The Cell Phone Novel Culture, and The Tale of Genji

I didn’t quite satisfy my curiosity on this topic from yesterday’s post, so here’s a bit more on cell phone novels, and the how and why.

From a technical perspective, cell phone novels (or keitai) are quite an example of writing which of necessity is confined within the medium (texting isn’t exactly the fastest form of turning thoughts into words).* From all of the examples I’ve found and read, the style is spare enough to give even Hemingway a lesson in minimalism.

For some examples, “Call me Ishmael. The end.”

Another reason for my fascination in the subject is the unique type of writer and reader culture. As the L.A. Times (“For Japan’s cellphone novelists, proof of success is in the print”) notes, the distance between writer and reader is very much a factor in the novels’ popularity:

“Most writers upload the content as they finish so they get instant feedback from the readers, who access the stories on the website and click through the pages. Authors respond to readers by correcting errors and, in some cases, altering story lines.”

In terms of content, the types of bestselling authors — teenage girls — gives good indication that the keitai’s closest relatives might be Harlequin romance novels. But that being said, they’ve been popular enough to warrant a closer look. As in, really, really popular — with cell phone novel website monthly visits numbering in the billions, and bestsellers selling in the several millions.

Why the popularity? I still don’t fully understand it. But The Millions (“Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader”) has about as compelling a thesis as I’ve seen —

“There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on …

Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and — I’ll regret saying this — poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium — you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone — forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.”

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* Ok, apparently people can in fact text preposterously fast. Somewhere around 40–60 words per minute seems to be the record. For more, CNN: “Woman shatters text-messaging speed record

(Who keeps track of this stuff? Why?)


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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