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Broken hearts, sore thumbs

Broken hearts, sore thumbs
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 59 AM IST

Plugged in: Even in the Tokyo subway, the Japanese cannot put down their cellphones.
Plugged in: Even in the Tokyo subway, the Japanese cannot put down their cellphones.
Updated: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 59 AM IST
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 in December, 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.
Plugged in: Even in the Tokyo subway, the Japanese cannot put down their cellphones.
Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, 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. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.
“Will cellphone novels kill ‘the author’?” a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.
Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.
The cellphone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making website, 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 website reached 1 million last month, according to Maho no i-rando.
The boom appeared to have been fuelled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels but by the mobile phone companies’ decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, such as text messaging, as part of flat monthly rates. The largest provider, Docomo, began offering this service in mid-2004.
The affordability of cellphones coincided with the coming of age of a generation of Japanese for whom cellphones, more than personal computers, had been an integral part of their lives since junior high school. So they read the novels on their cellphones, even though the same websites were also accessible by computer. They punched out text messages with their thumbs, and used expressions and emoticons, such as smiles and musical notes, whose nuances were lost on anyone over the age of 25.
“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 email, 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.
Cellphone writers are not paid for their work, no matter how many millions of times their novels might be read online. The pay-off, if any, comes when the novels are reproduced and sold as traditional books. Readers have free access to the websites that carry the novels, or pay at most $1-2 (about Rs40-80) a month, but the websites make most of their money from advertising.
Given the cellphone novels’ domination of the mainstream, critics no longer dismiss them, though some say they should be classified with comic books or popular music.
Rin, who, like many cellphone novelists, goes by only one name, 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,” she said. “On the other hand, I understand how the 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 would like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 59 AM IST