The MOBILE NOVEL
by Leigh Lundin
The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday 26 September 2007…
I was sitting in a lawyer’s anteroom reading the WSJ and below the fold was a front page story titled Ring! Ring! Ring! In Japan, Novelists Find a New Medium.
‘Medium’ in this case refered to mass communication, not the contact with the spirits [dis]embodied in the television shows Medium and Ghost Whisperer. (My friend Steve inexplicably loves to watch these shows, which puzzled me until I realized ‘watch’ is more applicable than ‘listen’. More than the spiritual divide, it’s the generous cleavage that draws him. But I digress.)
The publishing industry is in flux. In approximately 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type, which revolutionized printing beyond scribes and wooden block printing. Five hundred years later, high-speed presses had reduced printing costs to pennies, but, for the individual, the only recourses were the typewriter and the mimeograph machine, seditiously banned in Albania, Bulgaria, and other nearby communist countries.
(Cleavage tends to distract guys, in general.)
In 1984, Apple Macintosh, the LaserWriter, and Adobe Postscript brought publishing to the desktop. The printing industry underwent a fundamental shift as publishing power sifted down to the masses. The distribution channel, however, remained closed to outsiders.
In 1993, a new administration entering America’s White House, was stunned to find manual telephone operators, manual and electric typewriters, and Telex machines instead of personal computers. They immediately replaced IBM Selectrics with IBM PCs and soon opened DARPAnet, once the sole domain of universities and military, to the public as the internet. Not long after, Tim Berners-Lee and Jean-François Groff brought us the World Wide Web. Power had come to the people.
Today, professional mystery, romance, and science fiction associations struggle to identify what place eBooks and PoD (print on demand) should have in the industry. At the same time those who utilize these technologies are considered less than professional, publishers rush to establish their own eBook imprints. Meanwhile, writers whose books have fallen out of print turn to PoD to satisfy a smaller yet unmet demand.
(An early girlfriend used to call it ‘cleaverage’.)
Into this flux comes another phenomenon, the Japanese cell phone ‘mobile novel’. Paralleling American sales figures, Japanese books sales fell 15% in the past five years. Running against this trend are cell phone romances, books ‘penned’ for a market of teenagers, in fact, teen girls, which are easily outselling the big publishing houses.
Astonishingly, most of these 2000 novels have been ‘written’ using cell phones themselves, indeed to the extent that one of the leading writers recently ruptured a blood vessel in her pinkie. This seems incredible to those of us of voting age, but these young writers have owned cell phones since they entered grade school at age six. Cell phones or ‘keitai denwa’ are second nature.
These cell phone novels are not great literature. Paragraphs and sentences run short, and white space is used as punctuation, not unlike manga graphic novels. Mostly dialogue and sound effects, mobile novels lack setting, characterization, and sometimes plot. Such weaknesses have not affected their popularity, where as many as six million Goma and Maho i-Land fans eagerly await installments as they are released, which may remind readers early Sherlock Holmes stories were released as serials in The Strand Magazine. Unlike traditional channels, feedback from readers allows the author to alter her stories to suit her audience.
(Early feminists failed to understand that Mother Nature hard-wired guys to respond to cleavage, but fortunately, I am immune to such frivolities.)
Published writers like Yuzuki Muroi are less than charmed. At 37, she’s double the age of many mobile novelists. A judge at last years awards ceremony, she criticized cell phone novels as being "mostly a string of conversation and emotion, with almost no setting, scene, or character development". Her dismissal, however, failed to discourage the phenomenon.
Clearly, mobile novels are touching its fans in fundamental ways. I still prefer ‘hard copy’, musty hardbacks and tattered paperbacks. I once thought eBooks might let me read in the dark, but so far, Kindle displays are less like the dazzling display of an iPhone and more like a 1979 MS-DOS screen. A cell phone novel display… the notion boggles the eye.
But in Japan, it’s selling.
The Gumshoe Site
Speaking of Japan, let me introduce you to one of the oldest web sites dedicated to the mystery and crime fiction genre, The Gumshoe Site, affectionately maintained by Jiro Kimura. In comparison, other blogs are mere infants. Gumshoe is in English (mostly), and captures awards and events better than most other sites. (Hi Jiro!)