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Fiction Writing for Japanese Cell Phones

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I'm an American writer, mainly of short fiction.

In late 2002, my first, agog visit to Tokyo, I noticed young people browsing the Internet on the street on their keitai (cell phones).

Here in New York as far as I knew, people only gabbed or texted on their mobiles or maybe checked stocks, that was it.

I say as far as I knew, because at the time I didn't own a cell phone. But I've always had a roving eye for pop media for my brief surreal literary tales, having performed on "MTV Unplugged" way back and starred in a film of my book The Sadness of Sex, which went on to a nifty second life online.

I thought I'd make perfect tiny-screen reading. Not with a riff on text-messaging--in 2002 I'd never sent a text message. I would write as I always did. But even shorter.

What to write about for a Japanese, and mostly young, I imagined, audience? I found Web sites like web-japan.org supplied a fine harvest of pop J-topicalities for a middle-aged foreign writer to play with: from the Burberry fad I contrived a girl dying from houndstooth poisoning; from hanami, cherry-blossom time, a girl bursting unhappily into such blossoms. A shut-in son, whose desperate parents' imaginary life for him renders him horridly superfluous--the hikikomori phenomenon of depressed youth.

My partner Anya, a food writer on assignment during our trip, gave me settings for a depa-chika department-store food-court mini-fantasy (at Seibu in Ikebukuro) and a brief izakaye sake bar fable (see below).

Of course I wrote riffed about manga and karaoke, and lots about social shame.

Having to compress was stimulating fun. Some tales could operate like quick (even racy) jokes. Or imagist prose-poems (I dusted off a few from very old notebooks). Others, I'd to really have challenge my full bag of narrative tricks to keep things unrepetitive, story after story.

But as opposed to the manga-and texting-influenced reliance on just emotion and dialogue--which I gather characterizes most "keitai novels," as the exploding genre is called--my little pieces drew on a full stock of elements. I did do some dialogue-only, for variety. And I started using second-person, a new mode for me, one I judged more engaging than my usual first-person or third-person.

Gaudi and Borges

Each month Moto received a dozen items to translate, 78 in all. In early 2004 they started running three a week via Shinchosha's keitaibunko site [L Two from my published books also ran weekly. As with all my short fiction, I wrote my keitai first drafts the old-fashioned way, by hand--a good many scribbled across the street from the spires of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral during a stay in Barcelona. Others I wrote at the national library in Madrid (Anya was doing a book on Spanish food), passing under Borges' portrait daily on my way to conjure up, say, two otaku (computer geek) pals quarreling over a fantasy dream girl.

By spring 2005, when Shinchosha released the project as a slim book called I-mode (Keitai) Stories , 100,000 readers had "accessed" the work online. Hardly comparable of course to the 10 million hits racked up in two years just now by Love Sky, from young female keitai-novel star (and fellow Shinchosha author) Mika Naita. Nor did my book sales, which were okay, match anything like the 2.7 million for Yoshi's four volumes of Deep Love, the great early success in the field. Apparently though keitai readers (mostly young, female) aren't always the greatest book buyers. A cell phone fits in a tiny purse fine, but a book?

A key element to big online success seems to be interactivity. Mika and Yoshi feverishly changed story lines according to readers' ongoing responses. I did think of this, but then didn't push the idea.

But I now own a cell phone, albeit an American one. And while my following book, NASTYbook (anti-kids tales for kids) pubbed here traditionally, Moto's translation ran again, most of it, on keitai, before Shinchosha issued the hardcover last year. I hope we keep doing that.

I-mode Stories has yet to find an American publisher, mobile or regular--it only exists as a book in Japanese. Being frugal I revised some of the minitales for my very latest American kids' work, Yet Another NASTYbook (May 2007). HarperCollins, which publishes me, is starting to get into kids' reading on cell phones, but so far only with huge name authors. Mobile Internet platforms still lag behind here. Perhaps because unlike in Japan, American kids have broadband computers in their bedrooms.

What Lies Ahead?

I recently asked Moto Shibata if he read any keitai lit. He and I have become good friends; we gave a reading at Kinokuniya's theater in Shinjuku in 2006, including from our keitai work together. "Ha, ha!" he wrote back. "You know I still don't own a cell phone! The only thought I had when I translated your keitai stories was that I would do no homework--read other stories published on keitai, etc. I had the conviction that I didn't have to--or I shouldn't--follow any conventions, if there were any....

"As for the future (of keitai lit)," he added, "I'm more worried about book publishing than about keitai publishing--I hope the latter won't drive the former away!"

Ah, yes. As general book sales shrink, keitai readership is skyrocketing, and sometimes carrying its fabulous numbers into bookstore receipts.

So what lies ahead? Never having read any keitai lit besides my own either, I contacted another friend, Roland Kelts, a part-Japanese literary novelist and cultural critic based in Tokyo and New York , and the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US.

Yes, he agreed, keitai novels have had extraordinary success, "and publishers in Japan are racing to capitalize on the trend."

He echoed the unease expressed by Moto--but had a different take. "Editors and writers in Japan," said Roland, "are quick to note that keitai novels are not conventional literary novels. They feature shorter sentences, slang, insider references, and fast, easily digestible soap-opera oriented plots, and their characters are usually young, romantic and disenchanted--like the very readers who are buying and downloading them."

Keitai novels are therefore not considered 'real novels.' "And the fear," said Roland, "is that technology is changing the content, leading it into ruin."

3-Minute Singles

To Roland this fear is all flighty tosh. He pointed to the alarm expressed when 78 rpm records were first introduced last century, that the technology would destroy real live music. "The new technology... certainly transformed the art form," said Roland. "By mid-century, the 3-minute single topped the charts. But the New York Philharmonic still performs symphonies, and as far as I can glean, they aren't struggling to fill seats."

Roland is a technology embracer, at ease with the term "content." " My point," he continued, "is that the technology definitely does, and will transform its content. But that doesn't necessarily mean the death of the content....The onus is on content providers--writers, editors, publishers--to include the new forms in their repertoire.

"In other words: If cell phone literature emerges as the 3-minute single alongside Brahms, why should we complain?"

A brave view, certainly. The question I'd like to raise is this: In Japan, with its literary culture so rich in brevity (haiku, senryu, Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories), surely a "3-minute single" can be a thing of quality too? Sad or silly or wondrous--you name it.

- Thanks to Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, in whose magazine Number One Shimbun this article first appeared.

- Thanks also to Uber.com, where my blog Bran Flakes appears.