New Yorker Nails Keitai Novels

New Yorker: I ♥ NOVELS

Japan-based bloggers, magazine writers, and newspaper correspondents: give up your day jobs (present writer included). We all just got schooled by New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear, who has written the best English article so far on the keitai shosetsu “cell phone novel” phenomenon. Two months in Japan was apparently all it took to hit all the important angles and catch 1,000 struggling Japan hands with their pants down.

A few points:

1) The keitai novel phenomena clearly links to the “yankii-zation” of Japanese pop culture. Not a new idea, but maybe the most important basic concept to explain what is going on right now in almost all cultural fields, especially fashion and music. ヤンキー=短絡的思想. Japanese pop culture is, and has always been, all about socioeconomic class, who has power, who sets tastes. The upper middle class have been totally defeated in the realm of mass culture. Or they’ve retreated to some new space.

2) Goodyear does a pretty good job of making the ubiquitous author anonymity seem legitimate: authors are embarrassed about their work, even if successful.

3) Democratization of culture means more and more creators with “non-artistic” goals who create for personal satisfaction/catharsis but whose work, through the process of the market structure, becomes equalized in format to the old style of creator who had the traditional “artistic” reason to create. Yoshimoto Banana saying that keitai novels aren’t novels is not snobbery, it’s proper classification of motive and content.

W. David MARX
December 23, 2008

11 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Big ups to Goodyear.

    “We all just got schooled”

    Still, there are worse things to get schooled by than the New Yorker….

    Can look at it like this – you guys have been sorta lulled to sleep by the almost uniformly horrid quality of mainstream Japan reporting, right? No need to rush on these things because 99% of the time, no mainstream publications are going to do it right anyway. So you get surprised once a year…. Don’t sweat it.

  2. M-Bone Says:

    “Japanese books read right to left, and the script falls vertically from the top of the page, like spiders dangling from silk.”

    Thumbs down to this, however.

  3. M. Nestor Says:

    “Thumbs down,” hehe.

  4. Adamu Says:

    If we are going to talk about whether this is getting schooled, I have to say I don’t really see myself as in competition with a place like the New Yorker or even the New York Times. If there is a piece of intelligent writing about Japan that is about sometihng I am not familiar with, then all I can say is THANK YOU. I have never even attempted long-form magazine writing, just blogging my thoughts.. I will pretend to expertise and am awfully opinionated at times, but in the end I don’t consider myself all that much more sophisticated than those keitai novelists.

    The parachuted journalists etc often get it so wrong about Japan because they can’t see past their prejudices and maybe aren’t even all that emotionally invested in the topic to begin with. And maybe they just aren’t talented writers. But far be it from me to take any offense from someone who does the job right.

    Now off to read that piece…

  5. Adamu Says:

    Personally, I have also been “lulled to sleep” by the quality of vernacular reporting. Now that I am actually IN Japan, I feel like as long as I am informed there is no need to blog about it.

  6. Matt Says:

    Always with the class warfare… In “keitai shosetsu teki” (review coming soon, I promise) Hayamizu focuses more on place, and he has some good statistics and arguments to back that up. Obviously the two are related due to the gross wealth imbalance between the big cities and everywhere else, but place is a more interesting influence on the content of the genre, and also its audience.

    Being set nowhere, k.s. are about everywhere. Since they are distributed via internet and cellphone, and once they become popular, via big chain bookstores, they can also be everywhere. High literature is distributed only physically, and from publishers who are ALL in Tokyo. It couldn’t win even if its content was of equal interest to the target audience.

    When you think about it this way, it’s not so much a yankii invasion of pop culture as it is technology enabling the development of a whole new Unified Yankii Wing of the pop culture enterprise, replacing the scattered shanty towns of old. If the old part of the building looks less impressive by comparison, well, it’s still the same size as it always was…

  7. Mulboyne Says:

    I think keitai shosetsu have a lot in common with the romance stories of Mills & Boon, now owned by Harlequin in Canada. Any article which doesn’t draw this comparison is missing a trick. The audience is large for both, the writing styles are simple, many authors are women and a lot of them prefer to use pseudonyms. This observation from the Wikipedia entry has a counterpart in comment in the New Yorker piece:

    “Some critics have claimed that the genre promotes misogyny and the sexual submission of women to men, pointing particularly to the comments by one of Mills & Boon writers, Violet Winspear in 1970 that all her heroes had to be ‘capable of rape’.”

