September 11, 2004
The Novel's Latest Version Pops Onto China's Cellphones
HANGHAI, Sept. 10 - As a critically acclaimed writer of dense, doorstop-size novels, Qian Fuzhang said he had finally developed a guilty conscience.
Moreover, as a writer in a country that tends not to pay its authors very well, he faced a challenge immediately familiar to writers everywhere: how to make a living cranking out prose.
Now, at 42, the author, whose real name is He Xingnian, and whose highly inventive, imagery-laden work has earned him comparisons here to Gabriel García Márquez, thinks he has found a solution to both problems.
The author's answer, titled "Out of the Fortress," showed up on tens of thousands of mobile telephone screens on Friday. It is the text-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 characters, "Out of the Fortress" is like a marriage of haiku and Hemingway, and will be published for its audience of cellphone readers at a bite-size, 70 characters at a time - including spaces and punctuation marks - in two daily installments. Other "readers" may choose to place a call to the "publisher," hurray.com.cn, a short text-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 readers' mobile phone accounts.
"When I worked in advertising, I learned to think for the customers, and as a writer, I have learned to think for the readers," Mr. He said in a telephone interview on Friday. "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 at 10 o'clock this morning. The first words paraphrased 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 telephone evolved naturally, said Mr. He, a native of Inner Mongolia who now resides in the southern city of Guangzhou. "My last book, 'Red Horse,' was published on Sina.com in installments, and I found it very comfortable to read it online," he said. "I thought with the change of technology there could be new ways of reading, and then I thought of my cellphone, because I am a huge cellphone fan. It has become an indispensable electronic organ for me."
His mobile telephone will become an important source of income, too. With the publication of "Out of the Fortress," Mr. He has become a media star, with more than 100 journalists interviewing him recently. Mr. He said he had received an advance of 180,000 Chinese yuan, or more than $20,000, for the book from hurray.com.cn. Another company in Taiwan has offered him an even larger sum for the publishing rights there.
Asked to describe the novel in 70 words or less, Mr. He failed woefully, speaking for several minutes before being informed he had exceeded his word limit. "The word fortress is a metaphor for marriage in Chinese," Mr. He said, among many other things. "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 Mr. He's explanation of his book's theme ran on a bit, his timing 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. Many of the urban landscapes here were not even blueprints a decade ago, and the zeitgeist seems to be, "Why bother with itsy-bitsy evolutionary steps when you can build something new altogether?"
Though others will dispute whether he truly invented the short-message novel form, Mr. He had an understanding of how fast cellphones are changing life here, and a keen grasp of marketing.
Besides the usual functions, like e-mail, Web surfing, restaurant reservations, dating and global positioning-aided directions and maps for the lost 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 humor-challenged. Others sell pickup lines and romantic advice to the bashful or socially awkward, like this pearl: "Stop always asking your boyfriend to accompany you shopping. Men seldom like shopping, and forcing it can trigger rebellion." There is even a cellphone service offering advice to those who are clueless about contraception, or perhaps too embarrassed to see a doctor in person.
Indeed, another author, a Beijing television and radio personality, Dai Pengfei, claims to have published a text-message novel a few weeks before Mr. He, after having started out as a text-message columnist. "Perhaps I am boasting, but I am said to be No. 1 among China's short message writers," said Mr. Pengfei, who is 30. "Qian Fuzhang is more successful at turning this into money, though, and I respect him for that."
So far, critics have been divided on the value of the new form, with some issuing scathing reviews, calling it a cheapening of literature. "As a linguistic art, a novel is to be read, and through reading, you savor 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 would be better. The speed of communication shouldn't overwhelm the feeling that one gets from reading novels."
Another critic in the same newspaper, though, called the novels, "a miraculous combination of Chinese characters, which use a lot of metaphor, puns and palindromes."
For his part, Mr. He dismissed any suggestion that he is writing banalities. "Of course the storytelling is totally different from the traditional novel, because the technology only allows 70 words per message, and limiting yourself to that length is very challenging," the author 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 very few words, but they were very deep."