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Classicization of online literature is pseudo-proposition

LI YANGQUAN | 2022-04-21 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Midu reader, a mobile reading platform developer, displays web novels available on their app at the third Yangtze River Delta International Cultural Industries Expo in Shanghai, 2020. Photo: CFP

The classicization of online literature has been in the spotlight in its field of study, but it is to a large extent a pseudo-proposition. The concept and creation of literary classics are a product of print culture, which underlines the characteristics of classics—the essence of classics is fixed, independent, closed, exemplary, and definitive. These attributes of classics are fundamentally incompatible with online literature.

Text vs. ‘event’
The term “literary canon” refers to publications that serve as a recognized standard of stylistic quality, cultural or social significance, and intellectual value. It is often associated with constancy and greatness that a collection of fine works is considered representative of a period or genre in the history of literature. Classicization’s common approach is to compile anthologies. The selected texts are regarded as classics, and they constitute a sacred community. Anthologies confirm the sequence and new development of classics, and also establish a historical connection between traditional classics and contemporary classics. In the classicization of online literature, this understanding is inherited, and some scholars have already adopted conventional means, compiling collections and selecting classic works. The concept of treating literary classics as collectibles is also reflected in the catalog and archive system for online literature.
Whether compiling collections or entering library archives, classics are regarded as a style of literature that can be owned and collected, in close relation to print culture. In literary theory, the art of print eventually led to formalism and new criticism, both of which purport that each language-art text is enclosed in its own space and becomes a “linguistic image.” 
In the context of print culture, this perception is reasonable, because we are always faced with a text, but when we measure web novels using the same criteria, there will be gaps between theory and practice. Online literature is not just a text, it is a virtual community, which consists of not only the text but also interactions in the community, and these become an even more meaningful part of the reader experience.
In the case of print literature, author and reader are separated and readers lack confirmation of literary context. This solitude has even become an artistic pursuit, which guarantees effective expression of the artist’s individual soul, free from social entanglements and disruptions from the outside world. However, online literature’s legitimacy is not only derived from the text’s structure, but also from interactions in the online community. That said, reader’s enjoyment comes from both the storytelling and community interactions.
Therefore, the concept of a collectible text, as implied by classicization, is not totally applicable to online literature because it only values the text. The communal nature of a web novel reading experience is completely different from that of print literature. The classic method for compiling collections or archiving them in libraries only preserves the text of stories rather than the complete online literature form. Some readers embedded in the print culture show limited interest in online literature, because they cannot relate to the immersive atmosphere of online literature, but this atmosphere, interactions, and context itself are precisely the substance of online literature. This involves a shift in the concept of literature from viewing it as an object to a process and an interactive “event.”
Static vs. dynamic
Such object consciousness, compilation of works, and catalog system hint at the nature of literary classics as a static existence. The pursuit of permanence, constancy, and invariance are intrinsic requirements for classics. This static definition of literary classics is also connected to print culture: “The art of printing contributes to a sense of closure, a sense that what is in the text is decided and done.” This sense of closure or completion is a thoroughly physical one, giving the impression that the material in the text is complete or self-sufficient, which leads to a more closed linear form of narrative and argument.
In the process of the classicization of online literature, this static concept is also inherited. The purpose of compiling collections and archiving them in libraries is to guarantee an accurate record and the eternity of classics. However, web novels are not static, they are by all means dynamic. From the perspective of literature ontology, online literature is eternally in a “draft” form.
Print literature has a fixed beginning and end and features complete information, while online literature is an interactive practice and does not have a clear end. This kind of interactive and iterative process has become the basic architecture for all online literature and art. This deconstruction is an expansion of new media’s unique logic, which constitutes the interconnection and continuous production of subjects and symbols on the internet.
For online literature, the pursuit of a static collection is not appropriate, as an accurate representation would describe it as in a state of “flow.” In this sense, it becomes inappropriate to use the terminology of literary classics to measure web novels. Printed words are indifferent to criticism, and they establish relatively stable internal norms, which can produce a “final version,” “authoritative version,” and “refined version.” However, it is impossible to say that there is a “final” version of a web novel.
