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The Cell Phone Novel

I first heard about the cell phone novel when George Consagra, COO of Scribd, came to the Grotto for lunch. According to Consagra, 86% of Japanese teenagers read novels on their cell phones. Agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford, has also blogged about reading books on his cell phone. (We’re talking about a smart phone, of course, not a Razr.) And last week, the 20 semifinalists of the “Next Best Celler” award were announced. Ten finalists will be selected by next week. The contest is being held by TextNovel, a social networking site and the “first English language cell phone novel website.” TextNovel was founded by literary agent Stan Soper, who recently assisted Saoirse Redgrave in signing a three-cell phone novel deal with St. Martin’s Press.

In Japan, where the cell phone novel trend began, of 2007’s ten bestselling novels, five were originally cell phone novels, most romance novels with very little plot or character development. One of them, written by a high school senior, sold 400,000 hard copies. According to an article in the New York Times, the serialized cell phone novels was born in 2000 after a Japanese home-page-making website realized that people were using their blogs to write novels. It changed its software to allow users to upload their work and for readers to comment. But the cell phone novel didn’t really take off until around 2005, after cell phone companies started offering unlimited text messaging for a flat rate.

Because readers have free access to sites like TextNovel, novelists only make money if their books are put into print. But most of them never aspired to write fiction anyway. Their love for text messaging is what provoked them to write. The stories tend to be written in the first person like diary entries (or blogs) and are poo-poohed by the older generation for their poor writing quality. Maho-i-land, or “Magic Land” is the largest cell phone novel site in Japan and carries more than a million titles, all available for free. In the US, the trend is growing, too. In fact,
here is an American blog dedicated exclusively to “light novels,” defined as short illustrated novels written for teens (which also originated in Japan), which posts frequently about cell phone novels.

The big question is: Is a novel a cell phone novel if it’s written on a computer? After one Japanese writer’s thumbnail started cutting into the flesh of her thumb, she took to the computer, where “her vocabulary’s gotten richer and her sentences have also grown longer” according to the New York Times. Her parents would be proud.

I won’t rant and rave about what a shame it is that the publishing industry has stooped this low, that teens have so little attention span that they can’t read long sentences full of rich vocabulary. Cell phone novels are a trend, hopefully a short-lived one, and I have great faith in the literary novel to reach the hearts and minds of our youth as well as our older generations. People watch TV, they read comic books, they scan fashion magazines at the supermarket. So what? It’s not necessarily a substitute for reading high quality literature, just a diversion from a long hard day at work, or in math class. Let’s hope.

4 comments to The Cell Phone Novel

  • Ani

    Ben MacIntyre raises similar concerns about the future of long form narrative journalism (those endless articles in the New Yorker or Vanity Fair) here:

  • Meghan Ward

    Ani, thanks for that link!

  • Matt

    Well now, I seem a bit late to the party. I can't believe I haven't discovered your post until now. haha

    I happen to run that blog you mentioned. ^_^

    Well then, to start off, there are several things that I wish to reply to and correct and enhance on.

    First off, the "Next Best Celler" was just a cute title. Almost none of the books entered into that contest were actually written for reading on cell phones, let alone written on one. So it honestly has nothing to do with the subject.

    "But most of them never aspired to write fiction anyway. Their love for text messaging is what provoked them to write. The stories tend to be written in the first person like diary entries (or blogs) and are poo-poohed by the older generation for their poor writing quality"

    Actually, this isn't true. Many cell phone novelists in fact do aspire to write fiction. There are two types of cell phone novelists in Japan. The kind that write annonymous autobiographies and the kind that write entirely fictional stories. Just several months ago there was an article in the Los Angeles Times about a middle school girl in Japan who had written a fictional romance (the first in a trilogy) that sold 100,000 copies when it was picked up for publishing and earned her $600,000. But she wrote it for the sake of writing a fictional story.

    While they are written in the first person POV, it is basically the same way that any other first person POV is written. It's all from the perspective of the main character.

    As for the comment about poor writing quality. That's a subject of debate.

