Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Different but just how different...

I don't want this to be a case of "that is sooooo weird!," like when people talk about seeing clips late at night on cable of Japanese game shows where the contestants get, I don't know, thrown in the air by a giant sling if they answer a question wrong. So this is most definitely not like that.

In fact, this Norimitsu Onishi story in the New York Times is quite fascinating and entirely believeable. It seems, cellphone novels have become quite the rage in Japan, written by young women on their cellphones as text messages. And what's amazing is that these serialized stories have successfully transitioned to printed books: "last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cellphone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it."
“Will cellphone novels kill ‘the author’?” a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.

One can see the parallels, with all this talk, certainly outside of Japan, of whether bloggers can write books. Often, they can't, but the printed word can still co-exist and even complement the virtual literary world, it seems.

That's all well and good, but a note on this particular form of writing: it may be dumbing down Japan's culture a wee bit. Here's my evidence:
"They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them,” she said. “On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”

That's a problem. But I would like to see one of these novels - sadly, it would have to be translated - to see if it's really overly simply, to the point of being problematic. I mean, do these things read like picture books?

At the risk of sounding like a real shill for this paper, another New York Times article caught my attention: this one by Richard Perez-Pena, about James O'Shea's "parting shot" as he was ousted as editor at the L.A. Times. Though of course he was a pissed off employing firing a final shot at the boss who sacked him, I think the man probably made some good points regarding the owners of the paper, the Tribune Company. They own many, many papers and some have suggested - sorry, don't have time to find links - that they and media conglomerates like them are the reason our newspapers are in crisis. It isn't that people are not reading papers, but that shareholders are demanding more and more returns from papers when they own stock in these conglomerates, so companies like the Tribune cut costs, shutting bureaus and slashing writers on staff, to increase profit margins. Jimmy Boegle made this point last summer at the Tuscon Weekly blog, with rightful indignation, I'm sure (but pardon the language):

Most of these cuts (although not necessarily all of them) are typical of the dumb-ass greed of today’s newspaper companies. It happens all the time: A newspaper has an off quarter or year, profits-wise (they’re still profitable, mind you, just not AS profitable as shareholders or management wants); they respond by cutting staff/resources to keep profits high; the paper’s quality invariably suffers; readers/advertisers notice this and stop reading/buying ads; a newspaper has an off quarter or year, profits-wise; repeat cycle.

This is slightly oversimplifying, yes, but the fact is that GREED–not Craigslist or the Internet or these young whippersnappers today who have short attention spans–will kill off most newspapers as we know them by 2020.

It’s sad. I just hope newspaper shareholders and owners get their heads out of their asses and realize that innovation and reinvestment, not insane budget cuts, are the keys to the future. I am not optimistic.


This is similar to O'Shea's point, I believe, though this article doesn't quite say it as bluntly. In more coded language:
“Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers,” he wrote, “so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and Web sites.”

There are clearly some internal issues at that paper, but I am deeply suspicious of that Tribune Company, and, on a personal note, I'm sick of reading the Globe and feeling like it's not much better than the Metro, which just collects AP articles. These papers need originally reporting to sustain national reputations, so why is half their material AP, NY Times, or the Washington Post?!

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