The Mirth of Comeuppance

By Tom Peters |

For the past 24 hours I've been chuckling to myself and at myself, ever since I read the article in yesterday's New York Times (no-cost registration required) about the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan.  Evidently, quite a few young and often first-time authors have taken to writing novels on their cell phones in a style that would make Papa Hemingway proud:  short, pithy sentences, probably influenced more by text messaging than by American expatriates in Paris

Papa the proto-cellphone novelistAnd people – lots of people, as in millions – are reading these cell phone novels on, well, their cell phones.  The authors often write while they are commuting, and cell phone novels often can be accessed in serialized form.  Both authors and readers have discovered the cell phone as a place where a narrative art form can survive and flourish.  A new genre seems to have been born.

This isn't some weird little phenomenon that a few young adults in Japan, China, and Korea are doing.  The NY Times article reports that in 2007 five of the ten top-selling novels in Japan were originally cell phone novels.  The top three novels were written by first-time cell phone novelists.  You see, cell phone novels often are being picked up and redistributed by more established media, such as printed books, motion pictures, and manga.  

writers and readers of cell phone novelsFor example, a high school senior wrote a short cell phone novel while she commuted to and from her part-time job.  Her cell phone novel of teenage love and angst became very popular.  When a print publisher picked up her novel, it sold 400,000 copies.  When the now-famous author told her mother, she, in true motherly fashion, didn't believe her daughter.

The NY Times article contains a couple of hints, however, that the zenith of the cell phone novel may already have been reached.  First, some print publishers are encouraging their established authors to try a cell phone novel.  Whenever authors are encouraged or forced to write in a popular form or style, that can lead to a diminution of the strength of the genre.  Second, some “established” cell phone novelists are switching to writing on computers, which is changing the form and substance of their subsequent works.   

cell phone and print novelsAll this generates a sense of the mirth of comeuppance in me, as I and others have spent the last ten years contemplating and arguing about the future of electronic books.  Most of us became mired in issues that may have been so much red herring:  the quality of the overall reading experience, the form factor of the reading appliance, DRM, and even eyestrain.  While we fretted over all that, young folks on the western edge of the Pacific Rim were beginning to comprehend and exploit the affordances of digital text as an art form.

Is it really an art form?  The jury is still out.  Some members of the Japanese literary establishment take a dim view of cell phone novels, noting the thin plots, poor character development, and overall poor literary quality.  But many readers beg to differ, devouring these novels not only on their cell phones, but also in printed form.  

According to the NY Times article, this new genre first began to emerge in 2000 when a Japanese blog hosting site discovered that many bloggers essentially were writing novels in blog form.  The company modified its software to foster and facilitate this activity, both at the points of creation and of use.

Asian cell phone companies also unwittingly fueled the emergence and growth of this genre, when they allowed text messaging to be included as part of flat monthly rates for customers.  A scholar of cell phone novels at a Japanese university surmises that these new literary heroes did not yearn to write a novel and then decided on the cell novel as their chosen medium.  Rather, in the course of exchanging tons of email and text messages, they discovered that creative narrative fiction met some need.  If that professor is coming up for tenure, I'd love to be a fly on the wall during that tenure review meeting. 

So, perhaps cell phones are just fine for reading and writing electronic novels, and dedicated reading appliances never will become broadly popular.  And perhaps authors, not readers, are driving this bus.  And perhaps genres are not timeless and immortal, but intricately tied to the technologies, economics, and spirit of a specific time and place.

If cell phone novels become suddenly and overwhelmingly popular in the United States, will libraries be involved in this boom in reading among teens and young adults – something for which we say we ardently wish?  Maybe librarians should be proactive in fostering cell phone novelists and readers here in the U.S.