Keitai Shousetsu: A Study of Japan's Mobile Phone Fiction

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Introduction

Context

Keitai Shousetsu: Who, What, How?

Keitai Shousetsu and Participatory Culture

Bestsellers and Crossovers

Praise and Criticism

Cell Phone Novels Outside of Japan

Reflection

Works Cited

Praise and Criticism of Keitai Shousetsu

Criticism of Cell Phone Novels:

Detractors of cell phone novels call those who read, write, and enjoy them "yutori," a Japanese slang word for for youth who "cannot properly read, write, or think because of the 'slow education' ('yutori kyouiku') system adopted in the 90s to reduce pressure on kids" (Galbraith). Many critics echo the kinds of pessimistic views concerning the digital revolution laid out in Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur: "democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent"(15). In 2007, still recovering from the shock of the keitai shousetsu-heavy bestsellers list, the Japanese literary journal, Bungakukai, dedicated its cover and contents to the question: "Will the cell-phone novel kill 'the author'?"Apparently, the consensus among Japan's literary elite was that the novels should not be considered literature, but rather "the offspring of an oral tradition originating with mawkish Edo-period marionette shows and extending to vapid J-pop love ballads"(Goodyear 65). Similarly, other critics, in attempts to classify the now-mainstream genre, have decided that they should be filed under the same heading as comic books and pop music rather than literature (Onishi).

As Collette Snowden states, "the production of SMS requires the disruption and manipulation of conventions of grammar and syntax and is regarded by its critics as a contributing factor in the debasement of text [and] as damaging to writing and to literacy"(114). Cell phone novels, as previously noted, borrow upon this SMS (text messaging) speak, and are written in a simplified, catchy, repetitive, and slangy style that some concerned educators and parents fear will impede linguistic development and literacy skills in younger generations. The mature and heavy thematic content has also been of concern: "parents and critics are concerned that these works, with their substandard grammar and focus on violence and sex, might be a bad influence on the young women and grade school girls that are their many dedicated readers"(Galbraith). Despite all of this, could it be possible that keitai shousetsu actually foster literacy?

Praise for Cell Phone Novels:

Although critics of cell phone novels seem to far outweigh those who are willing to acknowledge the positive attributes of the genre, some notable figures have stepped up to lavish praise on keitai shousetsu. Kathleen Yancey, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English and an English professor at Florida State University, comments on the sophisticated literacy necessary to the composition and reading of these novels: "There is actually an art to creating a message for a small screen. It privileges the ability to use shorthand and rewards people for reading subtext, [which is] a fairly sophisticated maneuver"(qtd. in Ash 12). The ability to parse language down to the level required in cell phone novels is, in fact, an intellectually demanding task, as is deciphering the "txt spk"and accompanying non-linguistic symbols, such as emoticons in the context of the novels. According to Snowden, "the technology of SMS places a new kind of literacy in the hands of individuals, in which the official rules of the classroom have been dispensed with in favor of a unique culturally created language"(116). While many educators have viewed text messaging as a contributing factor in the 'dumbing down' of younger generations, perhaps it is time for a change in perspective. Language, according to the old cliché, is alive, and is in a constant state of flux. Generations reared in the digital age are exhibiting a creative, malleable, and playful literacy that the old guard refuses to recognize as legitimate. Although cell phone novels are admittedly simplistic and cannot be said to resemble capital "L" literature, they have introduced millions of young people to the joys of both writing and reading, and have cultivated an aura of excitement around these practices. For some, like the bestselling keitai shousetsu author Chaco, writing these novels is a launching pad to more sophisticated ways of writing: "I used to write whatever came into my mind without giving it much thought, but now I think a lot more about story development"(Kane). One of the top compliments came courtesy of an unnamed government official presiding over Starts Publishing's third annual Japan Keitai Novel Awards in 2008: "The intent of having developed this broadband is for people to use it to create culture...and integrate the provinces into the nation's cultural production...The authors here are leaders of [a] new flowering of activity"(Goodyear 67).

Should cell phone novels be criticized for deteriorating language and literature or should they be praised for their innovative style and for fostering a love of writing and reading? Personally, I know that I support reading in any form and strongly believe that educators, parents, and literary elites do younger generations a disservice by opposing new forms of language and cultural production. In the 18th century a moral panic erupted around the emergence of novels now considered classics. Is it possible that today's keitai shousetsu, considered to be low culture, may be the next century's classics?

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This paper was originally written in December 2009 by Brianna Erban for LIS 585: Multimedia Literacies. This revised version was submitted to fulfill the requirements for LIS 600: Capping Exercise at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Last updated May 6, 2010.