Thumb novels: Mobile phone fiction

In Japan, SMS is old hat and Twitter is struggling. So what are people staring at so intently on their handsets? Mobile phone fiction, of course. Barry Yourgrau, the first American author to write 'thumb novels', explains

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:57

The mobile phone grows more indispensable every day. Talking's the least of it. We text and tweet, send photos, watch television and play games. But in Japan, land of the future where all of the above is old hat, the keitai (mobile phone) has spawned a wildly successful, populist literary genre. Keitai shosetsu, mobile-phone fiction, has been touted and reviled as the first narrative mode of the text-message age – fiction reconfigured by wireless telecom's powers.

I'm the first American author to write for Japanese mobiles. Most keitai-shosetsu auteurs hail from Japan's vast demographic of teenage girls and twentysomething young women, who thumb out lurid, mawkish romances on their keypads in scraps of manga-like dialogue, skimpy action, texting slang and emoji (emoticons). They post these skeletal pseudo-confessions in installments, under cute pseudonyms, on dedicated websites such as Magic i-land and Wild Strawberry.

Astronomically popular, "thumb novels" are much decried as trash for yahori ("slow learners"). But over the past few years this trashy subculture has stormed Japanese commercial book publishing. In 2007 – keitai shosetsu's annus mirabilis – half of the top 10 fiction bestsellers in the shrinking Japanese book market originated on cellphones.

Last autumn, a literary grandee joined in. Jakucho Setouchi, the Marguerite Duras of Japan, revealed herself as "Purple", the author of a keitai shosetsu about a teen's search for love entitled Tomorrow's Rainbow. Setouchi is also a celebrated 86-year-old Buddhist nun who wrote a contemporary update of The Tales of Genji, Japan's racy classic.

In late 2002 I was in Tokyo for the first time. Unlike Bill Murray, I'd found myself in translation. Three of my books of brief quirky tales had been serialised and published in Japan. One morning, I watched a Tokyo teen web-browsing on his mobile – I hadn't heard of i-mode, the vanguard keitai internet service launched in 1999 by Japan's telecom giant NTT docomo. I'd never even owned a mobile. But I'd been on MTV with my mini- fables; I'd adapted them into a very episodic indie film. My work fits the short-attention-span age to a T, because, despite the impact of writers such as the late Raymond Carver, the short story got short shrift in fiction's limelight. But now technology was about to fix the script.

My translator, Professor Motoyuki Shibata of Tokyo University, Japan's foremost translator of contemporary American writing, agreed. Back in New York I hatched a format: no story over 350 words, for minimal thumb-scrolling; 12 words for opening sentences, to fit whole on a single screen. As Woody Allen advises about writing comedy, "Make it shorter". I began my keitai shosetsu in late 2003. I knew nothing of Deep Love, the seminal cellphone opus about a sex-for-money girl teen, which had just become the first of its kind to be brought out by a book publisher. (Written by "Yoshi", actually a thirtysomething guy, it has sold almost 3,000,000 copies.) Prostitution, Aids, rape, incest, abortion, drugs, suicide, desperate eternal love: these are keitai shosetsu's stock in trade. I was clueless. I did figure on youngish readers (of both genders), and the need to Japanify.

I invoked manga, karaoke and pop music, and I rummaged through online sites such as Trends in Japan. My translator marvelled at my cultural savvy as I sent up young depressed male shut-ins (hikikomori), needy geeks (otaku) and the monstrous hegemony of Cute (kawaii). My keitai shosetsu finally launched with three stories a week, downloadable for a low fee at the "mobile paperback" site of my publisher, Shinchosha – 78 mini-tales in all. When they later came out as a slim hardback called I-Mode Stories, 100,000 readers had accessed them online. This seemed fine, until I learnt that Setouchi racked up 3.25 million.

I realise now what cost me most: interactivity. My lack of it, that is. I wrote my stories the old, author-as-god way: me writer, you reader. Keitai shosetsu, however, exist in vast online pools where writers and readers engage each other. Yoshi shaped Deep Love based on ongoing hits and emails. (He even handed out fliers.) Keitai readers notoriously aren’t big book buyers – but they will buy books as mementos of their communal involvement.

Despite US press coverage, the keitai shosetsu phenomenon hasn’t so far headed west. Yes, a couple of websites, including one from a Japanese company, DeNA, now offer "mobile novel" templates. But mobiles play a different role in Japan. They, not computers, are the principal portal to the internet. "The majority of my students (19-22-year-olds) don't have a PC," notes Yuki Watanabe, a PhD candidate in Tokyo. "They're of the keypad, not keyboard, generation. The lingo of texting is normal language to them."

Just as influentially, says Roland Kelts, cultural critic and author of Japanamerica, Japanese commutes often last two hours each way. "Holding a mobile inches from your face on a packed train and reading a confessional, melodramatic narrative provides the perfect intimate package of content, technology and portability."

For Britain and the US, the place where words and cellular/cyber technology seem to be finding new forms is Twitter. In contrast to Japan, teenagers aren't the main players. But interactivity is key and there's emerging energy in the creative potential of Twitter's 140-character format.

To me, most interesting aren't the micro-tales and poems, but the attempts at an ongoing narrative in short bursts, particularly hard-boiled crime thrillers – not surprising since the genre is conventionally lean and staccato. Take the "Twiller" (for Twitter thriller), by New York Times reporter and crime writer Matt Richtel (@mrichtel). "Think Memento on a mobile," says Richtel, as his hectic little saga of amnesia and peril unspools using text lingo and real-time posting:

"I'm just outta the hospital myself, AS PATIENT. i'm walking home with JD's chip and some asshole... Tackles me near an alley, punches my face, rips my earring, rifles in my purse, screams: where is chip?! (in broken english). I reach for... my penlight in my pocket and stab his eye"

So far, book publishers haven't been tempted by Twitter fiction. What has stirred them is clever tweets (the forthcoming Twitter Wit) and business advice from wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk, whose now 300,000-plus Twitter following got him a million-dollar deal. But the Twitter-to-book route is still in its infancy.

Will route become highway? For fiction, I doubt it. Twitter narrative strikes me as a curio amid the insider updates and celeb-following. It lacks the urgency of cultural release that has driven keitai shosetsu in Japan. And Twitter may prove something of a curio itself: 60 per cent of new users fail to return the next month, a grim augury.

As for my keitai shosetsu experience, I learnt another lesson beside interactivity's impact. I re-educated myself in the weight of individual words, and the power of cutting, and cutting more. Writing on a computer tends to encourage flow and verbal sprawl. I actually found myself ransacking old notebooks from the days when I first tried short (when I even embraced the term "prose poem", quickly abandoned as unwise). The irony, and exercise, of salvaging faded pithy poetical scraps for new life on cutting-edge cellphones was a rich one.

"The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity," observed The New York Times in a piece earlier this year about fiction and the Zeitgeist. "And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long."

How about tales less than 500 words long? Below, previously unpublished in English, is a keitai shosetsu from my I-Mode Stories.

A version of this article appeared on

As seen on screen 'Carp', a story by Barry Yourgrau

To hide from life, you sneak out to a pond in the park, and lower yourself into its depths. You will live among the carp, you've decided. You will be a carp person!

Underwater, things are comforting and dim. Carp come flitting around. They don't look happy. "They regard me as an intruder," you think. "Well, tough. They should blame the world above for being so miserable."

You look for somewhere to settle for the night. You feel lightheaded from holding your breath, but it's not as hard as you thought. Peering around, you get such a shock you almost gasp and swallow water. A girl is staring at you! She has trendy orange hair and wears big thick white socks. You gape at her. She makes hand signs that demand, obviously: "What are you doing here?" Taken aback, you sign the same question in reply. The girl tosses her head, annoyed.

She points behind her with a thumb. There in the dimness, a whole crowd of persons are now visible, spread out on the pond bottom for the night. You blink at them. "Carp people," you think. But they aren't welcoming. No: they scowl. They all start gesturing for you to "shush" – to go away! The girl glares, hands on hips.

You stare dumbly at all this hostility. "No!" you finally blurt out, frantic, bubbles cascading. "No, I won't go back up to all that misery! I want to be down here, with the fishes!"

"Beat it," gesture the crowd. "We got here first. Go."

Human eyes glare at each other, yours and theirs, desperate and resentful down on the pond bottom.

And the carp flit about, swishing their tails, blinking grimly at the scene.

From 'I-Mode Stories' by Barry Yourgrau

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