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Multiple ‘realities’ explored in online literature

ZHANG CHUNMEI | 2022-08-04 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: The widely recognized first web novel 1st Love was published in 1998, the novel’s text presentation mimicked QQ’s environment, chat rooms, and chat records. Later, it was adapted into a movie, a TV drama, and a play. 

Today, when we talk about literary works with realistic themes, “reality” has experienced dramatic development in terms of connotation and extension into our world. From writers, to readers, to communication methods, the elements—namely people, the world, and text—which make literature what it is, have all changed, and the most direct manifestation of these changes can be seen in online literature. In the realistic writing of web novels, the portrayal of people, environments, the language used, and even interactions between writers and readers, are quite different from the print media era, showing distinct online features in terms of media properties, production processes, and cultural expressions, which testify that realism in online literature shares similarities but also differences from the realism that we normally perceive in literary works.

Beyond ‘human’
The physical body and the soul are indispensable parts of being “human.” However, when we try to determine who a human is exactly, we must examine the soul and its associated emotions, will, memory, and experience. If it can be simulated, cloned, and stored, then what is called the soul has been materialized. With the development of technology, genetic engineering, and medical treatment, a cyborg or a “man-machine integration” is no longer purely science fiction, imagined from the time of Frankenstein, but a touchable and concrete reality. In recent years, the metaverse’s popularity brought virtual life and multi-dimensional individuals closer to the public eye. Therefore, a question emerges: If a “human” has a machine body, or a machine can think like a person, are they humans, and where is the human/machine boundary?
This question is not something traditional literature would touch upon. Mainstream literature is still embarking on a path of “self-discovery.” However, one of the most important characteristics of web novels lies in popular imagination based on real possibilities and showing the infinite possibilities of the future world. The human body can be mechanically extended beyond its limits. The combination of “organisms+machines+sci-fi+novels” has been fully realized in online literature. In a way, online literature now begins to function as a carrier and an analytical tool to investigate contemporary cultural phenomena.
As narratives discussing man and machine, two-dimensional society, body and soul, AI domination, and game worlds unfold in web novels, understandings of “reality” are likely to cross traditional boundaries and move into an endless expansion of the universe, beyond the human world, into the unknown.
Virtual world 
Complex relationships between man and the world is a long-standing theme in the history of literature. The “world,” in online literature, has also experienced a transition from the down-to-earth physical world to virtual space and time.
Global cultural geography and nation-state maps outlined in time and space have become narrow, small, and complex in the grip of the joint forces of science, transportation, economics, and the information revolution. In this sense, there is a tension between the “reality” of online literature and the network world itself. Against the backdrop of diversified forms of literature, the world’s orientation and the cyborgization of human existence, materialized reality, and virtual reality gradually modify into a co-existing “world.” 
When the web virtualizes real problems, when humans do not have to communicate face-to-face, when computers become extensions of human bodies, minds, and behavior, a “new world” is no longer a fantasy. This new world is mixed with complex brain science, neuroscience, and AI technology, thus creating a highly realistic and futuristic augmented reality (AR) world. At present, the application of virtual reality (VR), AR, voice interaction, somatosensory interaction, biometrics, line of sight interaction, and brain-computer interconnection are all driving reality’s penetration into virtual space.
As seemingly fantastical imagined worlds and reality intermingle through games, cartoons, and “Internet+” life, readers do not feel conflicted. In other words, when a cyborg-style man-machine integration has given humans a new understanding of their physical existence, the new world (as the venue where activities take place) is naturally different, which gives rise to a “new world interpretation.”
Interactive writing
For today’s writers, most writing is done by keyboard. Thanks to the ability to share the screen, writing is no longer an autonomous act of unilateral arbitrary modification and private editing, all changes will leave a mark in the machine. Writers and readers are able to not only immerse themselves in imaginary spaces similar to traditional fictional works, but also enjoy efficient access to vast amounts of online information. Users can break the boundaries between writing and reading. The status of the writer and reader—on both sides of the screen—are in constant rotation, overturning the traditional definition of writing.
Therefore, internet-based text shows distinctive features: interactivity, openness in writing, no restrictions of time and space, comprehensive intervention of capital and economic factors, an entertaining nature, and diverse themes.
The interactivity of web novels is mainly visible in two features: One is infinite length, and the other is the frequent interaction between writers and readers.
