VLS 6: Digital Reading and Online Reading

We are living in a world that has been greatly influenced, even transformed, by digital and Internet technologies in various aspects. Reading practices and studies of reading are no exception. In the 6th session, Duncan Paterson (data manager of READCHINA) will address the value of new digital approaches (adopted by the READCHINA team) in the study of reading. He will then discuss the impact and potential insights from reading born-digital texts in contemporary China. The second speaker, Dylan Suher, will unfold his studies on the “YY fiction” – a prominent genre in contemporary Chinese Internet fiction. Not only will he investigate the outline, the origin and genealogy of YY fiction, he will also suggest a re-reading of the older, allegedly realist novel as a work of YY fiction. For both speakers, digital and Internet technologies offer more than a new field in (the study of) reading, but can transform our overall perceptions on reading and on literary interpretation. Paola Iovene (University of Chicago) will act as dicussant.

Date: 2020-12-15

Time: 2 pm (Freiburg) / 8 am (New York) / 9 pm (Beijing)

To attend: Signup once for your access code or, if you already have, directly join the session via Zoom.

Glamour, Glare, and Gallantry: Reading Strategies of Contemporary Online Fiction

Duncan Paterson (University of Freiburg)


This paper explores how digital practices can augment our understanding of reading practices in two parts. The first part concerns digital approaches to the study of reading, as they are implemented throughout the research infrastructure of READCHINA. At its core is the research database ReadAct, which allows researchers to conduct work on heterogeneous aspects of reading in the PRC from within a unified conceptual framework. To the best of our knowledge such a formalized data-model is the first of its kind. While it is true that designing a model that balances the strict demands of machine logic and humanistic research is challenging to both machines and researchers, I argue that the two are not in opposition but mutually enhancing. Machine readers uncover hidden assumptions and argumentative weaknesses in places where human readers do not. Humanistic research questions, on the other hand, can help us to counteract algorithmic biases and reductionism.

The second part, addresses reading of born-digital texts, such as online literature, games, and augmented reality textbooks. As the sheer scale of ephemeral on-screen reading exceeds the ability of human readers to keep up, it unduly distorts our view of reading practices in contemporary China. We can address this blind-spot using the same computational tools responsible for the first non-human authors / literature bots. I argue that born-digital reading, with its distinct legal framework, social setting, and economic incentives can only partially be addressed by concepts that are rooted in the codex. A study of digital reading “on its own terms” can therefore shed light on both reading practices on screen and in print.

Lust of the Machine: The Technologies and Traditions of YY Fiction

Dylan Suher (University of Hong Kong)


This paper will outline “YY fiction,” a key concept in contemporary Chinese internet fiction, and trace its genealogy from the works of the internet literature writer Maoni to Lu Yao, author of realist epics of the early Reform Era, to its purported origins in the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber. “YY” (yiyin, “lust of the mind”) is a term which is used to describe fiction which satisfies basic human needs and allows for escape into immersive fantasy. This affect is achieved in Maoni’s novel Joy of Life through sprawling, slow-paced narratives that invest heavily in “worldbuilding” and are built around a main character who serves a point of identification for the reader; it is reinforced by an interface and set of practices on the Qidian platform which encourage total and habitual immersion in a text. Although the space of YY is realized through the technologies of the internet, members of the Chinese internet literature community trace back to the quotidian wish-fulfillment of Lu Yao’s Ordinary World, and, ultimately, to the utopian reading community of Dream of the Red Chamber. Re-reading Ordinary World as a work of YY fiction offers a new interpretation of the literary ecology that shaped that novel and blurs the lines arbitrarily drawn between realism and fantasy, utopia and heterotopia.


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