Waiting For The Great American Cell Phone Novel

Excuse me, I feel a little queasy – I’ve been experiencing keitai shosetsu.

RIN mobile author
Rin, 21, wrote a mobile phone novel, with 400,000 hardcover sales.

What’s keitai shosetsu? A new Asian flu?

Not exactly. Keitai shosetsu are “cell phone novels” and they’ve been all the rage in Japan and China for the last decade.  Yeah, novels written on cell phones in tiny, 100-word chunks and delivered in installments to other cell phone users.

How popular are keitai shosetsu in Japan? In the first half of 2007, five of the country’s top 10 bestselling novels were written on mobile phones, selling an average of 400,000 copies apiece. That’s got Japanese print publishers happy, while Japanese literary critics decry the form as tawdry and lurid.

Now, with the rise of “unlimited texting” plans and cheap, QWERTY-keyboarded handsets, cell phone novels are making their way to America. There are already several web sites dedicated to helping people get their cell phone novels out to the public.

Pro and Cons of Cell Phone Scribing

Will the cell phone novel fly in America? Will people take the time to bring their own inner novel to life – in tiny 140 character chunks? Seems silly, but the cell phone novel is an interesting idea for a number of reasons:

  • a)     Writing a novel on a cell phone solves the age-old writer’s dilemma of “never having time to write.” You can write anytime you have a few moments and a free thumb. And it solves the reader’s dilemma of never having time to read. These are novels broken down into text messages – everybody’s got time for a text message.
  • b)    The cell phone novel offers an immediacy and connection with the reader that traditional paper and ink books lack. Readers can comment on the book as it is being written and help shape its development.  It’s a new kind of interactive, user-directed fiction.
  • c)     Cell phone novels are portable, and private (nobody can see what kind of trash you’re reading on your handset!) and since they’re downloaded directly to your phone they save you a trip to the bookstore. Plus they are enviro-friendly: no more dead trees and stinky paper mills.
  • d)    Cell phone novels use new technology to revive an old form. Telling stories in serial form dates back to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Sir Author Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), and Stephen King (The Green Mile) have all published serial novels. Plus traditional Japanese keitai shosetsu is heavy on teen melodrama; a form that never goes out of style. If the cell phone novel has an American audience it’s probably among the Gossip Girl/Twilight crowd.
  • e)     Once upon a time, when kings and queens ruled the land, the poet was the top of the literary food chain; they earned the most money and commanded the most respect. Nowadays most poets can’t earn enough from their writing to buy a cup of latte (unless they’ve sold out to write advertising copy). But the cell phone’s space constraints demands an economy of words that the poet is uniquely qualified to deliver.  The rise of the cell phone novel could mean the rebirth of the poet…or, at the very least, a new market for crafted verse.
  • f)     Using cell phones as a writing tool encourages more non-writers to write, and the World of Letters always needs new blood infusions to stay alive. As a writer myself, I should think that anything that gets people using written words to express themselves is a good thing, right?

Well…yeah, but…I’ve got some problems with this last one. Because “texting” isn’t writing. There are elements of writing – word choice, sentence structure, narrative flow – that you can only learn through reading and studying how things are written.  Maybe everybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has the tools to be a writer.

You are supposed to be able to write competently by the time you graduate high school. But look at 90 percent of Internet blogs, and you’ll see that is not the case. Even though there are more opportunities than ever for people to express themselves as writers, people have never been more ill-equipped to seize those opportunities.

You’d think that having the chance to reach millions of readers would make people want to become better writers, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either.  Japanese cell phone novelist Katsura Okiyama won a keitai shosetsu contest that earned her cash and a print publishing deal. But before tapping out her prize-winning story, she admits, “I had never written a story…I had never liked reading either.” She developed her style writing 100 text messages a day and using the same format and tone for her fictional story.

The Slush Pile is Everywhere!

At the risk of sounding like a pompous elitist, cell phone novels allow a lot of non-writers the opportunity to unleash their inner Stephen King or Danielle Steele and while I’m all for free expression, I’d rather see somebody take time to shape their writing before sharing their masterpiece with the world. Writing is a craft, a skill, a gift – you can’t just “tap it out” and send it like a…a…quick text!

