Opinion

The cellphone novel: Ain't it gr8! :)

It's literature for the masses. So democratic you don't even have to be a reader to read one.

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The number one novel in Japan last year was written on a cellphone. I find that especially interesting because I'm a writer, and I recently wrote this on a cellphone: "Ok. See you there."

I was very proud because normally I would have stopped at "Ok." But after agreeing to meet an old friend, I was feeling rather expansive, and at the risk of being verbose, I added "See you there." That's eight minutes of my life I'll never get back.

The novel, "Love Sky," written by a young Japanese woman named Mika, was published in traditional book form and sold millions of copies before being turned into a movie.

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I figured it must have been a novelty book, an art stunt akin to painting a detailed portrait without using your hands. But no, my judgment here is about as good as my texting ability.

The book was published because 20 million people read it in serial form online or on cellphones. And far from being a novelty, the cellphone novel is now mainstream in Japan. According to a recent article in The New York Times, five of the Top 10 novels in Japan last year were written on cellphones.

Of course, critics in Japan are warning of the downfall of Japanese literature. Which is pretty much what the critics said when Daniel Defoe, the author of "Robinson Crusoe," came out with what's often referred to as the first novel in English, "Moll Flanders." They said it was crude, lowbrow, not literature in the noble tradition of poetry and drama. In short, it was literature for the masses.

And so the cellphone novel makes perfect sense. So perfect it would seem that embedded in the genes of the first novel were the stem cells for the cellphone novel.

Its form is so democratic you don't even have to be a writer to write one or a reader to read one. Apparently, Mika had never written anything other than lots of text and instant messages before writing her novel. And large numbers of her readers admit to having never read a "real" novel.

Cellphone prose, not surprisingly, is filled with lots of short fragments and broken dialogue. Emoticons (those little smiley and sad faces you can make with punctuation) are part of the syntax of this new form, as well.

In case you were wondering how one actually composes a novel on a cellphone, it's a throwback to the serialized novels of Charles Dickens. The cellphone novelist types a passage on her phone and then uploads it to a website that allows readers to view the work in progress and comment.

Skeptical? I bet you are. Especially if you're over 40 and think of cellphones as a tool similar to an emergency flare. But consider this: even if you and all the critics of the cellphone novel are right – that it's a clearly inferior form of literature – who cares? Certainly not 20 million readers in Japan.

Literature and language are living, breathing things that must adapt to survive. When was the last time you read a poem in The New Yorker written in iambic pentameter? Remember comic books? While we were all busy reading "The Kite Runner," comic books morphed into graphic novels. Adaptation is the cost of survival. And the survival of storytelling is central to human beings.

So here's to the cellphone novel. Who knows, it may be the new short story, which, if you remember, was a debased form of literature championed by hacks such as Edgar Allan Poe.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland.

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