By Kate Jenkins, a writer, editor, and publisher. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Refinery 29, Innovations Journal, and others. She’s also the founder/editor-in-chief of The Intentional Quarterly, a print literary magazine dedicated to emerging creatives and to the exploration of identity and purpose.
In Laura Miller’s 2011 piece for The Guardian, she points out that readers and writers alike are eager to preserve the distance that separates literature from the worldly affairs of Internet writing. “Literature is where you retreat,” she writes, “when you’re sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants—in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.” Reading Miller’s piece reminded me of a friend who told me she had been unable to finish Zadie Smith’s On Beauty simply because she couldn’t get down with reading the emails that appear throughout the book. But Miller rightfully argues that writers who seek to create a realistic representation of the 21st century must incorporate abundant digital interaction into their characters’ lives, and few are doing this. “There have been some gimmicky stunt novels—routine romantic comedies told entirely in emails or status updates or text messages—but more searching depictions of how technology is embedded in the lives of ordinary people have been pretty rare.”
When I read On Beauty, the emails didn’t bother me. In fact, they made me think, for the first time, about the literary utility of email and other tech-dependent communication. And more than that, even, I found myself reflecting on the real life utility of email, text, and Gchat to the establishing and maintaining of my own relationships. There’s much to be said about the deleterious effects of technology on my generation’s sense of community (and much has been said already), but at the same time, we should recognize that all these forms of communication carry with them their own practical applications, etiquette, and cultural significance.
As someone who often finds herself paralyzed in the face of a difficult conversation, only to have all the possible responses replaying on loop for the next week, I feel a deep appreciation for the pacing of email. It allows us the time to craft a thoughtful response, to temper our reactions, to prepare our arguments, and even to appear eloquent, if we so choose. Where face-to-face confrontation in my life has been stunted, clumsy, and regretful, a well-crafted email has at times been redeeming. I suppose the same could be said for written letters, but the immediacy of email and its pervasiveness throughout modern day-to-day life lend it a much more central role in our relationships than letter writing ever had. We can respond carefully, and we can do it before the crucial moment has passed.
In fiction, email could more often be used to tie up the loose ends of a drama and allow the character to speak for herself about her reflections on the events that have taken place. Sheila Heti proves this beautifully in How Should A Person Be?, as she and her best friend experiment with artful exchanges, navigate tense situations, and find the courage to name their emotions via email. Likewise, the ambiguity of text messages, the nervous anticipation that can be created by blinking Gchat windows, the minefield of envy on Facebook—maybe all of these could be said to be underused literary devices.
Overly earnest, neatly packaged dialogue too often feels contrived; whip-smart comebacks, witty little quips, moments of insight, and spontaneous, poetic declarations of love largely exist in our fantasies. And when fictional characters breezily live out those unlikely fantasies on the page, they themselves can become inauthentic. (Of course there’s a balance to strike, because as Dave Eggers wrote in his introduction to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, even nonfiction dialogue has to be cleaned up a bit from its natural form so as to “spare” the characters “the shame of sounding as inarticulate as they invariable do, or would, if their sentences, almost invariably begun with the word ‘Dude’—as in, for example, ‘Dude, she died’—were merely transcribed.”) But email presents this rare opportunity, in that authors can give their characters permission for a moment to be as stunningly articulate as they like.
I feel strongly that I prefer to consume my literature in print form, maintaining it separate from my Internet consumption (for some reason the adage “don’t shit where you eat” comes to mind), and I have major concerns about stylistic Internet writing trends and their eventual effect on our literary tradition. But as technology begins to seep into the fictional realm, we’re met with a new abundance of tools for creating a fresh kind of literary merit, and perhaps we sell ourselves short if we don’t make good use of them.