The Rise of the Best-Celler

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Japanese youth are wild about cell phone novels, raising questionsabout our own resistance to the technology as a learning tool.

Geoffrey H. FletcherTHE NEWS OUT OF JAPAN IS THAT Anew art form is blooming. According toa recent article in The New York Times,novels tapped out on cell phones aremoving from the web to print, and arebecoming wildly popular. "Of last year's10 best-selling novels [in Japan]," theTimes story reports, "five were originallycell phone novels, mostly love storieswritten in the short sentences characteristicof text messaging."

Aside from inspiring the usual navelgazing about what this means for traditional novels and their authors, this phenomenon sparks a number of other thoughts. The first is how the technology is having such a dramatic effect on literacy in Japan. More than 1 million cell phone novels are now listed on the Japanese website Maho no i-rando, and it seems young people in Japan read these books on their cell phones even though they are available on computers.

Chiaki Ishihara, a professor at Japan's Waseda University and a literature expert who has studied cell phone novels, says of the new generation of Japanese: "It's not that they had a desire to write and that the cell phone happened to be there. The cell phone instilled in them a desire to write." Contrast that notion with the reception the technology gets in this country, where many school districts ban them from campus.

There is a debate within the genre on whether or not a cell phone novel written on a computer and published online is still a cell phone novel. The question is more than idle wrestling over semantics. Keiko Kanematsu, an editor at cell phone publisher Goma Books, told the Times, "When a book is written on a computer...the rhythm is different from writing on a cell phone." Another publisher noted that one of his top cell phone novelists moved to writing on a computer: "Since she's switched...her vocabulary's gotten richer and her sentences have also grown longer."

This last statement echoes earlier studies done by IBM on the company's Writing to Read program on the old PS/2. When students wrote on a computer, their work was longer and their language richer compared to when they wrote with pen and paper. Other studies done since then, including one in Maine published just this year, make this very clear: The method and technology used for writing does affect the final written piece.

Yet, in many states, the writing component of high-stakes tests is done with paper and pen. I continue to be amazed that students kept from graduating high school because they failed an exit writing exam taken with pen and paper have not sued their home state.

A final note about the surge in cell phone novels is maybe the most interesting. According to the article, "The boom appeared to have been fueled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels, but by mobile phone companies' decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, like text messaging, as part of flat monthly rates."

Why haven't we had a spurt of cell phone novels in this country? Hard to say, but when that day comes, we can be sure they won't be written in school.

-Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial director

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.