Is text-messaging the new word processor?

Here’s a fascinating fact: Out of the 10 bestselling books in Japan last year, five were “cellphone novels” — books that were written on the mobile phone, with the authors tapping out sentence by sentence via text message.

Apparently the rise of the cell-phone novel has caused enormous consternation over there, because the style of this new genre so radically violates traditional Japanese storytelling craft. Historically, the prose in Japanese novels was ornate, with long, lavish descriptions of locations. But because these new novels are written on technology that doesn’t allow for quick, fluid writing, cellphone novels tend to consist of prose more reminiscent of Hemingway or Pinter — short, snipped sentences, with much of the book occupied by terse dialogue.

I knew almost nothing of this trend, until I read a superb recent article by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times. You really gotta go read this story: Virtually every paragraph describes some weird new collision of culture, society, literature and technology.

For example, three of the top-10 bestselling novels were written by first-timers. Why? Because, as Japanese experts note, of the omnipresence of phones. We think of text-messaging merely as a medium for intrapersonal communication. But if you think of the phone as a new type of word processor, then a different picture emerges. The reason all these young people are writing novels is that they’ve discovered, quite by accident, that they’re carrying typewriters around in their pockets. These authors aren’t using their phones to text other people; they’re texting themselves. “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 of the authors are teenagers who pecked out their novels during snippets of downtime at school.

Beyond awesome. Even more interesting is Onishi’s exploration of the stylistic implications of thumb-written novels. Younger readers love them; older ones don’t, because they prefer the flowing descriptive prose of traditional Japanese fiction. Some literary critics complain that because the prose is so dialogue-heavy, cell-phone novels ought more properly to be classified as comic books. (A niggling distinction, you’d think, except that literary prizes and bestseller lists hinge upon these taxonomies: After the Harry Potter books sold so well that they colonized the bestseller lists in the US, many newspapers created “children’s bestseller” lists specifically so that “serious” fiction wouldn’t get drowned out.)

Now dig this: The cell-phone novel now has its own recognizable style, obviously. But because 12-button keypads are pretty difficult interfaces upon which to compose book-length prose, many Japanese authors have begun writing cell-phone novels on typewriters: I.e. novels written merely in the style of 12-button composition. As Onishi notes …

… an existential question has arisen: can a work be called a cellphone novel if it is not composed on a cellphone, but on a computer or, inconceivably, in longhand?

“When a work is written on a computer, the nuance of the number of lines is different, and the rhythm is different from writing on a cellphone,” said Keiko Kanematsu, an editor at Goma Books, a publisher of cellphone novels. “Some hard-core fans wouldn’t consider that a cellphone novel.”

Our tools, of course, affect our literary output. And all this made me wonder how other writing tools affect what’s written. I use Movable Type to write my blog, and I’m constantly annoyed by how small the text-entry boxes are. Whenever I write an entry, the text quickly flows down several box-lengths, which can make it hard to keep track of my argument. The problem, of course, is that the tool was designed with the idea that people would be writing extremely short, pithy entries … whereas my entries tend to drag on and on and on. It reminds me of the writing on one of those old, proprietary-hardware word-processors from the 80s, which were outfitted with screens that only let you see seven lines at a time.

Virginia Heffernan wrote a neat piece a few weeks ago comparing the cognitive and emotional effects of several different types of word processors: She argued that the unadorned, uncluttered, blank-page aesthetic of Scrivener — an alt.word.processor — produced a “clean and focused mind,” in contrast to distractions of Microsoft Word, with its “prim rulers” and “officious yardsticks”.

So what would my prose be like if I wrote on my phone keypad?

(Photo above by Edward B., courtesy his Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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