by word-of-mouth reviews and ranking lists. These two indictors can reflect the quality of works from the audience’s perspective, and constantly urges the authors to create excellent works. Therefore, a stable reader group with good taste is of great significance to the development of online literature.
 
In more than 20 years of development, Chinese online literature has seen the aesthetics of its reader group rise steadily. As of June 2019, readers born after 1995 accounted for 54.5% of the 455 million online literature readers and users paying for content, now the post-90s generation accounts for more than 66% of the total number of users, according to a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that looks at China’s online literature market in 2019. These young readers have become the primary audience for online literature, and as the main consumers their personalized needs and willingness to pay also makes them the most selective consumers.
 
The constant fine-tuning of readers’ expectations requires novelists to avoid clichés and strive to innovate and seek fresh perspectives. For example, the hugely successful period drama Story of Yanxi Palace revolves around a palace maid, Wei Yingluo, who contends with palace intrigue and seeks revenge for her elder sister while navigating a romance with the emperor. Unlike other protagonists in palace struggle novels, Wei is portrayed as a concubine with a plucky attitude, street smarts, and a good heart. Wei’s rise to power, with many hardships to overcome, and the bittersweet love story, made the drama a smash in 2018.
 
The Lord of Secrets (Gui Mi Zhi Zhu), which has a large fan base, is more innovative. Different from previous works in the fantasy genre, this novel has a broad worldview and it incorporates elements of steampunk and Cthulhu culture. The blend of East and West is well received by readers.
 
In the early development stages of Chinese online literature, non-realistic themes such as fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction were much favored by readers. As time goes by, readers’ interest in the realism genre that touch upon social issues is mounting. 
 
Chaoyang District Policemen follows the lives of district policemen as they assist in solving major crimes. No ups and downs, no twists and turns, the simple and humorous depiction wins the readers’ hearts. Similarly, the story Great Power, Heavy Industry, sets eyes on China’s major equipment development program and paints a vivid picture of the 40-year industrial reform, arousing reader’s patriotism.
 
As aesthetic tastes of readers improve, popular genres such as xuanhuan (a type of local fantasy), time and space travel, and wuxia (martial art stories) no longer monopolize the market. To meet the readers’ needs, some online literature genres have made great efforts to disrupt old writing styles and accommodate new cultural elements. Among them, realism in web novels not only inherits creative techniques and influences of traditional literary realism, but also takes advantage of network platforms, producing a number of high-quality works and showing a strong momentum of growth. On the whole, reader response has enriched and diversified online literature genres.
 
Downsides
Online literature is a type of commercial writing, so the pursuit of profit lies at its core. Reader response promotes the development of online literature, but excessive commercialization may cost its literary value. The reader-centered mindset of network platforms and web writers has gradually evolved into a profit-oriented one. As they tap into the consumption potential of readers to improve economic revenue, aesthetic reading experience gets overlooked.
 
Within the market context, efficiency and scale become the most important criteria determining the success of works in the online literature industry. The time to carefully place words and sentences as traditional authors do, has largely been cut short, and a fast-food style writing has become inevitable. Most of the time, the author replaces independent creation with repetition of fixed and standardized writing, so the literary quality of the works is reduced. 
 
When writers bet on free rides by copying popular novels, they focus intensively on short-term market effects and fan support instead of quality personalized content, and end up drowning in a vast pool of data.
 
Many readers think that the themes of web novels are too homogenized and lack originality, while others criticize that the plot is routine and monotonous. It is evident that readers find it difficult to concentrate and obtain sufficient aesthetic pleasure in a large number of repetitive narratives.
 
It is worth noting that sometimes web novelists are trapped in passive homogenization. 
Sometimes, some authors gain fame through certain type of works, when they dabble in new themes, their new literature may not meet the expectations of readers, which often leads to a decline in the reputation of the authors and their revenue. As a result, some writers confine themselves to monotonous themes and dare not explore new fields of literary creation.
 
The daily update pressure of internet writers makes them care more about quantity, rather than quality. Along the same lines, writers who interact with fans in plot design can find it difficult to cater to a variety of demands, so some online literature may appear to be crudely crafted or flawed. 
 
Compared with traditional literature, online literature features a new type of writer-reader relationship, which makes reader response a crucial link in web novel creation. As of now, we need to delve into this relationship from multiple perspectives, explore new modes of positive interaction between the two, and balance marketization and literary value, so as to promote the healthy development of online literature.
 
Hu Mingyu and Qiu Yuanqi are from the School of Communication at Soochow University.
Edited by YANG XUE