Does this dynamic nature mean that online literature doesn’t retain the accuracy of classics? In fact, this depends on how we perceive accuracy. Printed text places a special emphasis on accuracy, which creates a desire to inscribe “correct” language. One of the charms of literary classics lies in this accuracy. In contrast, online writing seems to lack accuracy due to its variability. However, it may be precisely the dynamic nature of online text that makes it accurate. Text reflects and depicts reality, but in fact, static literature is far from the truth. At most, it selects and captures reality in a certain time and space. Text is always a partial solution, and it doesn’t change and adapt to the constantly changing environment, which also makes it increasingly divorced from reality. In this way, classical literature lacks accuracy. 
On the contrary, the internet is dynamic and ever-changing. Its version of truth and accuracy are directed not at specific objects, but at the whole system or reality. If online literature is transformed into one static volume for the sake of accuracy, the dynamic reality will become an outdated time capsule from the past. It is safe to say that on the internet, it is only by experiencing multiple, changing versions that we can understand the multifaceted and complex nature of reality.
In the process of the classicization of online literature, web novels are examined as a static existence, which reflects the persistence of print culture’s focus on accuracy. This is not a fair treatment of online literature. When online literature is perceived as a static document, the characteristics of our current life, its continuous state, presence, and event-centeredness will all disappear.
For online literature, its survival lies in its dynamic and deconstructed nature, which shows the advantages of the system over permanence. The dynamic nature of the internet is closer to the authenticity and openness of our existence.
Next steps
From the perspective of permanence and the static nature of classics, classicization fundamentally reflects the science and self-disciplined artistic system of traditional works. The so-called classics are actually “works of art” as “illusions” and “sacred artifacts.” This is associated with the dominant media of an older era. Print media makes printed works a palpable research object, the text is regarded as a stable, solid, static text and the writer’s personal intention becomes the ultimate basis for literary interpretation.
In the end, words separate readers from objective knowledge and thus establish the condition of objectivity. Objectivity is a personal detachment from, or distance from, the object of knowledge. Science and workmanship frames art and constructs a boundary between art and life, which is akin to art appreciation as advocated by modern Western aesthetics and the art museum system.
In the history of art, the avant-garde movement tried to break from self-regulated art systems and blur the boundary between art and life. They brought everyday life into art, challenged the traditional concept of organic art, and intended to reorganize life practices using art. The paradox is that avant-garde art, as opposed to artistic self-discipline, fell back into the system’s imprisonment. They tried to “fabricate” art to avoid the illusion of the artist’s personal production and reintroduce art back into life, but their “ready-made” art once again was judged to be ‘classic’ in today’s era, just like other exhibits in the museum. Later members of the avant-garde institutionalized the avant-garde itself, thus deviating from the intention of true avant-garde. This effort to sublate art became a display of art, regardless of the intention of the creator. The same is true for the classicization of online literature. It is repeating the mistakes of the avant-garde, which means that the dynamic, frame-breaking, and innovative form of art has re-entered the museum and become an “object” again.
At present, the classicization of online literature is still deeply influenced by the print culture’s thought patterns. The classicization of online literature is actually an attempt to gain a place in the traditional print literature world. Although some have argued that print culture is declining, it is still an important cultural ideal, and people still treat printed books as the most prestigious forms or texts. From the perspective of the development of online literature, it has always dreamed of being incorporated into the “collections” and “ranks” of print media. The central issue here is that we often judge online content based on whether it can be transferred to printed works.
The walls of museums preserve works of art, turning them into exhibits and enshrouding them with an atmosphere of worship. If this kind of museum-like archival system has some significance for print literature, it is because print literature is solitary reading, whereas online literature should embrace its important immersive nature and high levels of community interaction. True online literature cannot be classicized, because we can never compress living reality into even the most exquisite book. Online literature is a dynamic existence, a form of online experience, and we can’t simplify it into a text for offline consumption.
Li Yangquan is a professor from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Central China Normal University. 
Edited by YANG XUE