A Novel Idea Crafted on a Cellphone

By Katie Ash — April 02, 2008 6 min read

If students in the United States embrace the literary phenomenon now sweeping Japan, the next great American novel could be written on a cellphone.

In Japan, five of the top 10 best-selling novels of 2007 were originally written as cellphone novels, according to an annual list published by Tohan, a major Japanese book-selling company. Writers create such works by typing out snippets of their stories on their cellphones in text messages and sending them to a Web site, where readers can follow, and react to, the works-in-progress. Text messaging requires the writer to limit each sent message to about 160 characters. The writers tend to be young, digitally savvy students.

It’s a movement that educators say has the potential to make writing more accessible and engaging for American students, too.

“Literature is one place where [cellphones] are already having an impact, whether we like it or not, as far as making the process of writing more accessible,” says Rachel S. Smith, the vice president of services for the New Media Consortium, an Austin, Texas-based group of almost 250 educational organizations focused on the exploration of new technologies.

Although some educators have harnessed cellphones for educational purposes—capitalizing on their Internet access and GPS capabilities—so far, the use of cellphones to encourage writing in classrooms has been introduced more in theory than in practice.

But the sheer number of students who have cellphones makes them a valuable educational tool, says Smith. “Even students who … don’t have a computer often have a cellphone. [Students] carry [cellphones] all the time,” she says. “They don’t go anywhere without [them], so you’re reaching them where they are.”

That accessibility and immediacy may entice students who would not normally sit down with the intention of writing a novel to start writing, she says.

Debate Over Quality

Paul Levinson, a science fiction writer and a communications and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York City, agrees with Smith.

“I think [cellphone novels] will be 100 percent enormously popular here in the United States,” he says. “The idea that novels have to come in books, and that people have to read a large amount at once is an old-fashioned concept. … The interest in texting, micro-blogging, [sharing] short pieces of information, fits in with human nature. A lot of people are very busy … and don’t have time to devote hours [to reading].”

But some critics liken the cellphone-novel format to comic books, and they worry that the conversational style in which they are normally written could have potentially damaging effects on students’ writing skills.

“The quality of the writing in a lot of Japanese cellphone novels is pretty low,” says Ben Dooley, a translator of Japanese and a contributing writer to The Millions, a blog about books, reading, and the book industry. “It’s generally better than [instant-messaging] chats, but not by much. So while educational potential is there, it’s not as though the kids are going to be reading Shakespeare.”

Typically, cellphone novels depend heavily on plot movement, while skimping on character development, prose, and description, says Dooley. “They have a very minimalist, fill-in-the-blank style of writing and tend to present readers with pretty flat characters.”

But, he says, “Raymond Carver is often called a minimalist, and no one would deny he’s an important writer.

“Will cellphone novels produce someone of that quality? Only time will tell.”

Kathleen Yancey, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, or NCTE, based in Urbana, Ill., and an English professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, argues that cellphone novels hone important writing skills.

“There is actually an art to creating a message for a cell screen,” she says. “It privileges the ability to use shorthand and rewards people for reading subtext, [which is] a fairly sophisticated maneuver.”

The idea is reminiscent of such 19th-century British novelists as Charles Dickens, says Yancey, in that the writing is first published in epistolary form. Cellphone novels are essentially “a replication, with a new technology, of a practice that was used very successfully 175 years ago,” she says.

Releasing a novel in such a way, says Yancey, allows students to share their work in draft form with a wide audience, compile the responses, and adjust the work accordingly.

New Avenues of Expression

Kylene Beers, the president-elect of the NCTE, suggests the educational potential of cellphone novels lies in the increased level of engagement they encourage.

“Setting aside [the question of] is it a good book or a bad book, [teachers should] think about the level of engagement and the sophisticated thinking you have to do to parse [the story] down to that language,” says Beers, who is the senior reading advisor for the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.

For students, part of the attraction of cellphone novels is the social and collaborative nature of the medium, Beers suggests.

“We’ve never had a generation of teens that were more social than this group,” she says. “We take very little advantage of that in school.”

To keep students engaged, educators need to tap into that desire for collaboration, she argues. And cellphone novels are an example of just that.

Smith, from the New Media Consortium, also believes that cellphone writing could have a positive impact on students. “If they’re writing at all, that’s great,” she says. “Conversational sentence structure is part of the medium. Just because [students] write this way doesn’t mean they can’t write the other way.”

And the more students practice writing, the better they will become, Smith says. “It’s going to be a different kind of book if you sit down and write it for two hours every day,” she adds. “But this is a new experience, and a beneficial experience, I think.”

Tom Daccord, an educational technology specialist and the author of an upcoming book called Best Ideas for Teaching With Technology, agrees with Smith.

“Ultimately, we want to encourage kids to write,” he says. “And we’ve got to accept the reality that there are different forms of writing, and with the evolution of the Web, especially Web 2.0, there are new avenues for kids to express themselves both informally and formally.”

Uniquely Japanese?

But do cellphone novels have a chance of appealing to Americans, or are they uniquely Japanese? Mizuko Ito, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, is skeptical of the medium’s potential in the United States.

Japanese readers are more accustomed to reading text on mobile devices, she says, while Americans often view Internet access on hand-held devices as a second-rate substitute for PC-based access.

“The desirability of having [e-mail, games, or novels] always with you in a personal, private form,” says Ito, “outweighs the advantage of having a keyboard and a larger screen [for the Japanese].” That’s not the case for Americans, she argues.

In addition, long commutes on public transportation—where many cellphone novels are written—are much more common in Japan than they are in the United States, she notes.

What’s more, the nature of the Japanese language itself may also explain why cellphone novels have caught on more quickly in that part of the world, says Dooley, the translator who blogs for The Millions.

“The Japanese language is a high-context language, which basically means that more information can be conveyed with a fewer number of words than in low-context languages,” he says. “Japanese … also uses ideograms in addition to a phonetic alphabet. Ideograms can be used to convey complex concepts in a very small number of characters.”

But if the cellphone-writing movement does catch on here, it will most likely be thanks to students rather than older adults, he says.

“Kids certainly spend more time on their cellphones than adults,” says Dooley, “so if cellphone novels were to catch on anywhere, I think it would be among that demographic.”

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Katie Ash is a contributing writer for Digital Directions.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2008 edition of Digital Directions


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