In Japan, Purists Fret at the Rise of the Cellphone Novel

Japan’s younger generation came of age with the cellphone, and created its own popular culture by tapping thumbs on keypads.

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Published: January 20, 2008


TOKYO – 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.

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 a debate.

“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 making the kind of sales that most more experienced novelists only dream of.

Rin, 21, tapped out a novel on her cellphone that sold 400,000 copies in hardcover.

One such star, a 21-year-old woman named Rin, wrote “If You” over a six-month stretch during her senior year in high school. While commuting to her part-time job or in free moments, she tapped out passages on her cellphone and uploaded them on a Web site for would-be authors.

Rin wrote her novel while commuting to her part-time job.

After cellphone readers voted her novel No. 1 in one ranking, her story of the tragic love between two childhood friends was turned into a 142-page hardcover book last year. It sold 400,000 copies and became the No. 5 best-selling novel of 2007, according to a closely watched list by Tohan, a major book distributor.

“My mother didn’t even know that I was writing a novel,” said Rin, who, like many cellphone novelists, goes by only one name.

“So at first when I told her, well, I’m coming out with a novel, she was like, what? She didn’t believe it until it came out and appeared in bookstores,” she added. The cellphone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making Web site, Maho noi-rando, realized that many users were writing novels on their blogs; it allowed 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 site reached one million in December.

A year ago, one of Starts Publishing’s young cellphone 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 Shigeru Matsushima, an editor at Starts. “Since she’s switched to a computer, her vocabulary’s gotten richer and her sentences have also grown longer.”

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