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thumb novels

May 14, 2009

[Salon] The cellphone grows more wondrous and indispensable to us every day. Talking is the least of it. We text and Tweet our heads off, send photos, watch TV shows, play video games. But in Japan, imperium of the future where all the above is old hat, the keitai (cellphone) has further spawned a wildly successful, populist fiction genre. Keitai shosetsu, the so-called cellphone novel, has been touted (in the pages of the New Yorker, among other places) and reviled (by Japanese literati) as the first narrative mode of the txt msg age — the herald of a written-word future bent by wireless telecom’s powers.

I’m the first and only American author who’s written for Japanese cellphones (and with literary intentions at that). A happy lesson in old-fashioned technique, it was a sobering one about our brave new cyber-world’s eternal essential: interactivity. Most of the auteurs of keitai shosetsu are Japan’s vast demographic of girls and 20-something young women, who thumb out ultra-lurid, mawkish teen romances on their cellphone keypads in scraps of manga-like dialogue, skimpy action, texting slang and emoji (emoticons). They post these skeletal pseudo-confessions in installments, under cute pseudonyms, on dedicated Web sites like Magic i-land and Wild Strawberry where they can be read for a low fee.

Astronomically popular (chiefly among millions of Japanese teen girls), “thumb novels” are much decried as trash for yahori (slow learners, i.e., half-literates). And over recent years this subculture has stormed Japanese commercial book publishing. In 2007 — keitai shosetsu’s annus mirabilis –half the top 10 fiction bestsellers in the shrinking Japanese book market originated on cellphones. Overall list-topper “Love Sky,” by the self-styled “Mika,” has sold 2. 9 million copies in tandem with its sequel, which ranked third.

Last fall a literary grandee joined in. Jakucho Setouchi, the Marguerite Duras of Japan, revealed herself as “Purple,” author of a keitai shosetsu, “Tomorrow’s Rainbow,” about a teen’s search for love after her parents’ traumatizing divorce. Delightfully, Setouchi is also a celebrated 86-year-old Buddhist nun who wrote a contemporary update of “The Tales of Genji,” Japan’s racy ur-novel classic. (read)

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