Japanese cell phone novels (keitai shousetsu) are not for the faint of heart. In the span of just over a hundred pages, the main character in “Love Sky” (one of the most popular keitai shousetsu) falls in love, gets pregnant, gets raped by a gang who’s in league with her jealous best friend, has a miscarriage, and breaks up with her boyfriend, who then dies of cancer. That’s a lot to deal with at 16.
I first came across “Love Sky” when it was turned into a movie. It stands out in my mind as one of the few Japanese movies during which I’ve actually sobbed. Just when you think the poor girl’s life can’t get any worse, it always does — complete with the warble of violins and a breathy, tearful soprano.
When I found excerpts of “Love Sky” as a cell phone novel, it was the first time I had ever heard of keitai shousetsu. I learned that Japanese young adults — who type so much on their phones they are called “the thumb tribe” — were using their phones to write stories, then sharing them on social networks. Seemed like a hip, technophile-y thing to do.
But as I would also learn, keitai shousetsu are much more than just novels written and delivered to phones. Japanese writers like Mika, the author of “Love Sky,” used the limitation of small screen size to create an entirely new literary genre.
The first thing I noticed about “Love Sky” was that things just happen. There’s no stage setting, no scenic descriptions, no non-essential events or dialogue. The lines of text are short — often just sentence fragments followed by ellipses — and the “chapters” are less than 200 words. But like a veteran street artist, Mika captures the essence of action and character with just a few short strokes.
Cell phone novels also have the quality of spoken words. Mika is both the author and the main character in “Love Sky,” and she tells her story like she would tell it to a friend: openly, honestly, even slangly.
In fact, the intimacy that develops between the reader and writer of a cell phone novel is unlike that of any other genre. Not only is the writing style informal, but readers are actually an integral part of the story’s creation; fans reply to the author with support, encouragement, and even plot recommendations. These interactions are all a part of the experience of keitai shousetsu.
This kind of thing isn’t for everyone. Honestly, it takes some getting used to, even for someone who watches Japanese melodramas in her spare time.
But I happen to think there’s something compelling here. Young people have never stopped loving books — in fact, it could be argued that no generation has ever loved them more — but we are beginning to expect more from of our reading. When I love a story, I want to tell the author how much I liked it, talk about it with everyone I know, choose the actors that should play the main characters if it became a movie, and write cheesy spin-offs with minor characters. If I could talk to that author while the story was being written and get their story updates instantly, hot off the keyboard, I may just have a fangirl meltdown.
I don’t think that the exact model of keitai shousetsu could be copied in the English-speaking book world. I think we can come up with ways of telling and engaging with stories that no one’s ever thought of before. Because haven’t you heard? Just “reading” a book is so ten minutes ago.
(Lindsay is a writer, bibliophile, and lover of all things YA. She wants to work at Figment for the rest of her life.)