How millennial novelists are confronting the challenging of representing our text habits in fictionby Jemma Slingo / February 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
We have become a society of prolific writers. Every week we write thousands of words. Love affairs start and end in writing. Friendships are cultivated in writing. Plans are made, news is broken, arguments are picked, ideas are planted. Writing is the new talking.
Or rather, typing is the new talking.
Our lives are filled with texts, emails and instant messages which transform our conversations into a mass of print and, depending on who you believe, are either butchering or bolstering our relationships.
It is strange, therefore, that novelists—who deal in dialogue and social drama—are on the whole not paying more attention to this new method of communication. Twentieth-century authors were fascinated by the way technology affected how we interact. Just think of Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust in which the telephone looms large, both as a plot devise and as a means of revolutionising literary discourse.
In our century, however, digital exchanges are typically consigned to teen-fiction and chick lit. If “serious” writers do include them, they can feel like dutifully inserted add-ons.
This is not the case in all new writing. Sally Rooney embeds online chat in her prose to great effect, as does Ben Lerner in his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, set in the mid-90s, spotlights the weirdness of email, and Olivia Laing’s Crudo satirises our newfound obsession with screens.
Even these novels, however, reveal—deliberately or otherwise—how difficult it is to integrate text talk in a piece of fiction.
What is it about electronic utterances, then, that makes them so troublesome for novelists? Why are they a problem to be solved? It is important to distinguish here between emails and instant messages.
In all key respects, emails are the same as letters, which have appeared in centuries’ worth of epistolary fiction. Although emails are a quicker form of correspondence, in the eighteenth century post was very frequent, particularly in London where it arrived several times a day (in Sense and Sensibility, letters are forever whizzing back and forth).
More important than comparable delivery speed, however, is the fact that both letters and emails set the scene for their reader and knit together disparate occurrences into a coherent…