Taiwan's Tween Generation
Yu Wo – Queen of Tween Novels
Easy to read and hard to put down, the "light novels" of Taiwanese writer Yu Wo have captured the hearts of the island's young readers. What does her rapid rise to bestseller stardom signify?
Yu Wo – Queen of Tween NovelsBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )
Which books are a must read to research the topic of war?
"I've been thinking about writing about war recently, so right now I'm reading what others have written about it. I need to do some more research on it," says Yu Wo as she pulls a "reference book" out of her bag. It's not Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War as one might have expected, but Wrath of Heaven, a tale of merciless war in a world of monsters by Chinese online science fiction and fantasy writer Yan Leisheng. "Yan Leisheng knows a lot about war," Yu Wo explains.
A huge generation gap, indeed. A gap spanning 2500 years.
Adults may be unfamiliar with this 26 year-old author of "light novels" – a genre of short, accessible fiction pioneered in Japan – but youths adore her. Stories written by Yu Wo, whose real name is Chen Wen-hsuan, usually appear online first, before being printed as low-priced paperbacks with manga-style illustrations, and they sell like hotcakes. In just a few years, Yu Wo has become as popular among Taiwanese tweens – young people in late childhood and early adolescence – as essayist Lung Ying-tai is among Taiwanese adults.
At the Taipei International Book Exhibition earlier this year Yu Wo's latest book, Volume 5 of Fallen Angel, sold 4,000 copies within the first three days. A total of 2,500 sets of book-related merchandise, on sale for NT$600 per set, sold out before the five-day book fair ended.
At midnight of Dec. 1 last year, a limited edition of 4,000 copies of Volume 5 of The Legend of Sun Knight went on sale at online bookstore books.com.tw as a boxed set containing the book and a comic companion piece. Within half an hour not a single set was left.
"Bestselling light novel writers are like pop idols in the way they attract teenagers, who really seek out their new books when they're published," says Chang Ching-ru, head of the books department at books.com.tw. The online bookstore even discovered that some of Yu Wo's readers were too young to purchase the coveted book set online themselves and had to ask their parents for help.
An Enigma for Grown-ups
The dialogue-driven light novels are an easy read, partly because they are markedly shorter than literary novels. Light novels usually come with a colorful manga-style cover and illustrations inside the book. They are the focal point of a major subculture among Taiwan's "tween generation," and constitute a newly emerging business opportunity. And in Taiwan's literary scene, Yu Wo is the unchallenged queen of light novels.
Yu Wo, a graduate of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Cheng Kung University, began to write at the age of 20 and posted her compositions on the Internet, publishing her first printed book in her third year at university. Over the past six years, Yu Wo has written 54 light novels and sold more than 1 million copies of her works. Supporting herself entirely with her writing, she has never worked a day at any conventional job.
Yu Wo is often considered a cyber fantasy writer, because the female protagonist of her runaway success 1/2 Prince crosses over from the real world into a virtual reality where she makes friends and embarks on dangerous adventures. The Legend of Sun Knight series, for its part, describes a continent divided among the adherents of warring religious sects. Its main protagonists are twelve holy knights with unique personalities and features.
In the series Yu Wo draws on youngsters' aspirations to become heroes and to embark with the main characters on the adventures of their wildest dreams. By poking fun at her protagonists with irreverent and cheeky language, Yu Wo also parodies the idea of knighthood and heroic conduct.
Yu Wo draws young readers' interest because she deftly merges features that are familiar from computer games and comics. Her knights use spells, magic and fantasy weapons instead of traditional martial arts skills.
Yu Wo offers her own explanation of what it takes to entice readers: "The plot needs to be obvious and easy to understand. The writing needs to stick close to real life. It has to be fresh and interesting to win the readers' hearts."
Yu Wo has also discovered that if her protagonists do not face challenges of gigantic dimensions, her young readers will feel that they lack heroic spirit. "But this actually also shows that they lack a sense of achievement in the real world. Reading these novels is a way to escape reality, and project themselves in a big way onto the achievements of the protagonist," she notes.
Light novel readers become infatuated not only with the main characters, but also the writer and the illustrator, and this carries over into a booming demand for novel-related merchandise.
Although most light novels are first published online, the popular ones are usually printed by a publishing house and become sought after collectors' items. Chuang Yi-hsun, editor-in-chief of Taiwanese publisher Spring International Publishers, which has been collaborating with Yu Wo for two years, has been adept at grasping such trends.
"I will never forget how I desperately wanted to have a set of (the Japanese comic series) Saint Seiya when I was a child," recalls Chuang. "That's why I do my best now to help Taiwanese light novelists become just as influential, so that eventually they can even counterattack the Japanese market."
In fact, Spring International has already introduced Yu Wo's books in Thailand, where around 50,000 copies were sold last year. And some of her novels have also been published in comic book form.
What Drives Collectors
"Why would anyone want to buy and collect light novels that they have already read online? The book cover needs to attract readers, and that's why both the author and the illustrator are very important," Chuang explains. While this might sound simple, the two need to fully cooperate and communicate to create a successful product. They need to agree on the main character's outer appearance, including hair color, hairstyle and facial features, because it will be crucial for the success of book-related merchandise.
Chuang thinks that Yu Wo stands out in the light novel scene because she has mastered the parlance of the new generation. On top of that, she is well read and has the ability to create a world of her own, a world that is original and imaginative and allows her to endlessly continue expanding her topics.
This serialization of her novels allows her to build a loyal following among her readers. Whenever a new volume of a series comes out, the earlier volumes go on sale again, because new readers will want to buy them. The passion of readers, building up over time, also helps create enthusiasm for adaptations in the form of comic books, or even animation or dramas.
With her large eyes and cheerful personality Yu Wo looks very much like the high school girls that are her biggest fans. Yet she currently engages in a pastime that is somewhat more of a guys' thing – playing war games on her PlayStation 3 to "research battle moves to find out how I could describe them in writing."
With each new topic the challenge for Yu Wo is "to write until there's nothing I can't write about." But, she adds, "In the end, I hope to make my readers happy."
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz