Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Japan's Digital Novels

The article in this weekend’s New York Times about Japan’s cell phone novel craze is interesting for U.S. literary publishing. First, it confirms the ability of new media to test the market (call it a form of literary “sampling”). Second, it affirms the print publication of the novel after digital market research. So far, other than various experimental texts, such “novels” seem to be more like blogs or growing-up stories. Whether “substantive” literature can be composed on a cell phone is an open question.

The U.S. digital market is different from most others. The U.S. has embraced personal computers to a greater extent than most other countries. Other countries have embraced the use of cell phones more than in the U.S. As for literature, Japan has a history of piecemeal literature: in the mid-1990s the writer Banana Yoshimoto published the short story Newlywed exclusively on signage on commuter railways around Tokyo. Yet serialization doesn’t seem to have captured the U.S. imagination, at least not from what I can see. Stephen King’s The Plant online novel didn’t generate enough interest in serialized, digital form so he abandoned it. Despite its good reviews, Walter Kirn’s 2006 serialized, digital novel for Slate.com, The Unbinding (and his subsequent Slate exchange with Gary Shteyngart) didn't make a big splash. Perhaps their time has not arrived and we are still awaiting an e-reader for such efforts.

On the other hand, short forms of literature downloaded to the personal computer have proliferated, though readership is limited compared to Japan’s cell phone genre. Narrative and Words Without Borders are two of the more well-known on-line literary magazines, but there are many others. The One Story publishing program seems to have succeeded in print and will most likely succeed when a good e-reader is widely available. When last I looked, Narrative had about 25,000 subscribers, not bad for a literary magazine. I'm a subscriber, but I don't read the stories. I would read a lot more journal-based literature if I could download it easily while sitting with my single producer espresso in Cafe Grumpy.

Poetry has also made inroads, though not to cell phones, from what I gather. The Writer's Almanac arrives in my inbox every morning, topped by a poem, and smart phones may be the next literary realm. Right now one would have to broadband The Writer’s Almanac, but a simple phone download to a smart phone would be a good way to start the day, especially since it can encompass both visual and sound. Short, short stories—the shorter ones from Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, for example—would be a welcome direct download so I don’t have to haze through my computer beforehand to get it onto an iPod. Give it to me straight from the ether, I say.

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