Get your feet wet

The most pretentious opening sentence yet

Between reminiscences of his days with Huxley and Burroughs, Timothy Leary and I had been debating the future of the written word.

How exactly I ended up on Tim Leary’s terrace in Beverly Hills listening to first-hand tales of literary lions and admonished that processed sugar (was) a deadlier American addiction than any illegal substance is sort of neither here nor there, but as a journalist and fiction writer, I was getting a mite peeved at his suggestion that the written word was passe.

“It’s all very sentimental, you being a writer,” he snapped. “But the written word can’t last! It’s ELITIST!”

Essentially, Tim’s argument was that multimedia (he was then conducting his national collegiate multimedia tour, at a time the word was actually novel) would supplant written communication as a universal means of relating, and that technology would prove a great leveler, one reducing production and distribution of the written word to a quaint hobby. Like cobbling. Or using your children’s small hands to set the fuses on the bombs.

I wholly disagreed; if anything, I argued, technology would explode the availability of the written word, encourage literacy and global translation, and promote its universal demand. (Also, the written word couldn’t die because giving blowjobs behind the Sands offered shitty benefits.)

So it was with a mix of pride and dismay that I read today’s New York Times piece on the newest trend in Japanese literature: the cellphone novel.

Composed entirely on mobiles, the novels are quickly upending the Japanese fiction market.

Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.

So while the Japanese debate the legitimacy of a new fiction genre and beg the question of whether the “author” is dying, I’d altogether disagree; technology is in fact creating new authors, if ones outside the moldy mold. To wit:

The affordability of cellphones coincided with the coming of age of a generation of Japanese for whom cellphones, more than personal computers, had been an integral part of their lives since junior high school. So they read the novels on their cellphones, even though the same Web sites were also accessible by computer. They punched out text messages with their thumbs with blinding speed, and used expressions and emoticons, like smilies and musical notes, whose nuances were lost on anyone over the age of 25.

“It’s not that they had a desire to write and that the cellphone happened to be there,” said Chiaki Ishihara, an expert in Japanese literature at Waseda University who has studied cellphone novels. “Instead, in the course of exchanging e-mail, this tool called the cellphone instilled in them a desire to write.”

Indeed, many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers.

So whatever my misgivings about emoticonned fiction, in the end — that is, for now — technology not only failed to kill the written word but has inarguably worked to foster it.

So take that, Tim. You know, IN SPACE.

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