Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
With the advent of the “Iron Age” of Chinese online literature in 2004, VIP reading fees for online novels caused Qidian.com, the largest book portal of note at the time, to rake in an unprecedented income. However, because too many novel contracts were signed, the vast majority of authors, in an effort to secure the longevity of their works, began an intense competition with each other by posting daily new chapters of their novels on every major book recommendation rankings list. There were even some authors who, after signing a VIP reading fee contract, updated their chapters with additions of two to three thousand Chinese characters per day.
“Tangjia Sanshao” was an author that signed with Qidian.com who came to comprehend the true meaning of the word “fast.” Through the use of simple plots, concise language, and adding new content to a tune of 300,000 Chinese characters per month, he was fast—fast like Schumacher driving a Ferrari—rapidly gaining countless readers and leaving his competitors in the dust. His 2005 fantasy novel “Mad God,” despite its subject matter involving the not-so-new idea of ethnic struggles taking place in a different world, nevertheless accumulated over ten million online hits. Qidian.com took advantage of Tangjia Sanshao’s sudden fame to push forward their new “Platinum Authors” contract system. Under this system, they undertook a one-time buyout of all copyrights of works belonging to any ultra-famous author, and required that said author promise to produce new content at a set rate. In return they would devote the full force of their promotion engine behind said author. This caused a few such platinum authors to become overnight millionaires, which in turn attracted more and more people to try their hands at writing online novels, as well as a new wave of online readers. From this point on, Chinese online literature had entered a fully commercialized “platinum era” of mass entertainment.
Noted platinum era online authors focused most of their attention on writing fantasy and other speculative fiction, such as Tiancan Tudou’s “Broken Sky,” “Legend of Immortal” by the author I Eat Tomatoes, and so on. Not only did these novels receive hundreds of millions of online click-throughs; they were even adapted into online games which became quite popular. Another of Qidian.com’s platinum authors, “Dance,” was even more successful in developing a fanbase through writing readership-oriented fiction. The hero in is masterpiece, “Devil Law,” is a useless “waste” in the eyes of many people. But he sells souls to the devil in return for the things he wants, and in the end he vanquishes the world. This satisfied the yearnings in ordinary readers for dreamlike escape, and has been much applauded.
But behind Qidian’s success stories, hidden misfortunes have gradually begun to surface amid these bubbles of commercialization. In an effort to emulate the rapid success of these platinum authors, numerous writers have taken to producing new content at unprecedented rates as well as heating up the competition in the online recommendations lists, leading to an overall decline in the quality of VIP reading fee novels. Furthermore, all sorts of gaudy advertising has adversely affected the online reading experience, causing online literature to suddenly wear the blackened name of “trash fiction.” Even those occasional works of outstanding quality are swallowed up by the sea of ordinary works, and it is thus very difficult for readers to discover them. Authors have begun to lose the will to keep writing as more and more serial books, lost amid the chaos, have had to be abandoned and added to the pile of series with “unspoken endings.”
Perhaps in an effort to obtain recognition and approval for its online novels by the domestic mainstream literature and media worlds, Qidian.com began to edge toward paper book publishing, beginning with Tangjia Sanshao and other such platinum authors. In May 2012, Tangjia Sanshao applied to the Guinness Book of World Records as the author whose works had been read continuously over a period of one hundred months by an astonishing 260 million readers. The unexpected result was that most readers of paper books did not buy his books even after seeing the news of his world record. They said reading a paper book is not the same as reading the “fast food” that is an online novel, and that they would rather read exquisite works that are meaningful and interesting rather than junk that serves no other purpose than to satisfy a temporary flight of fantasy.
In conclusion: In spite of Chinese online literature’s having stepped into a “platinum age,” this period’s novels, compared to the works that came out in the early “golden age,” are glaringly lacking in quality. Although platinum authors lead the trend in certain areas, more of these online novels became mass-produced cookie cutter products from an assembly line of blandness, and a blind following of what was vogue led to an increase in writing for opportunity’s sake as well as rampant online piracy. This undoubtedly has created quite a conundrum for the future development of online literature.