January 15, 2014
Chinese university offers degree in CyberLit
by Sal Robinson
It’s generally assumed that when they start teaching your particular branch of rebel outsider lit in the academy, that’s the death knell: the Rimbaud t-shirts come out, the bars get overrun by tourists, and all of your old, cosy spats have an unfamiliar echo around them, as everyone starts to wonder what posterity will make of the act of dumping a beer over someone’s head as a critical response to the assertion that Jorie Graham is a great poet.
If it’s true, cyberlit may have seen its last innocent days. The Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts and Shanda Literature, the largest Chinese cyberlit portal, have announced that they’ll be offering a B.A. in Cyber Literature History, starting this summer. (In the US, where this type of literature is widely studied and taught, it’s usually called “electronic” or “digital literature,” a lamentable failure by US academics to use the word “cyber” as much as possible in all contexts that could be construed as relating to the Internet, the Future, and robots.)
According to an article in China News (partly translated and summarized by the blog Altaic Storytelling), courses will be offered in story-writing, TV drama screenwriting, cell phone cinema, the history of online literature, and copyright management and marketing. Among the professors teaching courses for the degree will be Wang Anyi, whose novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and Ye Xin, playwright and activist.
There will also be visiting lecturers, such as fantasy writer Tang Jia San Shao who has made staggering amounts of money in the cyberlit world: $4.4 million in 2013 alone for his novels about a Chinese teenager who gets accepted by an American university and *then* discovers he has dragon blood, making him maximally cool, smart, powerful, and capable of scorching Harvard Yard to a crisp.
Tang is a prime example of a writer who has built their career on the web: his novels are now published in print form (does anyone else still occasionally call these things “book books”? No? Ok, I’ll go over to this corner now), but his twelve novels were originally published serially online, and Tang used reader feedback to shape the books as he went along. His sales numbers reflect more than anything (aside from all the shiny things he can presumably now purchase) the vast numbers of readers he’s gained in the course of his primarily cyber-exclusive publishing career.
Of course, a cyberlit universe like Shanda’s—in which it’s clearly investing—needs not only writers, but also marketers, publicists, rightspeople, and critics, and in this sense, the new B.A. program seems in keeping with similar programs in the US and the UK, like the Columbia Publishing Course and the University of Stirling’s Publishing Studies postgraduate degrees.
And any fears about the anarchically fruitful nature of Chinese cyber literature being diluted in lecture halls and theses may be premature. As the recent Daniel Radcliffe-as-Allen Ginsberg flick, Kill All Your Darlings, demonstrates, literature ably survives school, money, and fame… everything but bio-pics.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.