Sunday, January 20, 2008

NY Times on cellphone novels

Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times has written an article on the popularity of cellphone novels in Japan. While the phenomenon has been around for almost a decade (Onishi dates it back to 2000), it was reported at the end of 2007 that half of Japan’s top ten novels of the year were written on cellphones. The article provides some interesting background to the phenomenon.

The cellphone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making Web site, Maho no i-rando, realized that many users were writing novels on their blogs; it tinkered with its software to allow users to upload works in progress and readers to comment, creating the serialized cellphone novel. But the number of users uploading novels began booming only two to three years ago, and the number of novels listed on the site reached one million last month, according to Maho no i-rando.

The boom appeared to have been fueled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels but by cellphone companies’ decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, like text-messaging, as part of flat monthly rates. The largest provider, Docomo, began offering this service in mid-2004.

This kind of trend makes literary-types upset. One worry is that few of the current crop of cellphone novelists have ever written before. According to the article, cellphone authors aren’t being compelled to write for traditional literary reasons.

“It’s not that they had a desire to write and that the cellphone happened to be there,” said Chiaki Ishihara, an expert in Japanese literature at Waseda University who has studied cellphone novels. “Instead, in the course of exchanging e-mail, this tool called the cellphone instilled in them a desire to write.”

Interestingly, one author of a cellphone novel, Rin, acknowledges the literacy divide between the writers/readers of cellphone novels and other kinds of novel reading. Here she explains why the readers of her novel aren’t interested in traditional novels.

“They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them,” she said. “On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”

Related: Personal publishing and micro-fiction

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