Category Archives: keitai

art of compression: barry yourgrau’s keitai fictions

The Millions has an interesting interview with the South African-born, New York-resident writer Barry Yourgrau, who recently published a collection of “keitai” (cell phone) fiction in Japan. Known for bite-sized surrealist fables (as here), the hyper-compression of the cell phone display seemed like a natural challenge for Yourgrau, and he is now, to my knowledge, the first foreign writer to write successfully in Japan for the tiny screen. You can read a number of his keitai stories (which average about 350 words) on his blog, and hear him give a reading of the delightfully malevolent “Houndstooth,” which tells of a deadly fashion plague ravaging the Burberry-obsessed youth of Japan, on NPR.
yourgrau_imode.jpg Yourgrau believes that the popularity of keitai fiction in Japan, especially among younger readers, is due primarily to the fact that most young Japanese access the Internet through their phones (which are a generation more advanced than what’s available in the US) rather than on desktop computers. Kids don’t have a lot of privacy in their homes, he explains further, so they spend most of their time out and about on the streets, using keitai for entertainment and social navigation.
And the fictions are as mobile as their users, migrating fluidly from one technological context to another. Many keitai novels, Yourgrau explains, frequently “emerge from pools of people on web pages” before migrating onto keitai screens. Upon scoring a success on phones, they then frequently make their way onto the bestseller list in print form (the image is the print edition of Yourgrau’s recent keitai cycle). A few have even been made into films.
Western publishers would do well to study this free-flowing model. A story need not be bound to one particular delivery mechanism, be it a cell phone, web page (or book). In fact, the ecology of forms can make a more comprehensive narrative universe. This is not only the accepted wisdom of cross-media marketing franchisers and brand blizzardeers (Spiderman the comic, Spiderman the action figure, the lunchbox, the movie, the game, the Halloween costume etc.), but an age-old principle underlying the transmission of culture. The Arthurian legends, for instance, weren’t spun in one single authoritative text, but in many different textual itertations over time, a plethora of visual depictions, oral storytelling, songs, objets d’art etc.
In the case of keitai fiction, there’s seems to be a relation between compression of form and expansiveness of transmission. Interestingly, Yourgrau writes his phone stories longhand with a pencil, then types them up on a computer:

I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I’m (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I’ve half a mind to switch back to a typewriter…..

There’s an interesting paradox here: that the compression that makes for good Web or cell phone writing is not afforded by the actual tools of electronic composition, which much more favor a kind of verbal sprawl. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that several of the most successful keitai novels were composed entirely on phones, one carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing keypad stroke at a time. To digress… one wonders whether the bloat of much contemporary fiction is a direct effect of word processors and the ease of Inernet research. That would support the broader observation that the net, far from killing off books, seems to have acted like a bellows, greatly boosting (at least for the time being) the number of pages produced in print.
In any case, I can readily imagine why Yourgrau’s surreal miniatures fit so well in the keitai form, both as random time-fillers and as little social cherry bombs to detonate among friends -? stories plucked out of the air. I’ll conclude this not so compressed ramble with one of Yourgrau’s concise keitai hauntings:

Disease strikes a distant town. The victims develop loathsome sores all over their bodies; at the same time they’re maddened by extreme lascivious impulses. Down street after street door after door is splashed with a crude red cross: inside, the lunatic disfigured coupling rages on nonstop – ?men, women, even children – ?until exhausted dawn, until death.
In the hills beyond town, a monk makes his way along a darkening road. He chews a stale rice ball for his supper as he goes, so as not to interrupt his march. His sandaled feet move one in front of the other inexorably. His staff leaves a trail of dots behind him in the dusty distances. At last he comes around the side of a hill and he stops. The prospect of the dim town spreads before him. A look of disturbance moves over his face, as he slowly chews the last of his rice ball. Even here the uneasy wind carries the grisly minglings of lamentation and carnal grunting The monk becomes watchful; he looks uneasily around him and grips his staff in both hands. Two figures are moving feverishly in the darkness ahead. They seem to prance toward him, half-naked, hideous, moaning hoarse endearments. The monk calls to his god as he raises his staff and prepares to meet them.

