There is always a story behind the story. This column explores beyond the headlines to reveal the hidden tales affecting cultural and social issues throughout the region. In a recent crackdown, Chinese authorities recently demanded the removal of content deemed vulgar and inappropriate from online publishing platforms. The move sent the stocks of China Literature plunging – and a novel I have been following for the past two years, one new chapter a day like an addict living for her next fix, disappeared from its platform. I stumbled upon my first online novel when, too impatient for a television drama to run its course, I looked up its source material on the internet – and finished it in one sitting. It opened the door to the fascinating world of Chinese online literature and before long, I was hooked. Despite calling itself literature, there is little artistic or intellectual value to most of the novels in the genre. Their vaguely suggestive titles, which are somewhat lost in translation ( Busy at Night , Little Bride of an Aristocratic Family , CEO with Good Stamina , to name a few), tend to elicit teases and taunts. So while I buried my nose in these novels, I kept the hobby largely secret. In 2017, the online publishing industry in China, which had received little attention outside the country, came under the spotlight. That year, China Literature – owned by internet giant Tencent – launched Hong Kong’s most lucrative initial public offering in a decade. Suddenly the world realised how much money it was making. Many were surprised. I was not, having by then read dozens of these novels. Various media outlets have followed the ups and downs of the stock, and reported on mergers and acquisitions in the industry. I wrote a story – which in May won a Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in arts and culture reporting – that looks at a less scrutinised aspect of online literature: its content. Whatever the period online novels are set in and regardless of their background, they all have one thing in common: writers spin far-fetched, melodramatic tales with Mary Sue characters that make Disney fairy tales seem realistic. Protagonists discover they are the lost child of a wealthy family, or marry into one, or travel back in time with knowledge of the future, correcting all the mistakes they have ever made. The Chinese government has reason to be concerned. The influence of web novels extends beyond their readers. These online publishing platforms are a treasure trove from which the film industry mines its raw material. Most of the wildly popular period and fantasy dramas broadcast in China in recent years, such as Empresses in the Palace and The Princess Weiyoung , were adapted from online novels. Now, amid the government’s tightening grip on the industry, the China Literature platform features a selection of “excellent works” that “praise the motherland”. As my editors went through my copy, they would ask: “How do you know all this?” I called it “research”, too embarrassed to admit that, somewhere along the way, my interest had evolved into an addiction. I read on my daily commute, in lifts, during Zelda ’s loading times, bathroom breaks, church sermons, and late into the night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. To get over the overwhelming post-book blues, I binge-read, jumping into one novel after another. Once I caught myself, in the wee hours, poring over the same title for the third time and finally wondered what was wrong with me. Dismissed by scholars for their lack of literary value, these stories have an appeal that no formal study explains. But after spending weeks chatting with a young writer on WeChat, I found an answer to my own obsession, at least. Bookshops struggle as online retailers and state-owned chains dominate Tang Qianqian was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week at a phone factory, earning 5,000 yuan (US$725) in a good month. With his phone locked up during working hours, he could only respond at first in short text messages during lunch breaks. When smartphone sales slumped, he quit his job and we started having longer conversations about the industry and its flaws, his struggles, and the inspirations for his writing. Later we broached topics irrelevant to my story, but which conveyed who he is as a person. A second child under China’s one-child policy, Tang was born in an abandoned mine and his mother sold her blood to pay school fees. Unable to enter one of the “key universities” in the province, he jumped straight into work after high school, going from job to job but earning little and finding no meaning. I was curious about his life because of how different our environments are, only to find we share more in common than I thought – whether frustrations at work or disappointments in life. Central to our anxiety is a longing to find purpose and the fear that this might be all we will ever amount to. And that, perhaps more than anything, explains the allure of these novels and why this genre is so intriguing. For readers, the invincible characters and fanciful plots serve as a powerful distraction from reality; for writers, web novels are a medium through which they can project their unattainable dreams and unrealised ambitions. The stories are not meant to reflect society, but describe alternate worlds where they can control their destinies. And who doesn’t want to be a superhero?