After more than 30 years of development, online literature has gradually evolved into a fiction genre with a unique writing style heavily influenced by platforms and capital. Stylized writing is a major tool that online literature is using to gain a firm foothold in the current “fast food” era of literature. However, such a distinctive writing style cannot be sustained, so online literature will inevitably take a more practical turn in its development course.
Drawbacks of stylized web novels
Online literature builds its prosperity upon stylized writing. Scholars generally agree that the online literature takes the form of “genre fiction,” ranging from fiction about genres such as post-apocalyptic survival, urban superpowers, exotic continents, Oriental fantasy, ancient history, supernatural romance, time travel, alternate history, and CEO romance, or even workplace love affairs. All these genres are listed on web novel platforms and apps. As the industrial chain continuously matures, the genres for web novels have been further refined. For example, fantasy novels can be divided into different subtypes, including Eastern fantasy, martial art worlds, wild imagination, and more. Also, CEO romances are interspersed within genres such as university love stories, science fiction, workplace struggles, video games, and in other genres of fiction. Nowadays, competition is so fierce in online literature that any successful writing formula will be used for reference, causing a proliferation of highly stylized web novels haunted by echoes of other novels, with stories that “follow suit” and “melt plotlines,” and even brazen copycats.
“Following suit” is a common phenomenon among writers of online novels. When one writer creates a certain genre that is well-received by markets and readers, others will jump on the bandwagon, examine the story setting and plot, and dig out the “selling points,” “sensational plot twists,” or “cute quirks” to imitate.
“Melting plotlines” is actually a thinly disguised form of plagiarism. Melting plotlines means that one author incorporates the plot points, dialogues, images, and scenes from another popular online work into their own work. These may “melt” together different components of one novel or combine several novels. However, these novels are not word-to-word copies; rather a kind of creative copycat, walking on the edge of infringement.
Stylized writing transitions web novels from independent creations to formulaic productions, causing the overall quality of creation to drop. The output of novels is disproportional, and a large number of shoddily produced works are crowding the market. Under the current production mode, writers do not need any personal innovation, they simply cram content into the established narrative template. As a result, web novels have become an assembly line product.
Within any given genre, there are similar characters, fixed plot settings, and stylized narrative structures. For example, several homogeneous works have emerged with the theme of “rebirth,” “revenge,” and “family infighting.” Even online classics share similarities in their storylines. A number of novels tell the stories of heroines who trusted the wrong people, end up alone and adrift, only to then experience a type of rebirth and start a whole new life. These women all become determined and resourceful upon their rebirth, and finally punish those who betrayed them and ultimately find happiness. Without exception, these works take “rebirth” as the starting point of the story, “revenge” is the driving force, and “family infighting” is where the story unfolds. A feudal society’s concubine system presents the structural source of resistance which inspires the growth of these female characters.
As we can see, automatic production ramps up the quantity of online literature, but the overall quality is declining as it becomes more homogeneous. Notably, the disproportionately high output and low quality of creation leads to a “ceiling” in the online literature industry. Throughout the many websites which collate recommendation lists and ranking lists, classics remain at the top of each list, totally unshakable, making it difficult for new online novels to gain fame. This ultimately limits online literature’s innovative development.
Inevitable realistic turn
The drawbacks of stylized writing in online literature have awakened readers’ cultural and aesthetic consciousness, and inspired new aesthetic preferences. This is causing a transformation and upgrade among web novels, which must now rise to the demand of more sophisticated readers. In 2014, the Chinese Writers Association held the “National Seminar on Online Literature Theory,” calling for online fiction writing to return to mainstream writing processes and face reality, marking the start of online literature’s return to realism.
Since then, realism has appeared more frequently in web novels. The content is diverse and has depth, actively gravitating toward the value orientations of mainstream literature, focusing on major concerns such as national development, national rejuvenation, and human destiny, and thus making itself an artistic reflection of the changing times and social landscape. In many ways, the return of realism to online literature was inevitable as the field of online literature continues to develop.
First, literature itself needs to observe reality. Since the “Book of Songs,” Chinese literature experienced complex stages of development, realism aligned with a systematic theoretical system and a standardized creative practice. Later, Marxism made it clear that writers must know real life through their practices, and remain loyal to the logic and authenticity of real life, to reproduce real life, and express their deep perception and understanding of life in literary works in a way that moves beyond the superficial.
The stylized web novel constructs a “fantastical worldview” through stories where characters turn the tables on foes, slay monsters and level up, always embarking on a path of success. However, behind these uniform fantasies and wild imaginative stories, there is a lack of logic, and absence of details about real life. This leaves literature hollow and readers are ultimately unable to form deep connections to the works. For online literature to move towards high-quality mainstream literature and become a new force for literary growth, it must learn to observe life, delve deeper into life, and seek realistic representations of characters. For example, Qi Cheng’s “Great Power, Heavy Industry” recounts the initial stages of China’s development of heavy industry in the 1980s, presenting a real social landscape, with details, texture, and warmth.
Second, readers are calling for more realistic themes in online novels. While it’s true that genres like time travel, rebirth, superpowers, and immortality have provided readers with a unique and sensational reading experiences, a proliferation of formulaic and stereotypical works has saturated the market. This has led to aesthetic fatigue as readers’ expectations plummet for these genres. In this context, themes closer to reality can offer readers a more fulfilling aesthetic experience.
Meanwhile, as readers’ aesthetics continue to improve, they begin to pay attention to the logic within the text. The shift in readers’ reading interests will inevitably guide authors toward creating works with realistic themes. Online novels with realistic themes are more in line with history, life patterns, and emotional norms, which places higher demands on writers. Authors must possess not only the ability to observe reality, but also a solid foundation in writing. Novels built on real life can both expand readers’ life experiences and offer a new type of online novel that the market eagerly anticipates.
Third, policy support encourages the creation of online novels with realistic themes. In 2015, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television initiated an annual promotion of outstanding original online literary works to encourage the creation of realistic themes. In 2020, the Online Literature Center for the China Writers Association published key topics requiring support in online literature, focusing mainly on works related to the centenary of the founding of the CPC, epidemic prevention, and poverty alleviation.
Starting in 2020, the National Press and Publication Administration organized the “Excellent Online Literature Publishing Project on Realistic and Historical Themes,” primarily featuring outstanding online literary works that focus on reality and reflect life. According to the “Report on the Development of Chinese Online Literature 2022,” released by the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on April 10, 2023, in the past seven years, comprehensive data from multiple websites showed a compound growth rate of 37.2% for online literature with realistic themes. Beyond the policy incentives, major online literature platforms have responded actively on their own accord.
China Literature Group organized six consecutive competitions for online literature with realistic themes. In September 2022, the 6th competition received a total of 34,804 submissions, marking a 65.1% increase compared to the previous year. In the popularity rankings as of April 30, 2023, works with realistic themes like “Returning to 2000: Captain of the Great Nation” and “War of the Mercenaries” topped the popularity rankings. This demonstrates that the creation of online literature with realistic themes has been highly effective and is gradually gaining recognition from readers.
Unique aesthetic tastes
Online literature is undergoing a shift towards realism, but it carries a different focus when compared to traditional literature.
First, it portrays the multifaceted nature of daily life. Online literature with realistic themes freely describes consumption habits, entertainment preferences, and daily life attributes within popular literature. It broadens the scope of literary narratives, introducing new topics not commonly found in traditional literature. For example, it delves into subjects such as children with autism, the lives of rescue teams, the work of police officers, the lives of doctors, the world of finance, and entrepreneurship in the workplace. This expansion in the breadth of realistic themes has given rise to a series of genre-specific works, such as financial literature and medical literature, which have garnered a dedicated readership.
Second, online literature isn’t afraid of delving into the details of everyday life. Realistic online literature tells ordinary stories of daily life and describes the growth trajectories of common people. For instance, “Ode to Joy” by Ah Nai focuses on the everyday lives of five young women. It creates dramatic tension by depicting the ups and downs of their daily lives and explores the poetry of daily life through a meditative gaze on mundane tasks. Similarly, “Great Power, Heavy Industry” doesn’t shy away from describing the working conditions of factory workers, including their daily banter and casual conversations. The detailed exploration of everyday life in realistic online literature provides readers with a sense of connection and involvement while also reflecting the contemporary landscape of the Chinese people. It possesses a populist aesthetic quality.
Finally, this new literary realism incorporates an element of virtuality. In “Great Power, Heavy Industry,” there is an element of time travel. The novel’s protagonist, Feng Xiaochen, travels back in time to the year 1980 and explores China’s heavy industry alongside his contemporaries. The time travel element provides the protagonist with insights into the future and knowledge beyond his time, allowing him to lead others in the development of a great nation. While Feng Xiaochen possesses the “golden touch,” his abilities are constrained by the conditions of the era and societal norms. The novel tells the story of an ordinary man growing and developing in the real world by utilizing his abilities. Despite the supernatural elements, the source material still revolves around real life. Without the time travel element, it would be identical to traditional works, lacking the distinctive narrative “pleasure” and virtual authenticity unique to online literature. Feng Xiaochen, as a time traveler, reflects the rich subjective world of individuals amid the development of network technology, satisfying their desires to engage with history and delve into reality. The imaginative creativity brought by the time travel genre and the virtual aesthetic experience are unique to online literature, and they do not diminish its realism.
Online literature broadens the boundaries of realism. It reproduces virtual reality through the elements of fantasy storytelling within the literary world. The surreal imagery ultimately draws from reality, reflecting realistic demands. The fusion of realism and virtuality, and the organic unity of fantasy storytelling and detailed realism, collectively constitute the unique aesthetic experience of contemporary online literature, featuring virtuality, imagination, and interactivity.
Yu Jianxiang is a professor from the School of Humanities at Central South University.