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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Just launched... SMS novel! What next?

Chinese author gives new meaning to phone book

Qian Fuzhang's SMS novel sent to cellphones in 2 daily instalments, 70 characters each time
SHANGHAI - As a critically acclaimed writer of dense, doorstop-size novels, Qian Fuzhang said he has finally developed a guilty conscience.

Moreover, as a writer in a country that tends not to pay its authors well, he faces a challenge familiar to writers everywhere: how to make a living cranking out prose.
Now, at the age of 42, Qian, whose inventive, imagery-laden work has been compared here to Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, thinks he has found a solution to both problems.

The author's answer, entitled Out Of The Fortress, showed up on tens of thousands of mobile phone screens last week.

It is the short-message novel, a new literary genre for the harried masses in a society that seems to be redefining what it means to be harried.

Weighing in at a mere 4,200 words, Out Of The Fortress is like a marriage between haiku and Hemingway, and will be published for its audience of cellphone readers at a bite-sized 70 characters at a time - including spaces and punctuation marks - in two daily instalments.
Other 'readers' may choose to call the 'publisher',, a short-message distribution company, to listen to a recording of each day's story as it unfolds. All this for a small fee charged, like any text message, directly to the reader's mobile phone account.

Qian, whose real name is He Xingnian, said in an interview: 'In this age, with a flood of information, I thought it was cruel to force readers to wrestle with a 200,000-word book.'
Out Of The Fortress made its debut last Friday.

The first words paraphrase a famous literary passage from another author, Zhang Ailing, a coded message between two lovers arranging their secret rendezvous: 'Meet the one you met for thousands of years, in the borderless wilderness of the time, neither a step before nor a step behind. Be there right on time.'

The idea of publishing his book by phone evolved naturally, said Mr He, a native of Inner Mongolia who now lives in the southern city of Guangzhou. Asked to describe the novel in 70 words or less, he failed woefully, speaking for several minutes before being told he had exceeded his word limit.

'The word 'fortress' is a metaphor for marriage in Chinese,' he said. 'People on the inside want to get out. People on the outside want to get in, meaning having extramarital affairs.
'My book is about two people who have a passionate affair, which is not supported by morality or law, but is very understandable.'

If his explanation of his book's theme ran on a bit, his timing of its publication is impeccable, when e-mail has replaced old-fashioned letters only to be replaced in turn by text messages in much of the world.

With its phenomenal economic growth and huge ambitions, China is in the throes of change.
In addition to providing the usual functions, such as e-mail and Web surfing that are already commonplace in East Asia, China's mobile phone world has become the latest frontier of individual enterprise.

Self-styled comedians sell jokes to the humour-challenged. Others sell pick-up lines and romantic advice to the bashful or socially awkward, such as this pearl: 'Stop always asking your boyfriend to accompany you shopping. Men seldom like shopping and forcing it can trigger rebellion.'

So far, critics are divided on the value of the new form, with some scathing reviews that call it a cheapening of literature.

'As a linguistic art, a novel is to be read and, through reading, you savour the characters and appreciate the atmosphere,' wrote one critic, Ye Yu, in the People's Daily. 'If it's only information you're after, reading news is better. The speed of communication shouldn't overwhelm the feeling one gets from reading novels.' Mr He denied that he writes banalities.

'Of course, the storytelling is different from the traditional novel because the technology allows only 70 words per message, and limiting yourself to that length is very challenging,' he said.
'One might ask: 'Can you attain the same literary depth?' 'But I don't think literary merit is decided by the number of characters. Poems in the Song dynasty had few words but were very deep.' -- The New York Times


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