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Three paradoxes in literary criticism of web novels

OUYANG YOUQUAN | 2021-09-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The China Online Literature+ Conference has been held for five consecutive years since 2017. It focuses on the creation and production of outstanding online literary works and promotes the transformation of online literary masterpieces into other forms of entertainment. Photo: COLPC.CN

The huge volume of web novels and the relatively under developed sub-field of literary criticism has left a large number of online literary works unnoticed by critics, and some important online literature phenomena and problems unaddressed. In addition to the shortage of manpower in online literature research and criticism, and the “blind spot” of traditional academic research in online fiction, an important explanation lies in the fact that the literary criticism of web novels has encountered some paradoxical questions.
Tradition vs. reality
China has a long tradition of literary criticism. However, compared with traditional literature, online fiction has distinctive features in terms of the creation process, medium, readership, function, and value. Therefore, if we blindly apply traditional standards and methods of criticism, it is likely to deviate from the reality of online literature. Imagine, if we use the same literary criticism standard of Dream of Red Mansions to review the ancient fantasy drama Douluo Continent or time-travel historical fiction My Heroic Husband, it will be difficult to accurately reveal the beauty and value of modern creations, and the web novelists may also disagree with the commentary.
Since the 8th Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011, online fictions have been included in this full-length novel award. For three consecutive years, 27 online novels have been submitted, but none have won. However, it was later discovered that the 9th prize-winning work Fan Hua (Blooming Flower) by Jin Yucheng was originally published on Longtang.com. It was revised and polished and later published as a traditional novel. The winning of Fan Hua testifies that web novels can be excellent, and there should be no “medium discrimination” in reviews. 
At the same time, it shows that online literature must have the quality and characteristics comparable to traditional literature to stand out. Fan Hua was awarded because it met the evaluation criteria of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, such as realistic spirit, the unity of ideological and artistic values, narrative style, and rich underlying meanings. In contrast, its “origin” is not a major concern.
In fact, when reviewing online literature, we must differentiate it from traditional literature in two aspects. One is the internet-enabled creation process, and the other is its consumability among the readership. 
To be specific, online literature is not only created in the virtual space, but also features the interaction between authors and fans. Readers are not passive recipients, but actively participate in the creation, either by cheering for the work or even by writing derivative work, forming a “co-creation culture” between authors and readers. The interaction and intervention of readers becomes an essential part of literary production, adding more possibilities to the production of works. At this time, the internet is not only a literary tool and carrier, but also a “production arena” and “incubator” of works. We cannot overlook such a dimension when reviewing online literature. 
At the same time, commercial operation is the survival rule of online literature. Online platforms cash-in on novelists’ literary talent and time investment and turn it into a form of paid intellectual property rights in the consumer market, so as to satisfy readers’ knowledge consumption and gain profits for themselves along the way. This business model of mutual promotion, mutual restriction, and benefit sharing supports the dynamic balance of online literature and serves as an economic driver for the sustainable development of the industry. Therefore, consumability becomes an indispensable dimension in reviewing online literature.
The internet-based production nature and consumability determine that online literature is not the same as traditional literature. The literary criticism of web novels thus should build on reality, which doesn’t mean to abandon tradition, reject the existing criteria, or start a new one. On the contrary, the review of online literature should inherit the ideological and artistic quality standard, and strive to “create fine works that are thought provoking and of a high artistic standard” as Chinese President Xi Jinping put it. 
Aesthetic vs. market value
China’s online literature grows and expands under the wings of commercial capital. Therefore, respect for readers, adaptation to the market, and following economic rules are the core of the industry.
Due to China’s unique industrial path of “online paid reading, offline IP distribution,” Chinese online literature is now a “novel empire” with tens of millions of works on a kaleidoscope of themes, creating the “China era” of global online literature. Thanks to the commercial operation of online literary works, there are three listed online literature companies in the world—Chinese Online, iReader, and China Literature, fueling the boom of the Chinese online literature market.
