Incoming Message from Tolstoy–War and Peace

The New York Times reports today that five of the best selling novels in Japan last year were originally written on cell-phones to be read on cell phones.

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.

I can’t really say anything about cell phone novels, never having read one. (I am not yet a disciple of Pierre Bayard). And so far they seem to primarily be a Japanese phenomenon, though Harlequin is trying to replicate Japanese success in Britain and the United States. Perhaps the genre better fits a Japanese culture where everything is cramped and hurried—no room for books while your being squashed on to the subway? No problem. Download the latest to your cellphone and read.

I’m intrigued with several aspects of the phenomenon. First, to my mind it confirms my sense that when we are talking about crises in books and reading we have to be more precise and talk about reading as a multiple and variegated phenomenon rather than a singular phenomenon. Most of the novels are apparently more or less romances in the Harlequin vein. With all appreciation for my colleagues who have made the case for the cultural seriousness of romance, the genre itself has hardly aspired to high cultural seriousness, and certainly hasn’t worried a great deal about linguistic complexity, semantic layering, or intricacies of plot.

Given this, what difference does it make that this kind of pleasure—or something like it–is delivered via a cell-phone, an ipod or something else. On the other hand, if this is the kind of thing that digital utopians have in mind when they talk about digital reading, I’m not sure I’m reassured. I remember n+1 ranting a while back that everyone is so obsessed with the reading crisis that we tend to laud folks for reading anything and everything. I tend to agree. If people want to entertain themselves with graphic novels, I have no problem with that. But let’s not imagine it as an experience that will develop their sense of the possibilities of language—or even the imagination generally—on the order of War and Peace or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The dominance of the romance genre is intriguing to me as regards to gender as well. Apparently most of the people reading and writing these things are women. What would it be about the romance genre, and about young female readers in Japan, that would make this particular media effective and important. This is a culturally important and interesting question apart from the question of whether such “novels” do anything for the mind or imagination beyond fill space while marking time. I suspect that young men are playing video games on their cell phones while young women are reading romance novels. Why is this stereotype of the male who reads nothing and the female who reads brain candy so prevalent, even in a digital world, and even in Japan. This is not an American phenomena, and it isn’t a legacy of Victorian England.

Last question would be about the enduring appeal of printed matter. Apparently it’s pretty common to put these cellphone novels out first via text messaging, but the goal for many of the young women writing them is to get in print. One young woman named Rin wrote her novel while commuting to her part time job, uploading text to an online service. She later sold it to a publisher and went to 400,000 copies in hard cover. Hmmm. I’m not sure what is going on with that, and I wonder what the distinction would be between experiencing the form in short bursts over a cell phone and then actually getting the thing between hard covers.

Something tells me that the media of a linguistic work of any kind determines, or at least significantly determines, its ultimate shape and the possibility of its reception. Certainly, of course, this is the case to the degree that cell phone novels are made up of short sentences and lack character development and plot development. (How to think of this as a novel is another question that I won’t bother trying to answer without actually reading one).

I only have instances going in the opposite direction. I joined up at DailyLit.com and trie to read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot via once a day email delivery of the equivalent of four or five pages a day. It may just be that I’m old fashioned, but I found the reading experience relatively frustrating, and felt that the book format—at least for this kind of work—was technologically superior to a digitized format regardless of all the bells and whistles my computer to bring to bear on the experience. If I forgot who a character was, or what had happened since I last looked at the email, it was annoying to have to search back through emails to find the last instance of a character doing something. And if I got really engaged with a scene, I either had to stop completely, or I had to interrupt the reading process, go to the website, and download the next installment. With a book format, reminding oneself of the book’s past is a simple matter of flipping a couple of pages back and saying, “Oh yeah, I remember now.” And to go on one….goes on.

Cellphone novels have evidently had some success in digitizing Japanese classics, but I suspect that formats like a cellphone will ultimately only succeed in new cultural forms they shape for this new media. The efforts to create digital book readers like the Kindle are efforts to create formats that replicate as closely as possible the experience of reading a traditional book while creating new possibilities for reading associated with new media. It may be that we can come up with one, and it may be that we will gradually come to appreciate older forms in this media. Many things that were once on scrolls we now read effectively in book form. However, a cellphone novel is not trying to replicate the traditional form at all.

I’m not holding my breath, but I probably need to download one of these novels and try it out before declaring that you can’t read War and Peace on a cellphone.

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