Texting in Novels.

Jemma Slingo has an interesting piece in Prospect, beginning with the observation that “Our lives are filled with texts, emails and instant messages […] 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.”

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? […]

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. […]

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. […]

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.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. 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.

    Well, no. There are might be many reasons why authors would like or not like to include text messages in their stories, but it is not because there is something difficult with messaging itself. First of all, like in 19th century prose (or whatever is the baseline) no one prohibits authors to fantasize about their protagonist’s state of mind when they type or receive texts. It can be done even with physical descriptions.

    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.

    But that’s good. It opens up new angles and possibilities. The more different animals an author has to work with, the better might be the show.

  2. True, but they have to figure out how to make good use of it. That sort of thing always takes time.

  3. In the 19th century there were a lot of novels consisting only of a supposed series of letters. But there were never any novels consisting only of telegrams. Some novels made a lot of use of telegrams, Sherlock Holmes, for example, was always sending and receiving telegrams. It was the instant messaging of its day.

    A letter gives a writer plenty of room to stretch out, but a telegram is generally pretty terse. So a telegram is ideal for a detective story where you just want to insert one clue into the narrative. A letter will give a much better and more detailed account of someone’s emotional state.

    At one time it was popular to have detectives who didn’t go anywhere, but solved crimes entirely by sitting and using their powerful brains to find the solution, like Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner. This is a genre in which much of the action could take place by email. They send out their assistants to research whether the duchess owned a dog, and they get the result by email. Then they send out another email to count the whiskers on the tigerskin rug.

    Another genre has showed up a few times on BBC radio, where someone gets an email from someone who they thought was dead. Key to this sort of thing is that the messaging is not reliable. You reply to an email, but did the person receive it?

  4. In 19C fiction, it wasn’t uncommon for a story to have a character receive a telegram and then react to what it said. So even if sending a text is emotionally flat, receiving is one need not be.

    Famous terse telegrams, historical, dubious, and legendary.

  5. the observation that “Our lives are filled with texts, emails and instant messages …”


    There’s an increasing tendency in the brainless media to start some vapid social observation in the 1st Person Plural. Very often it’s the Hed and it’s in question form: Why do we …?

    Very often it’s about some TV program that apparently “we” all watch obsessively; probably some ‘reality show’ on the tiresome lives of ‘celebrities’.

    I send texts, emails, IMs. No my life is not “filled” with it. I do not watch TV (there’s no TV in the house). I especially do not watch ‘reality TV’. Most of these ‘celebrities’ I have never heard of. It occupies zero part of my life.

    So count me out of your goddam “we”/”our lives”.


  6. “When a politician says ‘we’, he means either ‘I’ or ‘you’.”
    I once saw this quip or something like it. IIRC, it’s by Will Rogers Mencken Churchill Shakespeare Twain.

  7. But when doctors say “we” to you, it mostly means “you”. Unless they say “We don’t know what caused your leg to go gangrenous”.

  8. Ant, I recently found that television has changed. There’s a great deal of choice if you bypass the television networks and go straight to Netflicks, Amazon Prime etc. It’s not as wide a choice as all the literature in the world but they do show lots of films. Think of tv as merely a medium, like the printing press or the stage. Reality tv is the equivalent of a self-help book or a celebrity biography.

  9. bypass the television networks

    Well of course, US late shows on Youtube are where I get all my news about Trump. (UK doesn’t seem to have caught up: other than Jonathan Pie, the occasional HIGNFY doesn’t rise to the same level, despite having equally good material to work from.)

    they do show lots of films.

    Thanks, but isn’t that what cinemas are for?

    I continue to resent the presumptuousness of “we” in this junk opinionage. Even the Guardian is doing it.

  10. It’s not until you see a full
    set of female genitals
    filling your TV screen that
    you realise how little they
    feature in our culture.
    Bravo, Laura Dodsworth

    – Guardian headline yesterday.

  11. Thanks, but isn’t that what cinemas are for?

    I would have said that when I was living in NYC and had all the films I could ever want to see showing on actual movie screens (I am especially nostalgic for the career retrospectives at MOMA and Lincoln Center, where I saw all of Fassbinder and Godard), but now that I’m living in the boonies and almost never get to a movie theater, I’m very grateful for the not-ideal-but-still-acceptable option of seeing them on my home screens (TV or computer; I still haven’t sunk to watching movies on my smartphone).

  12. Yup, nine movie theaters in easy walking distance of my home. And yet we (as in “Gale and I”, not “New Yorkers in general” or whatever) rarely go to one of them, though we used to a lot, in between our theatre period and our current cable TV period. Perhaps there is an Internet film period in our future; I don’t know yet.

