The Japanese have always been famous for doing everything smaller. They usually do it better, too, but not in this instance. The younger generation of Japanese have taken to a new method of writing novels using their mobile phones. Already the mobile phone is more popular among Japanese youth than PCs or laptops and they tend to use their phones for everything. Apparently they are now using them to write novels.

Time poor and with no interest in reading an actual book, apparently a lot of young Japanese have started uploading text message novels to various websites that host such things. One such website, Maho no i-rando, recently reported that the number of novels listed on the site had topped one million. That’s a lot of sore thumbs.

And, as is always the case with things like this, a few people are taking it beyond. The vast majority of people get nothing for their work, available for free on these websites. Most of them probably don’t even get read. But now and then there’s bound to be one that catches peoples’ attention for some reason. The novel If You by mobile novelist Rin has become something of a phenomenon.


Rin, with her book and phone.
(Image, Ko Sasaki for The New York Times.)

After readers of these mobile phone novels voted If You number one, her story of tragic love between two childhood friends was published as a 142 page hardcover book last year. It sold 400,000 copies and became the number five best-selling novel of 2007, according to a closely watched list by Tohan, a major book distributor. 400,000 copies! I dream of sales figures like that.

But I don’t think we need to worry too much. As you can imagine, there’s the novelty of something and then there’s its longevity. The beauty of things that the youth of the day are into is that those very same youths will grow up. When they do, they’ll think that younger people are bizarre and quite possibly insane in the same way that we think of them. “Will cellphone novels kill ‘the author’?” a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked in January. No, of course not.

As evidence in the case of “authors will survive versus weird teenagers” I offer this item:

“My mother didn’t even know that I was writing a novel,” said Rin, who, like many mobile phone novelists, goes by only one name. “So at first when I told her, well, I’m coming out with a novel, she was like, what? She didn’t believe it until it came out and appeared in bookstores.”

She was like, what? Oh yeah. Totally.

Besides, the young people themselves know the score. Rin admits that ordinary novels don’t interest her generation. Of course, she’s wrong. Regular novels don’t interest people like Rin, with the attention span of a flea, but she can’t speak for all of youth. I was reading epic fantasy novels and the like since I was a pre-teen and millions of other kids today do the same. But Rin manages to sum up the literary-challenged youth such as herself with this gem:

“They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them.”

Yes, intentionally wordy. Calling a book intentionally wordy is like calling a tree intentionally woody. Rin also says:

“On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable.”

You mean they’re crap.

Still, crap sells, often in the millions. “Love Sky,” a debut “novel” by a young woman named Mika, was read by twenty million people on mobiles or on computers, according to Maho no i-rando. Twenty million! Republished in book form, it became the number one selling novel last year and was made into a movie. Apparently these novels are almost all written by girls, more like a diary than a story and featuring adolescent sex, rape, pregnancy and usually a fatal disease for that hint of original tragedy.

Well, there are always going to be teenage girls and idiots in the world that will lap this stuff up. Let’s just hope that a decent percentage of them grow up and realise that a real book, with its difficult to understand sentences, intentional wordiness and stories they don’t know the ending to are actually worth their time.