A novel idea

I guess I too would like a hardcopy keepsake of something I’d contributed to in some way. Maybe it really is this tendency towards possession that propelled this “cellphone novel” up the bestsellers chart. A cellphone novel is uploaded SMS by SMS onto a dedicated website, and then edited by the author after taking into account comments by interested readers (there are apparently no lack of them). Heck, half of the ten bestselling novels of the past year in Japan were thumbed, not typed:

Thumbs Race as Japan’s Best Sellers Go Cellular
Until recently, cellphone novels — composed on phone keypads by young women wielding dexterous thumbs and read by fans on their tiny screens — had been dismissed in Japan as a subgenre unworthy of the country that gave the world its first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” a millennium ago. Then last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cellphone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it.

A case of giving people exactly what they want? The best case of market research, ever? A fascinating riff on the sounding board mechanism? Penguin had a wiki-novel in the works, but it seemed more like homework than anything else. And the concept smacked a bit too much of designing by committee, a danger not lost on those behind the experiment.

Collaboration has always been a feature of artistic endeavour, whether it’s done through conversation, critique, actual pen to paper, hand to sculpture, brush to paint, or mimicry — but when is the seed of the soul smashed and superseded by the hot air of the collective? Maybe I’m at last too wizened to weld anything new to my worldview. Anyway, here are more interesting bits from the article quoted above:

“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.”

Indeed, many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers.

As the genre’s popularity leads more people to write cellphone novels, though, an existential question has arisen: can a work be called a cellphone novel if it is not composed on a cellphone, but on a computer or, inconceivably, in longhand?

“When a work is written on a computer, the nuance of the number of lines is different, and the rhythm is different from writing on a cellphone,” said Keiko Kanematsu, an editor at Goma Books, a publisher of cellphone novels. “Some hard-core fans wouldn’t consider that a cellphone novel.”

But at least one member of the cellphone generation has made the switch to computers. A year ago, one of Starts Publishing’s young stars, Chaco, gave up her phone even though she could compose much faster with it by tapping with her thumb.

“Because of writing on the cellphone, her nail had cut into the flesh and became bloodied,” said Mr. Matsushima of Starts.

“Since she’s switched to a computer,” he added, “her vocabulary’s gotten richer and her sentences have also grown longer.”

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