At the same time, the VIP online payment system helps cultivate a consumption habit of “micro-payment—updates of novels—reading” and formed an industry cluster and industry chain of “novels—art—entertainment—industry.” Now many web novels have been translated and introduced to foreign readers, playing a role in cross-cultural communication and the world presentation of China’s cultural soft power. 
Meanwhile, online writers such as Tangjia Sanshao, Tiancan Tudou, Wu Zui, and Yue Guan have gained great fame and fortune. However, commercialization turns writing from a passion to a means to create wealth, which sometimes is criticized as the “original sin” of online literature. Should literature live for artistry and aesthetics, or should it uphold commercialism? Similarly, should literary criticism focus on the former or latter? Are the two aspects contradictory or compatible?
As we know, as a cultural product, the value of literature is rooted in humanistic care and artistic aesthetics, not in commercial interests and economic gains. However, all these have to build on the market. To say the least, the commercial operation of online literature needs not only to involve people’s socio-economic life, but also blend into people’s cultural life and spiritual pursuits. Online fan consumption plus offline IP copyright transfer form a pan-entertainment culture that penetrates into the “capillary” of popular culture, and comprehensively intervenes in people’s cultural life, thus creating an emotional bond between literature, social life, and the spirit of the times.
It can be seen that the artistic aesthetics and market adaptation of online literature are compatible and could coexist. As long as the priority of social benefit is not compromised and literary works do not cater to vulgar tastes, the review of online literature can strive to uphold both of these two principles.
In recent years, some best-selling works have been praised as fine examples of web novels that rock the market while preserving artistic standards. For example, the Internet Heroes series by Guo Yu and Liu Bo is about young entrepreneurs in the digital era taking advantage of the internet to launch their start-ups. My Heroic Husband by Fen Nu de Xiang Jiao tells a story of a modern businessman traveling back in time to land in the body of a man who married as a matrilocal husband into a family of cloth merchants. Haodang (meaning vast and mighty) by He Changzai reflects the miraculous development of Shenzhen in the past four decades, through stories about the struggles of nobodies. Finally, Lord of the Mysteries is a popular action and drama novel with fantasy and supernatural elements written by Ai Qianshui de Wuzei.
Online vs. offline criticism
The gap between online and offline review is also worth noting in literary criticism of web novels. Nowadays, the review and commentary of online literary works can be one-on-one or one-to-many interactive communication between authors and readers, in real-time or delayed communication. 
Compared with traditional literary criticism, it is more rapid, intuitive, and vivid. In order to support this efficient feedback model, Qidian.com has added a function titled “This Chapter Says” to its app, which allows instant comments to be presented like bullet comments in videos, so that readers can relate better to the content and truly enjoy the fun of reading. The comments from massive numbers of readers provide a variety of possibilities and different perspectives for the understanding of the works. Sometimes these comments can even supplement the content and form a new type of crowdsourcing “text + chapter comment” novel. 
In contrast, offline criticism of web novels has a time lag, but is more professional and rational. They usually come from professional critics or academic researchers, and their reviews are mostly published in print media, such as newspapers and academic journals. In the view of traditional literary concepts and academic systems, offline literary criticism is more objective, convincing, and authoritative.
Online critics are usually readers and fans who express their feelings and their own preferences, creating a noisy scene of criticism. Sometimes, their comments can be impolite, even use cuss words, or leave spam posts. Offline comments, however, are mostly carried out by professionals, who have certain theoretical and literary accomplishments. 
In terms of influence, online comments are mainly concerned with those working in the industry, while offline review has its clout within academic circles.
In order to establish a benign ecology of online and offline criticism, the two sides may each play up their advantages. For scholars, they may learn to be more down to earth in a ridiculing and teasing tone, more straightforward, and avoid blindly following the standard of traditional literary criticism. For readers and fans, they also need to learn to treat their comments seriously and make their review more objective and in-depth, so that the interaction between fans and fan groups becomes a “key” to interpreting online works and the driving force for the healthy development of online literature.
Ouyang Youquan is a professor from the College of Literature and Journalism at Central South University.
Edited by YANG XUE