phone novels and the future of literary fiction

When I was in the USA a few months back, the only novels I saw anyone reading were  so-called ‘street fiction’. The Library Journal notes:

One of the hottest literary phenomena of recent years has been the explosion of what has been variously termed hip-hop, street, or urban fiction. Especially popular with younger African Americans, books in this genre are reaching an increasingly broad readership through ties to hip-hop music and culture. These crime stories generally revolve around the often tragic choices and journeys of young women and men drawn by the lure of easy money into drugs, prostitution, and the thug life. Street lit readers place a high premium on authenticity, and many of the genre’s writers have firsthand experience of the gangsta life, not a few starting their writing careers as a way of coping while in prison and a means of going legit once they get out.

There is often plenty of glamour amidst the grit, however, and if the genre can be traced back to the bleak, autobiographical ghetto novels of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, they are also the progeny of the materialistic sex-and-shopping novels of Jackie Collins and the bravura crime family sagas of Mario Puzo. Characterized by badass attitude and rendered in the evolving language of the streets, these high-stakes dramas offer plenty of explicit sex and frequent violence. As a reviewer at put it, “The three things most commonly exchanged by [the genre’s] characters are profanities, gunfire and bodily fluids.”

The New York Times also covers the way libraries have embraced the genre, while there’s a more general discussion  in Salon. I don’t know much about the books themselves but there was something inherently exciting seeing people crowding around street stalls selling books with an enthusiasm that you just wouldn’t find at most literary book launches in Australia.

The March edition of Overland will contain a survey of publishers, writers and editors’ expectations about the Australian publishing industry. It’s surprisingly upbeat, actually, which is fantastic, since in the US, most assessments of the industry’s immediate future are almost apocalyptic.

Here’s the New York Times:

Book publishers and booksellers are full of foreboding — even more than usual for an industry that’s been anticipating its demise since the advent of television. The holiday season that just ended is likely to have been one of the worst in decades. Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

In the Nation, Tom Engelhardt writes:

A friend (and author) called me recently after visiting a large bookstore in Northern California and, his voice suitably hushed, told me that, on a weekday, he had been the only customer in sight. That’s typical of the nightmarish tales about traffic in bookstores and book sales now ripping through my world as 2008 ends.

So it goes, the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said.

Publishing houses are certainly bleeding, and those that haven’t yet started to take staff and books out to the woodshed, ax in hand, are going after end-of-the-year bonuses, raises and who knows what else, while management girds its loins for “the inevitable.” After all, in malls across America, the chain bookstores are getting mauled (just like other retailers). Traffic at many bookstores nationwide has evidently slowed to a trickle. Book orders have reportedly fallen off a cliff. It’s now being said that, in this Christmas season, no popular book is selling so well as to be unavailable. In other words, if you want it, it’s going to be at your local Barnes & Noble. For publishing, that’s like an obituary.

In such a context, the rise of a new sort of literature reaching a different kind of audience can, presumably, only be a good thing.

I say ‘presumably’ by way of introduction to a phenomenon about which I feel much more ambivalent. The current New Yorker carries an article about Japanese ‘phone novels’:

The cell-phone novel, or keitai shosetsu, is the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age. For a new form, it is remarkably robust. Maho i-Land, which is the largest cell-phone-novel site, carries more than a million titles, most of them by amateurs writing under screen handles, and all available for free. According to the figures provided by the company, the site, which also offers templates for blogs and home pages, is visited three and a half billion times a month. In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease. The novels are set in the provinces—the undifferentiated swaths of rice fields, chain stores, and fast-food restaurants that are everywhere Tokyo is not—and the characters tend to be middle and lower middle class. Specifically, they are Yankees, a term with obscure linguistic origins (having something to do with nineteen-fifties America and greaser style) which connotes rebellious truants—the boys on motorcycles, the girls in jersey dresses, with bleached hair and rhinestone-encrusted mobile phones. [snip]

As an online phenomenon, the novelists were an overlooked subculture, albeit a substantial one. Crossing into print changed that. “In terms of numbers, the fact that the Web had many millions of people accessing and a great number reading is amazing, but the world didn’t know whether to praise that or not,” Satovi Yoshida, an executive at a cell-phone technology company, said. “With the awful state of publishing, to sell a hundred thousand copies is a big deal. For a previously unpublished, completely unknown author to sell two million copies—that got everyone’s attention.” [snip]

For young Japanese, and especially for girls, cell phones—sophisticated, cheap, and, for the past decade, capable of connecting to the Internet—have filled the gap. A government survey conducted last year concluded that eighty-two per cent of those between the ages of ten and twenty-nine use cell phones, and it is hard to overstate the utter absorption of the populace in the intimate portable worlds that these phones represent. A generation is growing up using their phones to shop, surf, play video games, and watch live TV, on Web sites specially designed for the mobile phone. “It used to be you would get on the train with junior-high-school girls and it would be noisy as hell with all their chatting,” Yumiko Sugiura, a journalist who writes about Japanese youth culture, told me. “Now it’s very quiet—just the little tapping of thumbs.”[snip]

On a Japanese cell phone, you type the syllables of hiragana and katakana, and the phone suggests kanji from a list of words you use most frequently. Unlike working in longhand, which requires that an author know the complex strokes for several thousand kanji, and execute them well, writing on a cell phone lowers the barrier for a would-be novelist. The novels are correspondingly easy to read—most would pose no challenge to a ten-year-old—with short lines, simple words, and a repetitive vocabulary. Much of the writing is hiragana, and there is ample blank space to give the eyes a rest. “You’re not trying to pack the screen,” a cell-phone novelist named Rin told me. (Her name, as it happens, actually was borrowed from a dog: her best friend’s Chihuahua.) “You’re changing the line in the middle of sentences, so where you cut the sentence is an essential part. If you’ve got a very quiet scene, you use a lot more of those returns and spaces. When a couple is fighting, you’ll cram the words together and make the screen very crowded.” Quick and slangy, and filled with emoticons and dialogue, the stories have a tossed-off, spoken feel. Satoko Kan, the literature professor, said, “This is the average, ordinary girl talking to herself, the mumblings of her heart.”

The Japanese publishing industry, which shrunk by more than twenty per cent over the past eleven years, has embraced cell-phone books. “Everyone is desperately trying to pursue that lifeboat,” one analyst told me. Even established publishers have started hiring professionals to write for the market, distributing stories serially (often for a fee) on their own Web sites before bringing them out in print. In 2007, ninety-eight cell-phone novels were published. Miraculously, books have become cool accessories. “The cell-phone novel is an extreme success story of how social networks are used to build a product and launch it,” Yoshida, the technology executive, says. “It’s a group effort. Your fans support you and encourage you in the process of creating work—they help build the work. Then they buy the book to reaffirm their relationship to it in the first place.” In October, the cover of Popteen, a magazine aimed at adolescent girls, featured a teenybopper with rhinestone necklaces and pink lipstick and an electric guitar strapped to her chest, wearing a pin that said, “I’d rather be reading.”

There’s something intuitively reactionary about narratives about the decline of popular culture. After all, the same things were said about the early phases of almost any popular genre. Jazz – a music that’s now celebrated for its complexity and aesthetic richness – was, of course, originally dismissed as the wild jungle noise. Certainly, there’s a sense in which the phone novel manifests the intense creativity of ordinary people, turning an everyday object like a telephone into a way to make art.

All the same, you do wonder about whether literary publishing can survive solely by chasing every new development. At some point, one would think, it has to indentify what the literary novel does well — and then find some way to make that relevant to a broader segment of the population.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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