    There are similar debates about whether the books constitute literature and, where keitai novels appear first on servers rather than store bookshelves, Mill & Boon romances are also sold in great part by mail order subscription and the company hopes to move increasingly to digital distribution. The have been in Japan since at least the early eighties and even offer some titles, in text and manga form, via keitai.

    The New Yorker piece also mentions how companies now commission professional writers to turn out keitai shosetsu which and Mill & Boon have regularly done that in the past.

    Is it really, then, “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age”? Line breaks aside, the genre has always arguably been there but the “keitai” has simply provided a new route to bring writers and readers together.

    Incidentally, Harlequin has a business opportunity for three foreign men in Japan:

    http://www.harlequin.co.jp/30th/

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    When you think about it this way, it’s not so much a yankii invasion of pop culture as it is technology enabling the development of a whole new Unified Yankii Wing of the pop culture enterprise

    Sure. It’s about battling influences on middle mass culture, and I think the yankii’s vision makes more sense for the middle classes right now than the “culturally indulgent” upper middle class Saison Culture.

  9. Matt Says:

    I just don’t think the metaphor of a battle or struggle is useful here. In an ecosystem, competition within species drives evolution to a far greater extent than competition between species (barring exceptional events like the sudden introduction of a new predator, postwar occupaton, etc.). Yankii don’t have to battle for influence on middle class culture — it gets thrust upon them when conditions favor them more.

    Mulboyne: I have to disagree with you there. It’s true that both are mostly read by women, both are decentralized to an extent, and both are (in effect) experiments in revealed preferences with results that dismay High Culture. But there are big differences too.

    First of all, the demographics of their audiences really have nothing in common except gender. K.s. skew much, much younger, and they are also about younger characters. This might change as the form matures, but I actually doubt it. They draw on the seishun tradition which requires its main characters to be on the cusp of adulthood. Harlequins are about adults.

    Secondly, “serious” authors might consider Harlequins trash, but they don’t deny that they are novels. Harlequins are written and edited in a professional context that keeps them in line with technical expectations for “novel prose”. K.s. have no editors and are written by amateurs who aren’t even aiming for “novel prose” in the first place (their literary roots are TV and manga), and don’t have editors to keep them on track in any case. It’s really not just about line breaks– there’s a qualitative difference.

    Finally, Harlequins as a genre go through the usual publishing/retailing channels and are designed to be consumed as books: you buy one, sit down on your own, and read it as a story with a start and end. With k.s. the freeness and networking aspects are arguably just as important: you don’t buy them, you are conscious of being part of a “reading community”, and you read them in installments. (The big hits do then get into print through standard publishing/retailing channels and read as books, but I’d argue that this is doesn’t drive evolution within the form.)

    So, to summarize, arguing that the genre has always arguably been there is kind of like saying that blogs are just journalism except writers and readers are connected differently. It’s true as far as it goes, but it also misses the most interesting parts of the story.

    (Professionalization of the form is an interesting but separate topic. I think that most people, when they say “keitai shosetsu”, are referring to the emergent amateur-driven genre rather than any long-form fiction delivered via keitai. It may well turn out that the pros take control of the medium, though, relegating the amateurs to the long tail — again, just like the blogosphere.)

  10. xee Says:

    as an addendum to Matt’s comment – Mills&Boon novels were, and presumably still are, written following established company guidelines, which I think actually came as an information pack sent out by the publishers to prospective M&B authors. It wasn’t just that they were edited and made into “novel prose”: elements of characterisation, description, and plot were determined by the publisher. However formulaic/formalistic k.s. are, however many common conceits and concepts they hold, there’s not the same “top-down” system where the rules of the story are officially produced by the company involved.
    In that respect, I guess a more fitting analogy would be something like romance fanfiction (also by-women-for-women, sentimental/melodramatic, pseudonymously written, distributed free, formalistic, not professionally edited), which doesn’t have hard and fast official rules but rules of the genre have appeared all the same.

  11. Jared Says:

    I’m surprised at this response. When I first read the piece, I assumed neo-japonisme would be against it–on first glance it seemed like one more “OMG aren’t Japanese schoolgirls insane” piece. Points 1 and 3 above are VERY buried in Goodyear’s article. It’s nice to see people writing seriously about technology and literary style, but I think she leans a bit too heavily on the differences between Japanese and Western writing systems. The spider thread line quoted above was the worst example of that.

    But probably my expectations are higher considering that it’s the New Yorker. For someone parachuting in, you’re right that it’s impressive.