The Novel on Your Nokia

Welcome to the age of cell phone literature. Barry Yourgrau, a key player in the movement, talks about the stories he text messages 350 words at a time.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Oh, he's still - I said we'd talk about it later. He's still talking about…

TOURE, host:

I thought later was this.

Last week, Hillary Clinton told Tyra Banks the two greatest inventions of the last century are the phone and the headband, but she's wrong. The phone is way better, especially the cell phone. You can watch a movie on your phone, surf the Web, listen to music, play games, microwave popcorn.

STEWART: What phone do you have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: And you could even make phone calls. And now, you can read and write literature. I'm not sure this is the medium that Nabokov would use if he were here today, but five of the 10 best-selling novels in Japan right now were originally written on cell phones and meant to be read on them. They're called keitai novels. Barry Yourgrau started writing keitai literature for cell phones after a 2002 trip to Japan, getting in on the phenomenon early. He's on the line with us from Madrid - quite a world traveler. Your passport must be beautiful, Barry.

Mr. BARRY YOURGRAU (Writer): It is. It's nice and thick and dirty.

TOURE: There you go. So you're writing 350-word stories meant to be read on a cell phone. How is it different writing for a cell phone than other sorts of fiction?

Mr. YOURGRAU: You know, it really isn't. You just have to have this, you know, you have to really write short - at least that was my idea. So all you do is you just make it even, you know, you make it even tighter. There's a wonderful remark I like to quote from Kafka, who said when he wrote someone a letter, and he said, "I apologize for the length of this letter. If I had more time, it would be shorter."

TOURE: That's brilliant.

Mr. YOURGRAU: And in many ways, it's amazing what you can do when you cut, cut, cut. Because what you discover is you're actually working with the readers' imagination in the same magical way that, say, radio plays or radio opens a world inside a person's head. The same way, you know, if you write really short and you hit the right buttons, the person's - the reader's imagination does a lot of the work for you.

TOURE: Let's have you read one of your stories. Give us "Houndstooth."

Mr. YOURGRAU: Yeah. I tell you what - and "Houndstooth" - one of the things is I'm not Japanese. I love Japan, and my books are nicely done there. When I wrote this book, I had to - I wanted to make it Japan-specific since it will be read by Japanese people. So one of the things I did was I checked out trends on the Internet, and one of the trends they had there was Burberry, was a big fashion thing. So I wrote kind of a reference to that for Japanese young readers, and this one is called "Houndstooth." And I had to make all my - I decided to make all my opening sentences of my stories under - 12 words under, because that's the amount that would fit on a cell phone screen at once. So this is called "Houndstooth."

(Reading) "A girl named Keri, so cool and full of fun you'd want her for your friend, suddenly becomes ill. She lies in bed wasting away. Ominous black-and-white patterned marks appear on her skin. The terrible diagnosis is made: houndstooth-check poisoning."

"More than the others, Keri went overboard for this new craze for houndstooth, murmurs the doctor. And it will cost her her young life. He shows her distraught parents the X-rays: houndstooth has invaded Keri's bodily tissues, her vital inner organs. Soon, even her big, blue eyeballs will be houndstooth. Her parents clutch each other, wailing."

"At home, the tragic girl sighs through her houndstooth-checked lips, on her houndstooth pillow, under her houndstooth sheets, by her houndstooth-papered wall, under her houndstooth-decorated ceiling. Houndstooth curtains stir in the window, trendy in their deadly way. Keri's friends gather around her bed, somber at the fate of one who will die simply from being so devoted to style."

"The silly thing is, houndstooth isn't really cool anymore, mutters a buddy of Keri's younger brother, who happens to be visiting. This remark provokes outrage. The buddy is forced to apologize, before being banished from the room. But he knows he's right. Corduroy is the new coolest thing. Just ask him. Or go after him and pry a look under the big bandage on his neck, where the first fatal corduroy markings have already appeared."

And that's the "Houndstooth."

TOURE: Wow.

STEWART: Scary. Very scary.

Mr. YOURGRAU: Heavy duty, huh?

TOURE: Very "Devil's Wear Prada."

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Death by Prada.

Mr. YOURGRAU: The "Devil's Wear Prada," and we all die. First, you wear Prada, and then you die.

STEWART: Die.

Mr. YOURGRAU: Anyway, so I had…

TOURE: Why…

Mr. YOURGRAU: …great fun with that, and I did like some stories on like "Karaoke." And I did a cool story on - if I may say - on manga. And I'm just researching the Cherry Blossom Festival, I did a riff on. So I had a gas, I must say.

TOURE: So why is keitai big in Japan and…

Mr. YOURGRAU: Keitai. Keitai.

TOURE: Excuse me. Keitai. Why is…

Mr. YOURGRAU: No, no, that's all right. You've transferred, I understand. Why is it big in Japan?

TOURE: And could it come to America?

Mr. YOURGRAU: Sure. I tell you what it is. The thing is this: in Japan most people connect through the Internet over cell phones, not through computers. The reason is many kids especially - and I mean, whatever - connect to, you know, via at the space in the bedrooms or whatever to go onto the Internet. But in Japan, I think landlines are a little expensive. And there isn't privacy at home, so people go out. They don't spend a lot of time at home. And so they've developed this immense technology that - Japanese being so techno-crazed, anyway - and all through Asia, too. Everyone connects - you know, uses these developed cell phone technologies.

Whereas here in America, even though this stuff is starting to pick up, there's - there isn't that need - you know, people use their laptops and so on. So people expected the technology to take off. I think it's called G3 technology, and it's been much slower developing here, but it's coming. I think it really is coming as people - you know - video, I think, is one of the things that's leading the way. And I think this stuff will inevitably follow into it.

TOURE: Why is the publishing establishment in Japan not liking keitai novels - keitai novels, you know, especially when…

Mr. YOURGRAU: Because they figure that - because they're - especially when, what? So many of them are being sold?

TOURE: Especially when five of the 10 best-sellers in Japan started out as cell-phone novels, so if it's selling…

Mr. YOURGRAU: Because a lot of it is - a lot of the resistance is not from the publishers, although there is some. I mean, they're happy to sell, you know, books. Although not all the keitai stuff sells in book form, it sells hugely in, you know, over keitai, over cell phones. And then the actual book version, the great ones do monstrously. The reason is it doesn't use - it's a really kind of stripped down and can be watered down - it's a slightly starved literary style. In other words, you really are just - a lot of them are manga-derived. They use that form, which is a lot of dialogue and little indications of - it's a very stripped-down kind of storytelling. I mean, I don't write on - you know, I'm a regular - well, you know, I'm a semi-regular literary guy. But, you know, I wrote my stories by pencil longhand, and I, you know, put them - I type them up. But there are people there who are writing 200-page books, you know, on the key pads of their cell phones.

TOURE: Wow.

Mr. YOURGRAU: You know, and so there's actually a lot of resentment that people feel that regular literature is being sort of pushed over to the side, and everyone is just so hot for these because they sell monstrously.

Barry Yourgrau is the author of "I-mode Keitai Stories," first released for cell phones, and now a real book. Also, the boyfriend of Anya von Bremzen, who's going to talk to us in a few minutes, right?

Mr. YOURGRAU: Absolutely. I believe so.

TOURE: Thank you.

Mr. YOURGRAU: It's been a pleasure.

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