"Closer to poetry": the art of texting in novels

How millennial novelists are confronting the challenging of representing our text habits in fiction

February 14, 2019
Through texting, chat and e-mails, we write more than ever before. That poses a challenge for authors. Photo: Prospect composite
Through texting, chat and e-mails, we write more than ever before. That poses a challenge for authors. Photo: Prospect composite

Through texting, chat and e-mails, we write more than ever before. That poses a challenge for authors. Photo: Prospect composite

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 plot. They are filled with context and detail and possess narrative shape—much like fiction itself.

Instant messages, on the other hand, are a different animal altogether. Unlike emails, they are not self-contained, but snippets of certain moments of certain days, resembling snatches of speech.

At the same time, however, they are not speech.

When a character talks to someone face-to-face or over the phone, novelists are free to imagine their tone of voice, accent, gestures, emphasis and body language. Spoken exchanges can be imbued with richness and texture. But when characters chat via screen, all they do is press “send,” leaving no room for authorial embellishment. The dialogue just lies on the page like a film script.

The sterility of online discourse is particularly evident in Rooney’s novels, which are highly attentive to physical changes and subtle gestures. In Conversations with Friends, the backs of Frances’ hand are repeatedly pressed against her face, while in Normal People a thin layer of perspiration can often be spotted on Connell’s upper lip. When we reach a patch of digital chat, therefore, the absence of such detail is palpable.

This is not a failing. Unlike less skilful writers, Rooney harnesses the bareness and ambiguity of instant messaging. Her characters are alert to it and use it to their advantage.

On the cusp of a stressful and emotional encounter, for example, Connell texts “cool see you soon” with utmost composure. Messaging becomes a subtle means of manipulation and self-fashioning, allowing characters to define their own emphasis more consciously and formally than in speech.

Not all authors are so successful, however; in a lot of fiction, the stripped-back quality of text talk coincides with a lack of believability. The dialogue feels thin and artificial. This can’t be blamed entirely on a lack of descriptive depth—layers of representation also play a part. If Plato’s claim that art is at three removes from reality is correct, then imaginary electronic messages inhabit an even more distant realm. They are pieces of writing produced by fictional writers who are created by real writers. As a result, they tinge novels with a certain self-consciousness; books become “meta,” whether they like it or not.

Rooney and Batuman are unfazed by this extra layer of mediation because their main characters have literary pretensions and often view instant messages and emails as extensions of their creative output. In Normal People, Connell worries his short stories aren’t as good as his emails, while in Conversations with Friends the established writer Melissa sends messages which underline her writerly status. (Frances thinks it is “an affectation on Melissa’s part not to include paragraph breaks, as if she was saying: look at the tide of emotion that has swept over me”.)

Batuman takes this one step further: her protagonist Selin has a quasi-fictional relationship inspired by Russian literature over email, complete with an alter-ego called Sonya and a collective Siberian farm.

The reality is, however, that very few people who own a phone or a laptop are spoken word poets, like Frances and her friend, or talented short story writers like Selin, and when authors imagine their digital conversations they fall slightly flat. This is because what these characters are writing — and how they are reading— does not fall inside a literary framework at all.

When it comes to instant messaging, there is an enormous, complex set of conventions which people abide by. Take dating apps. Users craft the messages they send to potential lovers and scrutinise those they receive. People become obsessive readers—for once, practical criticism is truly practical.

However, the rules of the medium bear almost no relation to the codes and traditions of novel writing, particularly realist novel writing. Readers look for different things. They are alert to different textual nuances and signals. Metaphors and similes are replaced by emojis and gifs. Consequently, when digital dialogue is transplanted into a body of literary prose there’s a strong likelihood that it will be rejected.

In an interview with Bookforum about Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner said: “in a way [digital] chat is closer to poetry than prose in so far as the fragmentation of syntax bears an emotional charge”. This is a striking suggestion. When you think of modernist poetry, with its shards of speech and broken lines, the similarities are hard to deny.

What’s more, Lerner’s comment opens up the possibility of using the internet as a means of producing verse. If poetry resembles quick-fire online exchanges, can the situation not be inverted?

The American poet and essayist Patricia Lockwood has already spotted this opportunity, posting a series of parodic, poetic sexts on her Twitter feed, and other young writers are likely to follow suit. Although novels run into difficulty, therefore, other forms of media are more fluid than we think. Perhaps texts and text will prove well suited after all.