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IN JAPAN THE RISE OF THE M-BOOK OR CELL PHONE NOVEL (KEITAI SHOSETSU) HAS REACHED STRATOSPHERIC HEIGHTS. MOBILE SITES OFFER A RANGE OF NOVELS—POPULAR FICTION, CLASSICS AND NEWBIES—FOR DOWNLOAD IN SHORT INSTALMENTS TO BE READ ON PHONES WITHIN SPECIALLY CREATED JAVA APPLICATIONS. THE POPULAR SITE MAHO NO I-RANDO (MAGIC ISLAND, JAPANESE ONLY: HTTP://COMPANY.MAHO.JP/NOVEL/INDEX.HTML) HAS OVER A MILLION TITLES, 3.5 BILLION VISITORS PER MONTH AND 6 MILLION REGISTERED USERS; ALL NOVELS ARE FREE TO DOWNLOAD AND MOST ARE WRITTEN BY AMATEURS.

Cell phone novels are not just read on mobiles, they’re written on them too, thousands of words entered with thumbs on a tiny keypad, uploaded to sites where they are voraciously consumed, especially by young women in their late teens and early 20s. By 2007 half of Japan’s 10 best-selling novels were written on cell phones (“Cell phone stories writing new chapter in print publishing’, CNN.com, Feb 26, 2009, www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/02/25/japan.mobilenovels/index.html).

Popular topics include sex, teen relationships, rape, drugs and violence. One of the most successful writers has been Yoshi, whose Deep Love series about a teenager who becomes a prostitute, was so popular it became a movie, TV show and manga, then a published novel (on paper!), selling 2.6 million copies. With statistics each day telling him how often his stories are being downloaded, Yoshi can change his tack if interest is waning: “It’s like playing music at a club...You know right away if the audience isn’t responding and you can change what you’re doing right then and there” (“Cell Phones Put to Novel Use”, Wired Magazine online, May 18, 2005, www.wired.com/gadgets/miscellaneous/news/2005/03/66950).

Australians have been slow to take up the idea of reading online fiction or hypertext in its myriad forms. But along comes Marieke Hardy and, with help from Melbourne’s Age newspaper, she delivers TextTales, subheaded Vigilante Virgin, hyped as an m-book where you pay 55 cents a chapter for 20 instalments over a number of months. Hardy comes from good literary stock. The granddaughter of Frank Hardy, she is Jennifer Byrne’s regular sidekick on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. She has previously written a phenomenally successful blog, Reasons You Will Hate Me, and the award-winning children’s TV series Short Cuts. She has also dabbled in another emerging genre, erotic fan fiction (where writers imagine sexual dalliances with their favourite stars or fictional characters).

Signing up to TextTales is a strange way to experience fiction. After sending a text message saying you are keen to subscribe, and a ‘yes’ to confirm, you are sent a series of texts with links, beeping at 7am, telling you the latest chapter is available to read. Clicking on the link takes you to a URL where the text is downloaded onto your mobile screen. It’s not quite what I envisaged an m-book to be, especially as you can just type the URL into your laptop and see the text online anyway. And also, given you are a paid subscriber, something of a cheat, because you are sent the same URL each time, meaning you are paying 55 cents a time essentially for returning to the same place. Cutting through the hype, blogger Adam Ford observes that rather than being the first Australian m-book it’s more “the first password-protected Australian-authored online-story-in-instalments accessible via mobile-phone-delivered subscription” (Adam Ford, http://theotheradamford.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/whats-so-great-about-being-first-anyway/).

Just as important, Hardy’s text, while nicely characterised, occasionally hilarious and with a topical subject matter (the return of a paedophile into a residential community, with the media waiting outside his house) doesn’t have the necessary momentum to work in such short instalments. With such a text you need to be left hanging on, dying to see what happens next—a screen grabber, perhaps? The text just doesn’t have the right amount of impact. And Hardy is pretty tough on her downtrodden central character, Judy Bowler, not really rooting for her, responding much as the other characters in the tale do:

“The rest of her was no better, coming across like the offcuts of a particularly unpleasant piece of meat before a kindly local butcher had managed to pretty it up a smidge.”

While in a novel the reader has the luxury of gradually getting to know such a character, to engage with their moments of loneliness (as in Alan Bennett’s work where he gets inside their skin), here you struggle to care week to week whether Judy will overcome her antisocial tendencies and find friendship or understanding. And the story itself seems curiously old-fashioned for such a medium: Judy Bowler struggles to get her iPod working—she can never listen to her favourite songs.

While Hardy’s 7,000-worder might work well as a short story in a collection or zine, it represents a wasted opportunity in terms of new avenues of fiction distribution. The information-design of the text too is disappointing, with lots of scrolling through lengthy dialogue, and unnecessary clicking backwards and forwards between chapters. Marketed somewhat obscenely by the Age as “Marieke Hardy In Your Hand”, it will be interesting to see whether more TextTales will follow. The newspaper needs to rethink both the fiction and the technology, but hopefully it becomes more about encouraging creativity and innovation in new forms of writing than just another revenue stream for a paper struggling financially.


Marieke Hardy, TextTales, The Age

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 31

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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