Cell Phone Novels: 140 Characters at a Time

By Clark, Ruth Cox | Young Adult Library Services, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Cell Phone Novels: 140 Characters at a Time


Clark, Ruth Cox, Young Adult Library Services


Everywhere you look teens have cell phones or a Bluetooth attached to their ear. So it is no surprise that U.S. teen cell phone subscribers in 2007 numbered more than 16 million. (1) In addition, Jacqueline Lane, at the YPulse 2008 Mashup, a conference on teens and technology, reported that 84 percent of teens ages fourteen to eighteen have access to a cell phone and 80 percent of these teens use it daily. (2) A survey done in Britain found that "a majority of 16- to 24-year-olds would rather give up tea, coffee, alcohol, chocolate or sex rather than live without their cell phone for a month. (3) Clearly, professionals who work with teens cannot ignore this high level cell phone usage.

Ingenious Japanese Teens

Although American teens are avid cell phone users, Japanese teens have had earlier access to advanced cell phone technology. They also deal with crowded public transportation, with passengers crammed so closely together that it is impossible to open a book. Ingeniously, commuting Japanese teens who wanted to read began to read on their cell phones. Japanese cell phone companies have been streaming literary classics onto cell phones as early as 2003. (4) But, as we know, many teens are not interested in reading the classics. They want to read books that relate to their present-day lives. With commuting time on their hands, along with an ever-present cell phone, Japanese teens began authoring their own cell phone novels, posting them in installments to free websites where others can read and offer input as the story is being written.

Defining a Cell Phone Novel

What exactly is a cell phone novel? Lisa Katayman defines the Japanese cell phone novel as containing "between 200 and 500 pages, with each page containing about 500 Japanese characters." (5) An English language cell phone screen, or page, is 140 characters. Cell phone novels are predominantly dialogue, very much like a graphic novel, but without the illustrations. Justin Norrie describes them this way:

   They are written by first-time writers,
   using one-name pseudonyms,
   for an audience of young female
   readers.... The stories traverse
   teen romance, sex, drugs and other
   adolescent terrain in a succession of
   clipped one-liners, emoticons, and
   spaces (used to show that a character
   is thinking), all of which can be
   read easily on a mobile phone interface.
   Scene and character development
   are notably missing. (6)

They often deal with themes that high school girls are interested in and are set in everyday locations such as school, home, or places teens socialize. There are more than 2,400 Japanese cell phone novels to choose from, mostly written by young women in their teens and early twenties. Not surprisingly, "more than half of the readers [of cell phone novels in Japan] are females." (7)

Top Ten Bestsellers

Five of Japan's 2007 top ten bestselling books began as cell phone novels. Rin wrote If You, one of the bestsellers, when she was a senior in high school, while commuting to her part-time job. She is now a nursery school teacher and still writing cell phone novels, often falling asleep with her phone in her hand. (8) Rin uploaded her debut novel to a popular website for would-be authors, Maho no i-rando, which allows readers to comment on each installment, thus creating a venue for ongoing conversations among members of a community of readers and writers. The number of novels on this site now exceeds one million. (9) Rin admits she had never written anything other than text and instant messages prior to her cell phone novel. Nevertheless, her novel, full of emoticons, published as a 142-page hardcover book, sold more than 400,000 copies as of early 2008. (10)

Writing and Reading as Social Events

Cell phone novel writing and reading is a social event. In a January 2008 posting to his Computer World blog, Mike Elgan noted that the authors of cell phone novels are using an "available publishing technology to have a dialog--not a monologue--with their peers. …

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