The open writing style shows that web novels can go beyond individual writers’ autonomy, to create a collective writing process. Both parties are inundated by a net of information, social network, and online communities, which could even contain the presence of artificial intelligence.
The existence of public space allows web novels to flourish through co-creation mechanisms. At the same time, the internet is both spatial and temporal. As screen time takes up an increasingly larger share of real time, the community imagination constructed by users could also reveal our current mass psychology, emotional structure, and aesthetic orientation, making online literature a way to take a snapshot of popular culture. In this sense, the pursuit of “reality” in online literature examines mass aesthetics through text and cultural phenomena, which constitutes an important dimension of literary criticism for the genre.
Literary criticism
As we decipher reality through lens of humanity, space and time, and mediums, we must also take into account the most basic aspect of online literature: text. The realistic nature of online text could be understood using word-image narration and content.
The 19th century was a crucial period for the innovation of literary texts. Not only individuals, but especially underprivileged subjects, began to become the protagonists of literature, while writing vision and style also trended toward systematization and stylization, generating different doctrines and schools. Among these, the topic of “literature about society” produced a wave of literature that affected the world. Accurately and forcefully presenting the real world became a timeless approach. People began to analyze society from a range of disciplines such as science, anthropology, transportation, medicine, and archaeology, offering a “scientific” lens to understand the world we live in, and pushing reflections of society in literature to its peak. 
At the beginning of the 20th century, this literary and social structure was challenged by a collaboration of literature and linguistics. As never before, language became the key to the study of literature in the 20th century. Not only had formalistic grammar in the sense of narrative study begun to dominate, but also writers began to dismantle standardized literary structures, seeking novelty in language, and structuring modernism, even postmodernism, which we still regard as the standard in literature today.
Interestingly, in 21st century online literature, words and images intertwine in creative writing. Web language takes advantage of existing expressions, seemingly the same but different in nature. Web language is a fragmented language, breaking the aesthetic boundary between the elite and the general public. Graphical language is the main player in this endeavor. In 1998, 1st Love, known as the first web novel, was published, and its text presentation mimicked QQ’s environment, chat rooms, and chat records. 
Thus, new media was directly incorporated into literary texts, which undoubtedly puts forward a new theoretical dimension of literary production and opens a path for “wonder” aesthetics that shocks the real world. In various themes, a variety of emoticons, chat symbols, simple and traditional superimposition, system procedures and so on are added into the literature, creating a world full of words and images.
Online literature relies on content that caters to the public’s wild imagination. Virtual space allows the wiggle room for the existence of truth and falsities, fiction and reality. In fact, the cultural trends which online literature encourages, such as cultural inheritance, fantasy creation, and “new fashion,” have gone far beyond the creative field of literary content itself, making it a typical representative of contemporary Chinese cultural phenomena. Therefore, as we adapt literary criticism to online literature, it is necessary to build critiques on top of an analysis of the narrative text, but also delve into “new reality” and “new humanity.”
On the one hand, online literature is based on public demand, and it constantly looks for, and creates new ground. On the other hand, the bold imagination of the new world in the future era of an artificial intelligence civilization are important topics for web novels. Thus, the collection of online literature texts forms the biggest “reality,” whose typical characteristic is no longer confined within discussions of traditional realism, but breaks away from the limitations of real-life scenarios and takes fantasy and possibilities as the goal of “wonder aesthetics.”
In summary, online literature outlines a lively and vivid life in contemporary China, including people’s interests, temperaments, concept of family and nation, value orientations, and life philosophies. Theoretical studies of web novels should dive into massive texts, figure out the relationship between virtual reality and daily life in a holistic, structural, and functional way, and face the mutation of “realistic” feelings and “real experiences.” 
As a researcher of online literature, it is necessary to set up a series of norms for online literature’s literary criticism. However, if we blindly discard old methods but fail to keep abreast of “network+literature” trends and fail to carry out a profound dialogue with history, reality, and society, we are likely to criticize without truly understanding. It is like one who can’t see the forest through the trees. 
The “web,” as defined by “literature,” has the potential to break through the limitations of computer programs regarding interactions between users and characters in terms of content and culture, and to reveal the thoughts and variability of real human beings. Considering this, we must see that studying online literature’s portrayal of humans, the world, the language they use, and even interactions between writers and readers is conducive for us to write our current reality and reflect the realistic spirit of today’s world.
Zhang Chunmei is a professor from the School of Humanities at Jiangnan University.
Edited by YANG XUE