Is Text Inadequate?


By Terry Calhoun

One weekend back in January, my wife, myself, our three fairly grown kids, and one spouse-in-law drove to eastern Ohio to celebrate a late Christmas with my mother. Since we’d been waved off by my “back home” family on a previous weekend (they’d all contracted some nasty non-computer bug), we were eager to go. But the stretch of the Ohio Turnpike between Toledo and Youngstown is one of the most completely boring stretches of road in the United States.

So, on the way out east I read a book by J.A. Jance titled Edge of Evil. It was okay; not nearly one of her best, but she made a good stab at creating and working with an ordinary character whose personal and professional web of communications included email, instant messaging, and blogging. As I read, I thought that Jance had taken the best stab at this of any author I have yet read.

It’s not often that you read a book that makes even a small attempt at incorporating personal electronic communications into its narrative and plot. A militaristic technothriller might do it, sticking to fairly well-defined military language and style. From time to time science fiction novelists have done it, even extending the web to paranormal communication methods. Jance d'es it in this novel about ordinary people better than anyone I’ve previously seen.

Her main character, Alison Reynolds, is an LA television news anchor that is replaced by someone younger. Since her husband is a top executive with the company and their marriage has not been holding up well, she moves to Sedona to get her bearings. There, she assists her parents in running their small restaurant. Intrigue g'es on in both Sedona and LA, and one character – her son – moves back and forth. If I were analyzing this in a structural sense, I would say that he is the bridge between normal, reality-based communications and virtual communications because he is the one character who uses all of the communication functionalities with Alison.

As I read, I could not help but connect my conscious thoughts about the methods of communication in the story and a study conducted last year at Ball State University. It found that average people in Muncie, Indiana spent about 70 percent of their waking hours engaged in “media.” In that study, “media” included everything from telephone usage to reading books and magazines to Internet communications. In the Jance novel, the main character uses: (a) face to face talking, (b) various telephones, (c) email, (d) web browsing, (e) blogging, and (f) instant messenger chat.

One of my personal pet addictions is novels, and I’ve averaged nearly one a day for more than 50 years. One of my pet peeves is novels which are basically set in the current time (mysteries, thrillers, etc.) but do not acknowledge in the narrative or context that modern characters do more than just talk in person or talk on the telephone. Sometimes it seems that writers are afraid to portray electronic communications as a meaningful part of someone’s daily personal and professional life.

And, maybe some of them are afraid to try. How could you realistically portray the web of communications of a character who is versatile in the use of electronic communications and who, in the course of the story becomes even more so, if you don’t do all of those things yourself?

And even if an author d'es know what it’s like to use such a communications web, will her readers understand? Readers who don’t spend a great deal of time with email, chat, and blogs might find that intensive use of those media for communications might make a significant part of the story foreign in a way that is a barrier to connecting with and understanding the characters.

Then there is the problem of how you portray, in text, different communication modes. On television, this is pretty easy. You just show the email client window, or the instant messenger window. Jance uses some simple formatting techniques to try to characterize those forms of communications, and they work. Ever remember reading a book where someone received a telegram, and it was printed in the book all IN CAPS? Or inside a little envelope-shaped box? By the time I finished the book, those kinds of things were beginning to aggravate me.

Is how a writer portrays different communication channels in text even important?

To me it is. And this is true for many of my readers, I am checking email every few minutes, sending and receiving in up to 6-7 chat communications simultaneously, using the telephone, and engaging in personal, face-to-face conversations. Throw in snail-mail and faxes, and that’s quite a few different channels of communication. To me, what I hear and send in each has a slightly different feel – one that matters – depending on the mode selected.

I wonder if anyone will ever again be able to just write a novel using text without any significant formatting changes to make different modes of communication convey their differences from each other.

Maybe text just can’t hack it any more? Perhaps the sea change with the “Net Generation” is driven not just by the availability of podcasts and movies on handheld devices; maybe it’s also driven by some inherent inflexibility in text that makes it less useful to convey the depth and texture of communications in our lives as we go forward.

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