January 19, 2008

A million cellphone novels

Back in 2004, when I learned about Senju Mariko, the Japanese violinist and novelist who did all her writing on a cell phone ("More on meiru", 3/9/2004), I thought she was a strange outlier in the world of the Japanese infatuation with texting. But according to today's NYT, the Japanese best-seller list for 2007 was dominated by cellphone novels republished in book form (Norimitsu Onishi, "Broken Hearts, Sore Thumbs: Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular", 1/20/2008):

Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.

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 whenever she found a free moment, she tapped out passages on her cellphone and uploaded them on a popular Web site for would-be authors.

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.

The scale of the phenomenon in the background is, well, phenomenal:

The cellphone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making Web site, 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 site reached one million last month, according to Maho no i-rando.

Like blogging, this seems to be a case where the medium invites the message:

"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 e-mail, 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.

More on the phenomenon of keitai shousetsu can be found in an earlier story from Australia: Justin Norrie, "In Japan, cellular storytelling is all the rage", Sidney Morning Herald, 12/3/2007.

[By the way, the Japanese title of Rin's novel (in romaji) is moshimo kimiga. Moshimo means "if", -ga is a subject marker, and kimi is (according to Bill Poser) "one of the many 2nd person pronouns, intimate but not pejorative, what you would use toward your lover or an intimate friend". Bill explains further that in addition to being used between lovers, kimi is also used "by men to other men with whom they have been friendly since childhood". The EDICT entry for kimi glosses it as "(used colloquially by young females) (male) (fam) you; buddy; pal;". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 19, 2008 02:37 PM