Friday, January 2, 2009

Cell phone novels

This won't be an erudite consideration of deep questions about high culture and low culture, because (1) I'm just emerging from a flu and still somewhat bleary-eyed and brain-clogged, (2) even if I were at my peak, erudition isn't quite my specialty, and (3) high and low are false and meaningless categories of culture. What interests me is how culture reflects, advances or retards the class struggle.

Which is why I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of the cell-phone novel. No doubt I'm late in learning about it, courtesy of a piece in the Dec. 22/29 New Yorker, but now that I do know I'd like to know more. For those even further behind than me: cell-phone novels have been sweeping Japan. They are written mostly by young, even teenaged, women, who write the stories, yes, on their cell phones. In cell-phone-ese, complete with the Japanese equivalents of LOL, OMG and so on. Apparently the tales are brief soap operas, some autobiographical, some fantastical, most falling squarely within the romance genre. The authors write them on their cell phones and post them onto web sites from which readers, primarily other young or teenaged women, can then read them on their cell phones. These stories have become so popular that they are now being picked up by conventional publishers and printed as books, which in turn become huge bestsellers.

The New Yorker article is awash in the undertone of condescension that's typical of coverage of non-European cultural issues, so I don't trust it beyond factual accuracy (if that) and won't draw from it any conclusions about what's going on with Japanese books. Particularly when I know that at this very same moment one of the biggest bestsellers in Japan is The Crab Canning Ship by Takiji Kobayashi, a 1920s novel about workers toiling in miserable conditions on a factory ship that was instrumental in persuading the imperial regime to execute its communist author. This reissued novel has struck such a chord throughout Japan that this past summer a mass strike rally had the theme "We are all crab-canning ship."

So I'm not buying some petit-bourgeois U.S. commentary about the lamentable state of Japanese letters as exemplified by the rise of cell-phone novels. Now, I'm not going to launch a defense of them as the great new proletarian form, either. Japan is a rich imperialist country whose means of cultural expression are owned by big capital just like here, "art" is produced primarily for profit just like here, works that lull the working class and dull the impulse to struggle will always be promoted just like here. But I can't quite bring myself to denounce this new form as a form, either. There is nothing like a literary novel, in my opinion, no other means to explore with as much depth and subtlety the vital questions of human life and struggle; still, there may be other entries or short cuts along the way, should some practitioner find a method of employing them to address the meaty issues. Perhaps it's foolish to even speculate about cell-phone lit ever doing that, but it wasn't long ago that no one would have imagined graphic novels being taken seriously either. We shall see.

In any case, no form can ever surpass the U.S. cinema for scraping the bottom of the cultural barrel. Stuck at home sick as I've been, I've watched a number of movies and I've got to say there seems to be no limit to the dreck Hollywood can dish out. "Mama Mia"--my goodness, what a train wreck! "The Dark Knight"--could this drivel have droned on for a few more hours? "Sex and the City"--need I even comment?