Consider this. Cheap video cameras, powerful editing software and YouTube gives everyone the power to create their own cinematic masterpiece. But have you seen a new Citizen Kane come out of YouTube yet? No. You see a lot of goofballs acting goofy. Cell phone novels give everyone the chance to share their writing with the world. But if you think it’s a matter of time before the next War and Peace arrives on your cell phone you’d better hunker down for a long wait.

[Rob Note: Since writing this column, I’ve written a novel on my cell phone (well, most of the first draft was written on an LG Envy-2, the re-writes and edits were done on a standard computer). Because I’m old school (read: old) I’m looking for a paper-and-glue publisher – if you know one that likes rock-n-roll horror, please let me know!]

reprinted courtesy of WAYNE TODAY, March 2009

American Culture Becomes Amateur Hour

My last column dealt with the Japanese literary phenomenon of cell phone novels [Rob Note – I’ll post this column next – it’s fascinating!]– novels written on cell phones and distributed directly to other cell phone users. While the cell phone novel is an interesting art form for a number of reasons, I’m concerned that it will open the floodgates, allowing a ton of amateur authors to glut the market with bad writing.

Yeah! Edit that bitch, yo!

This is a poor attitude, I know. Not everybody who wants to write needs to be a “trained professional” such as myself (a journalism degree and two decades working as a writer/editor – thank you, thank you very much). Everybody should be encouraged to put their thoughts and feelings into words, regardless of their skill level. Writing can be a powerful and therapeutic tool for personal growth and development. That’s all good.

It’s the sharing that I have problem with. It’s too easy to share stuff in this modern, techno-funky society, and people are too quick to do it. But this is only a symptom of a bigger problem in today’s world —  the abolishment of the tier system, the idea that you have to earn your way through certain levels of achievement before you can be considered “good” at something.

The 10,000 Hours

Since we’re talking about writing I’ll stick to that medium as an example. Back in the day, a writer would write something (on a typewriter or longhand) and show it to an editor or agent. If the editor/agent thought it was good they’d shop it around to a publisher. If the publisher liked it they’d print it and distribute it. And if the public liked it (and bought enough to make the publisher some money) then the writer would get a chance to publish another story.

The point is that a writer had to show their work to other people – people who knew the business of writing – and get their approval before their work saw print. In editorial terms it’s called, weeding through the “slush pile,” the stack of unsolicited manuscripts submitted by new writers. Only one of every ten manuscripts will be good enough to read to completion; only one in a hundred will be something worth publishing.

But now, thanks to blogs and self-publishing houses and cell phone novels, anybody can write anything and share it with everybody instantly. It’s all become one giant slush pile and it’s every man for himself (or herself) sifting out the good writing from bad.

Bad writing overwhelms us and, as a result, we start excepting sub-par compositions as the norm. Average becomes the new good and our standards slip to a point where…well, to a point where recycled “teen confessional” trash tapped out on a cell phone can become a bestseller (in Japan, at least). A novel that was a “decent read” 50 years ago would be hailed as a “literary achievement” by today’s diminished standards.

Great … good …  good enough 

The same goes for the music business. Once upon a time, musicians had to tour extensively and get a record label to back them in order to get their music out to people. Now you can record a professional sounding album in your living room with a laptop and distribute it directly through the Internet using the same web services that big acts like U2 and Madonna use. The playing field has been leveled for artists everywhere.

While this freedom to easily distribute your work is liberating as an artist, it’s also resulting it a lot of really lousy product flooding the marketplace. Would Pablo Picasso be as passionate about his art if he knew his work would sit on the same shelf alongside every other knucklehead who ever picked up a paintbrush? Would the genius of his work even be recognized there among the mediocre masses?

This erosion of quality goes across the board in arts and entertainment but it doesn’t stop there. Standards have dropped in manufacturing and service industries, too. Are customer service people (receptionists, repair staff, sales clerks) nicer than they used to be? Are the products you buy built better and more durable? No and no.

So, in today amateur hour world, who is going to elevate the good stuff and toss out the bad? Ultimately, the decision lies in your hands. Hopefully you’ll decide you still want a skilled professional to help you wade through the slush pile of product. You’ll seek out the opinion of critical journalists. You’ll demand better writing and support the work of talented wordsmiths.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope you won’t see my last two columns for what they really are – a thinly veiled plea to keep my job.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, March 2009.

[Update August 2013 : I bought myself a little time, but not enough. I was laid off, along with half -a-dozen other magazine employees, back in November 2012. Now I’m a self-pubber, blogger, and certified asshole.]