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Phoning It In

I can’t get my head around the article in the New York Times over the weekend on the craze for cellphone novels in Japan. Personally, I find it hard enough to write a novel using all ten fingers, so I’m struggling to imagine doing it with only two thumbs, then uploading it, serial style, to a website that reportedly contains one million such novels. That astonishing number, combined with the fact that cellphone novels published in book form made up five of Japan’s top ten bestsellers last year (including the three best selling books of the year), justifies calling this a trend. That kid on the Tokyo subway tapping away on her cellphone? Novelist. The tattooed temp worker surreptitiously texting under the desk in his cubicle? He’s secretly the Dickens of the digital age.

I’m always wary of news stories that use bestseller lists as the measure of a trend’s importance, since they always seem to boil down to the observation that you can find the most flies circling a steaming pile of crap. But there are a few questions here that I find interesting. Not surprisingly, these novels are simple in form: “mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels“ In cellphone novels, characters tend to be undeveloped and descriptions thin, while paragraphs are often fragments and consist of dialogue.” The reporter cites the example of Love Sky, “a debut novel by a young woman named Mika, [which] was read by 20 million people on cellphones or on computers, according to [the website] Maho no i-rando, where it was first uploaded. A tear-jerker featuring adolescent sex, rape, pregnancy and a fatal disease – the genre’s sine qua non – the novel nevertheless captured the young generation’s attitude, its verbal tics and the cellphone’s omnipresence. Republished in book form, it became the No. 1 selling novel last year and was made into a movie.”

So the medium is the message: these novels affirm the central role of the cellphone in their characters’ emotional lives, but they also take the shape determined by the limitations of that medium. They contain plenty of drama, but relatively little complexity of character, as if to suggest that our lives are defined not by profound interior experience but by social encounters negotiated in the shared isolation of a digital network. And they appeal to a generation brought up on comic books, with no patience for the stylistic or emotional complexity of traditional novels: “[One novelist] said ordinary novels left members of her generation cold“ ‘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.’”

Needless to say, this whole idea has some literary critics predicting cultural apocalypse, arguing that the “poor literary quality” of these novels will “hasten the decline of Japanese literature.” Others point out that the trend actually reflects an increase in literacy among Japanese youth, who by exchanging text messages have gradually gained a desire to write. According to publishers, both the authors of these novels and their readers are new to fiction: most authors have never written fiction before, and few readers have ever bought a novel before. Interestingly, those who were tempted to buy a cellphone novel in traditional book form did so even though the same novel was available free on a website. So readers weren’t simply reading their first novel, in many cases they were buying their first book, turning away from digital media to consume the novel in an old medium: print.

I can’t help thinking that critics are too quick to dismiss the new form, whatever its stylistic shortcomings. One reason the novel has proved such a successful form is that the experience of reading affirms something crucial about our sense of self: in the isolated experience of reading, we share the qualities that we assign to the characters. Readers of detective novels feel themselves to be clever (never mind that the clues were carefully strewn in their path). Young boys reading adventure novels can imagine themselves to be brave and worldly. Anyone reading a Jane Austen novel feels a strong sense of identification with the wise and perceptive heroine, no matter how much we might actually resemble the novel’s ridiculous secondary characters, defined by their self-absorption and the persistent delusion that the story is really about them. Traditional novels make us feel that we are as deep and complex as their characters, simply by the way we sit in silence and share their thoughts. Reading a cellphone novel (I’m speculating here) would seem to be about reading social codes: simple sentences communicate hidden drama, just as a text message can carry a weight of emotional meaning. Reading these novels in a book, rather than online, might increase a reader’s sense of the meaningfulness of all messages, and their own capacity to read deeply.

One might hope that these cellphone novels will function as a kind of entry drug to a more serious literary addiction. This interpretive habit of mind that we call reading has to start somewhere, but once we’re hooked, we begin to see meaning everywhere, and it doesn’t take long before we’re seeking out stronger doses. That’s why I never object to any literary trend that brings millions of new readers (and writers) into bookstores. I really don’t care which books sell the most in any given year, but I believe it’s important for the survival of our species that people keep reading them.

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