cellphone fiction in japan

japcellnovel.jpg Peter Brantley points to an interesting WSJ piece (free) on the explosion of Japanese cellphone fiction. These are works, often the length of novels, composed specifically for consumption via the phone’s tiny screen. In some cases, they are even written on the phone. Stories are written in terse, unadorned language, in chunks crafted specifically to fit on a single mobile screen. Dialog is favored heavily over narrative description, and from the short excerpts I’ve read, the aim seems to be to conjure cinematic imagery with the greatest economy of words. The WSJ reproduces this passage from Satomi Nakamura’s “To Love You Again”:

Kin Kon Kan Kon (sound of school bell ringing)
The school bell rang
“Sigh. We’re missing class”
She said with an annoyed expression.

This novel clocks in at 200 pages, and was written entirely with Nakamura’s thumb!
About seven years ago, some of these works started making their way into print, initially through self-publishing websites like Maho i-Land. But the popularity of mobile novels soon caught the attention of mainstream publishers and numerous titles have been made into bona fide hits in print, some selling into the millions, with film adaptations, the whole bit.
But if any industry lesson can be taken from this mini case study of Japanese cellphone fic, it’s not the potential for crossover into print, but that emergent electronic literary forms will most likely find their economic model in services and subscriptions rather than in the sale of copies. The WSJ article suggests that the mobile lit genre exploded in Japan in no small part due to recent changes in service options from cellular providers.

About three years ago, phone companies began offering high-speed mobile Internet and affordable flat-rate plans for transmitting data. Users could then access the Internet as much as they wanted to for less than $50 a month.
The now-bustling Maho i-Land has six million members, and the number of mobile novels on its site has jumped, to more than a million today from about 300,000 before the flat-rate plans cut phone bills in half. According to industrywide data cited by Japan’s largest cellphone operator NTT DoCoMo Inc., sales from mobile-book and comic-book services are expected to more than double, to more than $200 million from about $90 million last year.

This would suggest that at least part of the reason cellphone novels haven’t taken off here in the States is the comparatively impoverished service we get from our mobile providers, and the often extortionist rates we pay. True, the mobile lit genre was already a phenomenon there before the rejiggering of service plans, which suggests there were preexisting cultural conditions that led to the emergence of the form: readers’ already well developed appetites for serial comics perhaps, or the peculiar intensity of keitai fetishism. In other words, improved telcom services in the States wouldn’t necessarily translate into a proliferation of cellphone novels, but other mobile media services would undoubtedly start to flourish. Broadband internet access is also pathetically slow in the US compared to countries in Europe and East Asia – ?the Japanese get service eight to 30 times faster than what we get over here. What other new media forms are being stifled by the crappiness of our connections?

microlit looms large

We’ve been hearing more and more about the phenomenon of books downloaded to a cell phone screen, so much so that even the mainstream press has been talking about a resurgence of e-books – a topic they almost entirely dropped after the efforts of Microsoft and Gemstar failed to take off a couple years back. And people are doing more than simply reading books on their phones – they can surf the web, watch soap operas and, of course, play video games as they throttle through the subway or break for lunch.
Perhaps most interesting is that while many cell phone readers are downloading conventional print texts – novels, popular nonfiction etc. – there are many more, especially in Asia, who are downloading literature that is being written exclusively for this new medium, particularly serialized novels. These stories are intended for bite-sized consumption, peppered throughout the day, week or month. And they often employ the new technology as literary device – SMS romances, mysteries spun from a single errant text message. Once again, the medium proves to be the message..
It’s hard to tell where this is going, but it’s certainly more interesting than the prefab model promoted in the first generation of e-books. There is something totally original, totally native, about this new wave of digital reading.
Take a look at this piece from yesterday’s New York Times…