When Prerna Gupta decided to take a year off to write fiction with her husband, the couple experimented by crafting stories for cell phone apps. Though the pieces were short, no more than a 5 minute read, only 15% of viewers finished them. That’s when the pair decided to experiment with text messaging. “Readers would start with one message then hit the Next button to continue.” (“Tale of the Text”, by Clive Thompson, Wired, August 2016, pg.44.) What they discovered in the new format was that completion rates shot up to 85%. Thus began a new genre: the Short Message Service novel (SMS) — novels published on smart phones.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan in Understanding the Media, observed that “medium influences the message.” A novel adapted into a play, for example, has a different feel, largely because it also has a look. According to Clive Thompson, SMS novels resemble radio programs of the 1940 where characters were obliged to paint the scene with words. The difference, however, is that SMS characters are communicating from a distance, so each must describe his or her setting. Think about a girl seated in a coffee shop texting a friend that a stranger is staring at her; or complaining of cyber bullying; or being tormented by a hacker. Think how the friend might react.
Can this form of literature take off? You bet. Gupta has published 9,000 stories that have been enjoyed by over 100,000 readers. Her audience is accustomed to Twitter limitations of 124 characters. Here, brevity serves to heighten tension, as if one were reading a series of urgent telegrams. Thompson admits he was so hooked by this new medium, he sat for 3 hours, pushing the Next button to get to the end of a story.
How Henry James or Tolstoy would fare writing SMS novels would be difficult to guess. They worked at a time when word play was as much a part of the joy of reading as the story line. The 21st Century appreciates literature that is spare. Some say, thanks to technology, our attention spans have grown shorter. If so, one wonders how Donna Tart and her voluminous novels will fair against an SMS world. Well enough, I suspect. Some of us like to curl up with a good book. Nonetheless, the SMS novel is on the rise and because of it, classes on how to write one are bound to crop up at a university near you.