Sep 26

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

A mobile read (with white space)

On the anniversary of a great author, let us first stop to commemorate the work of William Faulkner.

[T]he problems of the human heart in conflict with itself . . . alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. . . . The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

-- William Faulkner, Nobel Prize in Literature, acceptance speech

And on this same day, in a tale exploring new twists of narration and story telling that I suspect Faulkner would have deeply appreciated conceptually but probably not in the current execution, the Wall St. Journal has a short essay on the growth of mobile phone-based books and stories, "... In Japan, Novelists Find a New Medium."

In Japan, the cellphone is stirring the nation's staid fiction market. Young amateur writers in their teens and 20s who long ago mastered the art of zapping off emails and blogs on their cellphones, find it a convenient medium in which to loose their creative energies and get their stuff onto the Internet. For readers, mostly teenage girls who use their phones for an increasingly wide range of activities, from writing group diaries to listening to music, the mobile novel, as the genre is called, is the latest form of entertainment on the go.

There are several really intriguing things about this form of writing. One of them is the use of space to convey meaning, almost as punctuation or the use of standardized dialogue prompts: "Many mobile novels are influenced by comic books the young writers grew up reading. That means lots of dialogue and really short paragraphs that fit nicely on a small screen. Huge empty spaces between sentences can convey that the characters are deep in thought."

I suspect we will see an increasing amount of exploration with how narrative is structured to help convey stories in different forms.

The constraints of small display screens have not implied a crippled market, as some commentators might suggest as a natural outcome. Mobile literature is booming in Japan:

Mobile novels first appeared about seven years ago when the community-based Web site, Maho i-Land, made it possible for budding writers to turn out stories with a cover page and chapters like a real book. 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.

The lesson for mobile phone operators - Google (potentially), Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T in the U.S. - could not be more pointed.

The strong connections generated between authors and readers through the Maho i-Land site offers rather compelling lessons for publishers as well. The WSJ journal notes that authors appreciate receiving direct feedback from their readers - feedback that often provides critical commentary, and which the authors use to adjust their stories.

Another point of interest is the capacity for cross-over products and a diversity of marketing opportunities:

The novels with the most online readers also tend to sell well in the bookstores. Starts Publishing Corp., a small Tokyo publisher, was one of the first to take advantage of the mobile-novel genre when a Chaco [a Japanese writer] fan called up and begged the company to turn her favorite story into a book. It sold 440,000 copies. Starts and a few other firms have turned more than two dozen of the most heavily accessed stories on Maho i-Land into printed books selling for about $9 each.

While the WSJ notes that this literature is rough (thus my early disparagement from a Faulknerian perspective), authors tend to become more skillful in their artful constructions as they gain practice with the medium.

That is in some ways the most powerful implicit message of this story. New creative practices sometimes awkwardly explore new market niches until they discover and establish a means of exploiting the advantages (and avoiding the disadvantages) imposed by the social and economic variables that make the new opportunity available in the first place. Then they may explode in a sudden flowering that breathes into life a new form of expression.

tags: publishing  | comments: 2   | Sphere It

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Comments: 2

  monopole [09.27.07 01:46 PM]

Many mobile novels are influenced by comic books the young writers grew up reading.

Actually, manga is read by most age groups. It is good to see that people are recognizing the power of manga's dense but economical style. Anybody who has read Deathnote will understand how much can be done with a small amount of text. Of course the western world has folks like Warren Ellis who can pack more into a single comic than many 1,000 page novels. Check out Planetary #21:Death Machine Telemetry for proof, in the 20 or so pages he discusses nanotech, Feynman, The Delphic Oracle (and the nature of the fumes), Huxley, the Kabbalah, and Quantum Mechanics, tying it all into one neat package.

  Wiktor Sarota [02.13.08 12:59 PM]

In Poland we are waiting for really mobilephone-internet. Now cost a lot of money. Some interactive agency got a subject and tried to sell clients idea about mobile-internet, but we've got problem with small number of users and it does cost alot by data conection from mobile-phone.

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