Japan’s cellphone novels

Are they the soap operas of the digital age, Japanese-style? [Maybe some American kid will break the gender barrier of Japan's cellphone novels and write the sci-fi version of Huck Finn's adventures on his cellphone. How 'bout it, English teachers?! Though maybe not till US cellphone companies make unlimited texting cheaper!)]

Anyway, they're serial text messages – sometimes 20 screens or 10,000 words a day – posted by mobile phone to a blogging site. Cumulatively, they become full-blown romance novels that, in book format, would be several hundred pages long. The best of them do become published books. By the end of last year, cellphone novels "held four of the top five positions on [Japan's] literary best-seller list," The New Yorker reports. [Though there is some controversy in Japan over the use of that word "literary," some argue that the world-famous Tale of Genji, written more than 1,000 years ago, was the original cellphone novel.] Maho i-Land (meaning "Magic Island"), "is the largest cellphone-novel site" with 1 million+ titles. Besides the potential readership and – possibly – income, part of the appeal for their writers may be that they can be written in bed (hmm, think about that too, English teachers). ReadWriteWeb.com reports that the site – kind of a literary version of Blogger.com – "provides tools for people to write their own mobile phone novels." US versions of Magic Island, both in beta, are Quillpill.com and textnovel.com, according to The New Yorker.

Interestingly, they're not hurting book sales; they've added a whole new genre, printed in gray or colored text and left to right on the page, as on a phone screen, according to The New Yorker (which adds that 82% of Japanese 10-to-29-year-olds have their own cellphones). One mobile novel (or keitai shousetsu) publisher speculated for ReadWriteWeb that the book versions are like "keepsakes" for the blog readers, many of whom had posted suggestions and critiques to the novel bloggers and "end up feeling as if they had a hand in helping craft the novel."
The stories they tell are strangely at the same time empowering to their writers and demeaning of women (the latter because so culturally conservative: depicting women "suffering passively, the victims of their emotions and their physiology; [yet] true love prevails"). The market for this is seemingly bottomless. The moral of one best-seller-cum-box-office smash hit: "not that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and so should be avoided, but that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and pain is at the center of a woman's life."

Two more of many fascinating cultural and literary notes in The New Yorker piece: 1) the anti-fame attitude and m.o. of even the most popular authors, shy of posting photos of themselves with their content (which is "consistent with the ethos of the Japanese Internet"); and 2) "In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease. The novels are set in the provinces – the undifferentiated swaths of rice fields, chain stores, and fast-food restaurants that are everywhere Tokyo is not—and the characters tend to be middle and lower middle class. Specifically, they are Yankees, a term with obscure linguistic origins (having something to do with 1950s America and greaser style) which connotes rebellious truants – the boys on motorcycles, the girls in jersey dresses, with bleached hair and rhinestone-encrusted mobile phones." I used to see this greaser look among some of the thousands of young people who gathered at Hachiko in Shibuya weekend evenings when I lived there even back in the late '80s.

It'll be interesting to see how much cellphone authorship takes off on this side of the Pacific – a mainstream or vertical interest like anime? We've seen teen bloggers become book authors, so why not teen texters? And will this be done in the classroom, along with podcasts, wikis, social networking, blogs, and virtual worlds? I'll keep you posted on what turns up!

Do cellphone novels repel or intrigue you? Post in the forum or email your thoughts to anne[at]netfamilynews.org!

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