The speedy, serialized, and escapist nature of web novels has made them into a multi-billion-dollar industry in China, where 46.5% of internet users read web fiction, according to a 2020 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Recently, however, their addictive nature has sparked debate among netizens.
The industry is growing: The same report also indicates that Gen Z makes up almost 60% of web fiction readers in China. Meanwhile, the number of authors writing for the renowned web fiction company China Literature increased by 129% in the first quarter of 2020.
Middle-aged readers and those from older generations also consume web novels. According to the 18th National Reading Survey, 23.2% of adults over 50 years old read web literature, a statistic that led to the debate about addiction. The tag ‘What to do if your parents are addicted to reading web literature’ (#父母沉迷看网络小说怎么办#) is currently trending on the microblogging platform Weibo, with more than 189 million views today alone.
Web novels in China are usually published chapter by chapter on online platforms such as Qidian, Zongheng, China Literature, Zhihu, and Douban Read. Even tech giants like ByteDance have created web novel apps. Often, readers must pay a fee to continue following the stories.
Like other largely unregulated writing genres, such as fanfiction, web novels are often considered low-quality and corruptive. Many rely on tropes, such as romances involving a ‘bossy president’ (霸道总裁) or a boyfriend who is second-generation rich, otherwise known as fuerdai (富二代).
Despite — or perhaps because of — these predictable, satisfying themes, many people can’t stop reading. The same person who called web novels brainless also confessed her love for the literary format, especially “when she is tired.”
Another commented, “My husband has been addicted to web novels for several years. He does not communicate or interact with our children at home. He hides in his room and reads novels alone.”
The addictive nature of web novels is encapsulated by the term shuangwen (爽文), which refers to smooth-sailing plots where the protagonist encounters few obstacles or easily overcomes all the challenges.
The word shuang literally translates to ‘feel-good.’ As journalist Zeyi Yang writes, reading these carefree stories imparts “a brief dopamine high.”
Even China’s famous and beloved road-tripping auntie Su Min has admitted an addiction to web literature. “I used to like reading web novels about time traveling — I was obsessed with them. They made me feel like I was escaping from reality, and it became a beam of light in my depressing life.”
Su was stuck in an abusive marriage for decades, and reading web fiction contributed to her eventual pursuit of “a better way of life.” In 2020, she left her husband to travel across the country alone — gaining considerable online fame in the process.
In a similar vein, many netizens believe web literature is harmless and even beneficial. One Weibo user wrote, “What’s wrong with reading novels? Can’t parents have hobbies of their own? People who read web fiction are infinitely better than the elders who were tricked by an MLM scheme into becoming addicted to livestreaming and buying gifts.”
Many of the most popular web novels also inspire TV shows — this year’s The Oath of Love and the sci-fi drama Reset were both adapted from web novels. Two of the five hottest dramas on Chinese streaming giant iQIYI were also adapted from web literature.
Whether or not reading web novels is harmless, the industry is likely here to stay. And most netizens seem to agree: It’s better to be addicted to web novels than to “eating, drinking, prostituting, or gambling.”
Cover image via @qianerbai/Twitter
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