Thursday, January 8, 2009

cell-phone novelists

A startling writing phenomenon seems to be rolling over Japan—cell-phone novelists, mostly girls and young women, who are posting serial installments of their work on special (free) web-hosting sites. Imagine trying to tap out a 100,000-word novel on a cell-phone, using just your two thumbs, while commuting to your job on the crowded bullet train. Some of these writers have no idea of the structure of novels when they begin, but, increasingly, their on-line works are making it into manga (graphic novels), books, and movies. A recently published novel written by a previously unknown cell-phone author sold 2 million copies. A movie version of another cell-phone novel earned 35 million dollars last year. At the end of 2007, cell-phone novels held four of the top five positions on the literary best seller list!

Some of the examples discussed in The New Yorker (12/22-29/08) generally portray passive, emotionally painful, often masochistic, romances, written with very simple word and sentence structure. The editor of a literary journal is quoted as saying, "The author's (real) name is rarely revealed, the titles are very generic, the depiction of individuals, the locations—it's very comfortable, exceedingly easy to empathize with. Any high school girl can imagine that this experience is just two steps from her own. But this kind of empathy is largely different from the emotive response—the life-changing event—that reading a great novel can bring about. One tells you what you already know. Literature has the power to change the way you think."

In a panel discussion hosted by the same journal, the question discussed was "Will the cell-phone novel 'kill the author'?" A panel conclusion was that the novels weren't literature at all, "but the offspring of an oral tradition originating with the mawkish Edo-period marionette shows and extending to vapid J-pop love ballads." The journal editor concluded, "It's not a question of literature being above it. It's just—it's Pynchon vs. Tarantino. Most people have a fair understanding of the difference."

Yes, but I like the connection of Japan's current cell-phone bare-bones novel to the earlier marionette shows. Perhaps some American bare bones, genre novels are offspring of the ubiquitous Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century "Punch & Judy" puppet shows, staged on sidewalks in many of our urban-immigrant centers. No literary pretensions there, just economical, brief respites from grim realities pressing in on all sides.

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