A novel, in 140 letters

The novel is now a set of tweets or SMSes that tell a story when strung together
They had met on the bridge many years ago. And then they were married and bought appliances and had kids. And then the bridge was demolished
There is drinking and flirting and then they're up in his hotel room and she rips off his shirt and he says, Man, I really liked that shirt.
Jones looked different. He was asked about his hair, his weight, his clothes. So he sent out an email to his colleagues. I'm happy, it said.

Montreal-based Arjun Basu tweets his new novel, 140 characters at a time.
He is not alone. Other successful authors and bloggers are gradually wiping away the curling-up-with-a-book image, replacing it with tweets, SMSes and blog posts that tell a tale when strung together. The journey of the novel has been a "long" one, from the thick, wordy volumes of once-upon-a-times we fondly pored over to 140-characters-at-a-time musings.

What started out as a rage in Japan, China and Korea, where SMS novels take up most of the bestseller slots, is now gaining a foothold across the globe. In Japan, most of cellphone novels were authored by young women trying to escape the drudgery of everyday life, and giving vent to a creativity that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Part autobiographical, part fiction, these tales are often revolutionary, literary escapades to break away from conventions and realities that pin them down.

Japan's first SMS novel was written by a man under the pseudonym 'Yoshi'. His Deep Love, revolving around the life of a teenaged prostitute, was published in 2003 and subsequently made into a popular television series, a comic series and finally a movie. Then came Love Sky. Written by a young woman called Mika, it was reportedly read by 20 million people on cellphones and computers before it was published as a book and made into a successful movie. The credit for getting young Japan glued to their "ketai" (cell phones) should go to Maho i-Land, the free cell phone novel site which has been read by billions over the years.

In China too, the form has caught on. So much so that the novel Out of Fortress by Quin Fuchang –the country's first cell phone novel – became an instant bestseller in the printed form.
And instead of posing a threat to publishing, cell phone or online novels have worked in its favour. After reading the works online or through cell phones, readers want to get hold of the print versions. US sites Quillpill, Textnovel and Daily Novel provide templates for writing and reading fiction on cell phones and are gaining popularity.

India, among the largest cellphone markets in the world, has also taken to the novelty. Though there are many claimants for the first cell novel, some merit mention. Cloak Room, written by Ro Gue, and using the SMS lingo, began doing the rounds in 2004.
This year, national award winning author Pinki Virani released her book Deaf Heaven as a series of SMSes made available to readers over a month. Virani told The Indian Express that she had to "recast each experience differently" to convert her 295-page book to a set of 90 SMSes and had to research before embarking on the innovation. And though the writer has been comfortable experimenting, she added, "There is nothing like the comfort of a good, solid book between covers while reading in bed."

Popular Australian blogger Marieke Hardy, who is set to be her country's first m-book writer, agrees. "I don't think the book will ever die. It just can't. Too many people my age and younger love books as I do. There is nothing more glorious than a book," Hardy was quoted as saying by The Age, for whom she writes the m-book.

The affordability of cellphones as well as its becoming an indispensable part of most people's lives has been instrumental in this form of fiction catching on. And writing and reading these novels is as much an impersonal activity (a reason why most cell phone authors use pseudonyms) as much as it is personal — the novel comes to "you" on your phone and can be read at your convenience.

Twitter too has emerged a popular platform for micro-fiction. Huffington Post writer Matt Stewart released his entire novel The French Revolution on Twitter this July. "…tweeting my novel provides the ultimate in easy sampling and information triage before purchase, the equivalent of watching a clip of a TV show before deciding to order the season on Netflix," Stewart writes in his blog. He, however, adds, "Twitter is the delivery mechanism, not the defining structure."

While Stewart wrote the book first and then made it available to readers through tweets, there are others who have serialised their works, building their novels one tweet at a time, even modifying them according to reader's responses. Nick Belardes, a TV/online journalist and successful blogger, began tweeting his novel Small Places in April 2008 and has since been read by millions across the world. There is even a Mahabharat on Twitter, narrated from Bhima's point of view by "accidental academic" Chindu Sreedharan. Booker Prize winning Norwegian writer Ben Okri tweeted his poem I sing a new freedom this March.

Like blog novels, what Twitter and cellphones have opened up are unlimited spaces, with free accessibility, and without the interference of middlemen. These forms have also made reading and writing interactive, rather a social activity. The characters are often modified to get across the right mood through the use of capitals, emoticons, smileys and different line spacing for those cliffhangers, all of which go to make a "novel" reading experience. It has also created opportunities for just anyone to write, and to upload their works at their own pace, not to mention the easy reading.

Add to these, digital libraries, e-books, the new Kindle, and the plot just thickens. So does this mean that the book will die and bibliophiles will be looked upon as aliens? And will reading be marked by the movement of your thumb and forefinger and on little shaky screens? To find out, we turn to a new chapter and read on. 

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