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Text Me: On New Technology in Fiction

1.
2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005.

In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill.

At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this.

The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power.

I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.”

Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”:
Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life.
I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say.

I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he’s lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser.

In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages.

House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs.

“I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.”

Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover.

2.
But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of ’90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted?

The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.”

Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.”

Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.”

As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.”

For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.”

Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.”

Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.”

3.
The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.”

There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages.

“I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’”

Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person.

Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself.

4.
When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online?

Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.)

Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts.

Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.”

I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating.

Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.

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