    There are some misunderstandings for one thing that have been propagated by the media. For one, cell phone novels in Japan and America are NOT written using the "texting" style of writing. They are written in a traditional novel format, utilizing (usually) correct grammar and spelling. What has drawn criticisms is that the style of writing employed is direct and to the point. If you're describing the scenery, you don't take a paragraph or more to do so. You keep things to the point and focus more on the emotions and dialog of the characters.

    As for the definition you gave for light novels. They are actually not "short", no matter what the name suggest. Light Novels on average retain a minimum 50,000 word count (the normal minimal average for any novel published in America), and have sometimes gone almost as high as 100,000. While they have illustrations, they are few and far between. Imagine 200-300 (or 400) pages, and out of those, only 6 are illustrated. I actually wrote the first article on the blog about it. lol What has made Light Novels so popular is their inventive use of imagination and unique stories.

    Is a cell phone novel a cell phone novel if written on a computer? Yes. The format is defined not by what you write it on, but by the style of writing employed and the format.

    "I won’t rant and rave about what a shame it is that the publishing industry has stooped this low, that teens have so little attention span that they can’t read long sentences full of rich vocabulary. "

    First off, your statement here is factually wrong. The publishing industry did not create cell phone novels. It was a grassroots movement started by cell phone users who would write novels on their cell phone and upload them to their blogs. A publisher merely gave them a better website to post them on. When it continued to grow in popularity, the publishing industry attempted to print one, and when it succeeded, they realized that what they had was a real phenomenon that could succeed financially.

    Second, in case you've never heard, Japan is a novelist's MECCA. Publisher's are constantly running competitions yearly to find new talent and there is always a large audience waiting to read them. An average Japanese person will read several novels a month (I believe I read somewhere that it was 4) on average, along with any range of other materials (manga, study guides, etc.) Japanese YA fiction (light novels) are read by teens, young adults, and people in their 30's. It is a huge and thriving industry. Japanese YA ranges from the comical to the deeply philosophical. So the industry in Japan didn't resort to this new format in the hopes of scavenging readers and sales, instead, fans of the novels online helped make the format popular. Some stories have received up to 12 million views online.

    But the biggest point, is that a cell phone novel is not devoid of "vocabulary". It just depends on the author and his/her preference. However, cramming a string of strange and not often used words in a sentence will only confuse a reader in my opinion, interrupt the flow of reading and make an author look conceited for trying to puff himself up. Rich vocabulary should be used only when appropriate and only if it flows with the story and rest of the sentence.

    Cell Phone Novels though aren't about that anyways, they are about a specific type of storytelling. One that is simple, straight to the point, and personal. (And they aren't all just romances either by the way, cell phone novels encompass all genres).

    In America, almost half the country doesn't read a single novel in a year, and teenagers are losing all affection for the written word. Radical steps must be taken to reintroduce the love of reading into this country, and in my opinion, this new format represents one of those steps.

    Whether Cell Phone Novels are a trend is something only time will tell. But as with many trends, some can last a pretty long time. 😉

    I myself by the way am a cell phone novelist. In fact, my novel is currently the 2nd most popular in North America.

    It's titled "Once Upon A Christmas Wish…" (it's a romantic comedy/supernatural/drama and can be read here:

    I recommend you take a good and serious look at the story and keep an open mind (as in, read more than 50 pages of it, don't just skim the first few lol)

    And just for the record in case your wondering, I've been writing traditional novels for years. Cell phone novels are something I've only very recently began to touch and I'm very happy with that decision thus far.

    Point is, Cell Phone Novels may not be your cup of tea, but you won't know for sure until you try one. 😉

    Hope my reply was alright, and also hope I didn't scare you with this giant wall of text. haha

    PS. Cell Phone Novels also mark a return to "serialized fiction". Novels are posted online as they are written in installments. This is similar to how classic authors such as Charles Dickens would write their novels.

    So the idea isn't so strange or new. And obviously, simple and minimalistic writing styles are nothing new either.

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