What is the cell phone novel?

In 2008, Figment’s co-founder Dana Goodyear wrote an article in The New Yorker about a phenomenon that was changing the face of Japan’s literary world: the cell phone novel.

“The cell-phone novel, or keitai shosetsu, is the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” Dana wrote. “The medium—unfiltered, unedited—is revolutionary, opening the closed ranks of the literary world to anyone who owns a mobile phone.”

Beginning in 2000, writers began composing short chapter novels on their cell phones. By 2006, they were sharing cell phone novels on social networks, and gathering millions of readers. The most popular of these stories were then turned into physical books, which sold millions of copies and earned top spots on Japanese bestseller lists.

Dana’s article received an overwhelming response from publishers, writers, and editors, all of whom were all hungry to see what changes the “digital age” would bring to the book publishing world. In fact, so many people were curious about the cell phone novel that she wondered: “Could we could replicate this community of readers and writers in America?” And that was how the idea for Figment was born.

Satoshi Takatsu is a cell phone novelist who is the author of the most popular English-language cell phone novel in North America, Secondhand Memories. We talked this week about what made cell phone novels so compelling, and why he thought they might gain traction in America.

“What is so attractive for readers about cell phone novels is that they are in short chapters, written on an ongoing basis like a continuing tv series, keeping readers craving for more, emphasizing dialogue, emotions, and drama,” Takatsu says.

According to many of its writers and readers, the format is also compelling because it enables an enormous community of readers to engage with the author in the story’s unfolding.

“The one thing that cell phone novels offer, that poetry and conventional prose can’t, is the deep level of interaction between author and readers,” Matthew Reeves, cell phone novelist and author of the popular Once Upon A Christmas Wish, told me. “The comments, advice and ideas given by those reading can help influence a story’s direction.”

So what exactly is a cell phone novel? What does it look like? How do you write one?

Takatsu says that the cell phone novel can be defined simply as “ongoing serial literature designed with cell phone screens in mind.” This impacts both the length of the chapter (which is usually less than 200 words) and the “width” of the chapters, or length of the sentences. There is much greater attention to line breaks, and each line is often composed of descriptive sentence fragments or simple lines of dialogue.

Here is an excerpt of Takatsu’s cell phone novel, Secondhand Memories:

I watched with weary eyes
as he got up and ran,
sprinting down the street,
sidewalk squares rising up
like a coming tide,
cement stretching between us,
shifting and slipping him away,
faster than ever.

Down the street he went,
past a grove of trees,
weaving around an elderly man,
behind cinder block walls,
and rickety Japanese houses.

He ran and ran.
Going, going, gone.

He was the one running now.

But I would never forget the look on his face.
That last glance of hatred in his eyes.

Takatsu believes the English cell phone novel is being influenced by many different art forms. Chapters often have the lingering emotional impact of poetry while maintaining the flexibility and continuity of prose.

“This is truly…a new form of art,” he describes. “Each word is emphasized. The omitted words become access points to deeper interpretations and the subconscious; every fragment, phrase or sentence is a cliffhanger in itself….Every element carries such importance to the way it will read, flow and what it’ll mean for a reader.”

Interestingly enough, this is what makes it particularly suited for young writers and readers. Young readers are drawn to the shorter, simpler, and yet more emotionally evocative stories; young writers like the idea of writing bite-sized chapters, frequently on the go. This certainly doesn’t mean writing cell phone novels is easy. “Writers have only several hundred or more words each section in order to wow their audience,” Matthew Reeves says. “This can be a source of both pleasure and pain….It forces a writer to have to be more creative.”

A Japanese cell phone novel

Can cell phone novels become popular in North America? There are certainly strong indicators that it can: Japanese cell phone technology and habits have often foreshadowed those in North America. E-book and mobile reading is swiftly gaining popularity, and e-book sales have overtaken physical book sales at Amazon. American (and especially American teens) are spending more time on their cell phones than ever. And although Figment isn’t exclusively for cell phone novels, the phenomenon was powerful enough to inspire a website optimized for online and mobile serialization, was it not?

Do you think Americans are ready to write and read novels on or for their cell phones? Feel free to tell us your thoughts.

Many thanks to Matthew Reeves and Satoshi Takatsu for contributing to this post. If you’re interested in reading more cell phone novels, check out stories tagged as cell phone novels on Figment or these others that Takatsu and Matt recommend: Star Catcher, The Luzhang Bridges, and The Strongest Bond on textnovel.com.

10 thoughts on “What is the cell phone novel?

  1. It might just be me, but I’m not a huge fan of cell phone novels. They strike me as rather ADD, and the only successful cell phone novels are the emotional ones. It’s designed for fairly unliterate teenage girls who love their cell phones. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good cell phone novels out there, but I hope it will evolve into something less… Girly? They’re just so overly emotional.

    • Thanks for the feature figment! Great to be able to share about cell phone novels here.

      I do agree most Japanese cell phone novels are quite focused on the emotions and sound “girly” however, that was only during the beginning stages of our North American movement. The excerpt is in the beginning of my novel. I was the first cell phone novelist in NA, so in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing, i just simply copied Japanese novels, however later on in my novel (after one third of my novel) I began to develop my own style and it became more of poetry and art rather than more drama-based narration. Most of the cell phone novelists began to evolve the style and we have been working at it for two years, so a lot happened! I do hope you check out how it changed throughout and some of the later novels we see, for example Luzhang Bridges or other more sophisticated pieces! 🙂

    • I’m going to guess you are referring to Japanese authored cell phone novels. Though the movement began based on novels written about steamy tragic romances, the cell phone novel genre is anything but based on the female demographic, even if in previous years they have leaned in that direction. The first cell phone novelist was a man named Yoshi. The top two cell phone novelists in North America are guys. Even in Japan, the genre has been growing into the fantasy, mystery, scifi, etc. genres. Cell phone novels are growing more diverse all the time.

      I’d also like to point out that according to a newspaper survey in Japan, it showed that about over three quarters of Japanese high school boys and girls read cell phone novels. And a bit less than that amount in Middle School also read them. So I think it’s safe to say that they are proving popular for more than just unliterate teenage girls. Also, most of those who get their novels published and successful are usually over 20.

      There are certainly a number of badly written cell phone novels in both Japan and America. But the same can be said for regular prose and such.

      Also, I hope you don’t think that my own cell phone novels are ….. girly. >_< lol

      But getting serious again, I do hope you will continue to check out the genre. It's getting more diverse all the time.

      -Matt 😉

  2. I think that only some cell phone novels have the potential to be successful, but I’m all for the idea of writing novels while on the go with a cell phone. The typical cell phone novel might be the best story ever written, but I think they could definitely improve! 🙂

  3. holy shiznit
    i failllled
    lol. i think i’ll redo my own and make it an actual cell phone novel, not just some normal story with short chapters.
    this was actually really helpful. thanksomuch 😀

  4. I’m currently working on a cell phone novel that isn’t “girly” or too romance related, called Miso and another one called Masked, on TextNovel. I’ve seen a few cell phone novels which aren’t “girly” so you could check those out too?

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