  13. The last chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I mentioned the other day because of the barking dog, also includes some texting. (It also has a whole chapter written as a powerpoint presentation). And there are large sections of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story that are in the form of lengthy email/text exchanges.

  14. The last chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I mentioned recently because of its barking dog, also has some text message exchanges. And another chapter is composed entirely as a powerpoint presentation. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story has some length sections in the form of email/text exchanges.

    [apologies if this appears twice — my earlier message poofed into the ether]

  15. Well, damn, wouldn’t you know it…

  16. We (me & Dyv) are in our internet film period. I used to go to 3 movies a day in NY.

  17. There was a very widely-shared New Yorker short story last year, “Cat Person,” that made effective use of texting, both thematically and as a plot device.

    For my part, I seem to have largely passed the texting phase of my life. My phone tells me I’ve only sent three during the past month. However, judging by appearances, many of my students are even now composing the future text message epics Ms. Slingo yearns for.

  18. Not a novel, but already ten years ago the cult classic webcomic/hypertext fiction Homestuck (2009–2016) was heavily built around chat logs as its primary type of dialogue.

  19. A fair number of the books I see aimed at tweens include texting conversations. Most of these books are humorous, but a few are meant to be serious. Generally, the text messages are formatted differently from the running copytext, not seamlessly integrated into the layout.

  20. OT: Why is that article in the title Leaving the Atocha Station? I keep seeing articles where I think they aren’t necessary. Why are there people who think they are necessary?

    Another peeve: The indefinite article used without an ‘n’ before an initial vowel. Eg. A apple. (Grunt. Grunt.) An apple. It flows!

    Atocha Station, by the way, is in Madrid, is it not? I don’t think I ever left it.

  21. I just found one of those novels with social media as part of the narrative,is inthe trunk of my car. It was definitely on the silly side, featuring Marvel Comics’ Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl’s sobriquet is modeled after those of many other classic Marvel superheroes: The Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Mighty Thor, Invincible Ironman, etc. Of the major Silver Age Marvel heroes, only the X-Men did not start off with that kind if title, although they were later christened as “Uncanny.” In Squirrel Girl’s case, the title is part of a long-running joke surrounding her character. She has the not seemingly very powerful abilities of improved agility and talking with squirrels. Yet she has repeatedly managed to defeat, off panel, top-tier villains like Thanos and Dr. Doom.

  22. Why is that article in the title Leaving the Atocha Station?

    I can’t answer that, but don’t blame Lerner, he took it from a John Ashbery poem of that title:

    The worn stool blazing    pigeons from the roof
             driving tractor to squash
    Leaving the Atocha Station    steel
    infected bumps the screws
        everywhere    wells
    abolished top ill-lit
    scarecrow falls […]

  23. (That was from his early Tennis Court Oath period, where he seemed intent on complete incomprehensibility, before he mellowed into the genially unobvious Ashbery I’ve celebrated at LH since at least 2003.)

  24. John W Cowan says

    Vernor Vinge’s sf novel A Fire Upon the Deep contains many passages that are transparent and affectionate parodies of Usenet postings, though with “Language-Path:” rather than “Path:” headers. There has been much speculation that “Sandor Arbitration Intelligence at the Zoo”, one of the posters (“a known military corporation of the High Beyond [a region of the galaxy where FTL travel but not transhuman AI is possible]”) is also a trans. and aff. parody of Henry Spencer, aka utzoo!henry or more modernly henry@zoo.toronto.edu, the original Usenet archivist and author of many books, software packages, and wise sayings[*]. Wikipedia asserts this as a fact, but without a citation; the last I heard, Henry didn’t know and Vernor wasn’t talking.

    Note that as often happens on Usenet and its relatives, the apparently completely clueless poster Twirlip of the Mists (“Perhaps an organization of cloud fliers in a single jovian system”) is the only one on the right track after all! (Vinge says he didn’t notice this until after he had written the Twirlipian Subject: line “Hexapodia as the key insight?”). I suppose I must go ahead and buy the Annotated (by the author) Edition to maybe find out.

    [*] Most of these are irrelevant here, but I’ll quote this one: “The fanatics of the Pronoun Gestapo […] believe that great efforts and loud shouting devoted to the ritual purification of the language will somehow redound to the benefit of the downtrodden (whose real and grievous woes tendeth [sic] to get lost amidst all that thunder and fury).”

    Leaving the Atocha Station steel
    infected bumps the screws

    If that is to be read as a single (albeit colorless green) sentence, then “the Atocha Station steel” is a perfectly cromulent NP.

  25. If that is to be read as a single (albeit colorless green) sentence, then “the Atocha Station steel” is a perfectly cromulent NP.

    It is perhaps to prevent such a reading that he added extra spaces before “steel.”

  26. I think that was just a pause in speech.

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