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Epistolary Novels and Letter Writing


"Epistolary" is one of those words that just fun to say or think about, like the word "condensation". An epistolary novel is simply a novel consisting of correspondence between characters. This is one of those rarely used writing devices, I assume because it's difficult to sustain throughout a novel. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary is a memorable example from my childhood. Later, I was drawn towards the lushly illustrated postcards that chronicle the fictional romance of Griffin and Sabine. Perhaps the best known epistolary novels are "Les liaisons dangereuses" by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and Dracula by Bram Stoker, both of which have been retold many times in film and books form but often without the epistolary framework. Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded  and Clarissa are other well-known 18th century epistolaries.

A few years ago, there was much discussion as to what the future epistolary novel would look like. Would it be a text message correspondence? Text message novels do exist and have been successful in Japan. The focus of this post is not so much to point out publishing trends but to help readers find the next thing they want to read. As far as text message novels are concerned, I think Lauren Myracle's ttyl series for young adults came closest to succeeding in a print novel format. Coincidentally, this was about the same time that many were predicting that the next Great American Novel would be written on a cellphone. I like to think that it will be written with Written Kitten, a website that rewards the writer with a kitten photo for every hundred words they type.

Letter writing is a meaningful activity, perhaps even more so in our hectic modern world. Although it's a collection of real letters and not a novel, Jolene Siana illustrates this concept in Go Ask Ogre. Siana collects her letters and drawings to the front man of the industrial rock band Skinny Puppy in the '80s. In To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type and On the Map looks at all types of letter writing: from love letters, to chain letters to recommendation letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing by Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, begins with her discovery of a trove of hundred-year-old letters from a Princeton freshman to his mother and searches for the value in letters so that she can convey it to her own child.

In the NYT article "The Found Art of Thank You Notes", Jimmy Fallon's segment on thank you notes and his books Thank You Notes and Thank You Notes 2 have inspired even more people to show gratitude by taking pen to paper. Try it yourself! To get started, the Library Shop has desk and stationery items for sale, including postcards of one hundred Penguin book covers.

There are too many epistolary novels for me to list them all here, and many that mix in journal entries and other text, but here are some recommendations that I may not have covered above:


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Epistolary writing

I enjoyed reading your excellent blog on epistolary writing. Wrting letters is often considred a lost art form because of the advent of technology. It has also been a lost to the archives world were correspondence is often in the form of discs and digital tapes. There are those among us who enjoy reading a well written letter. As you mentioned future epistolary novels may consist of text messaging. Interestingly, the recent movie Non Stop with Liam Neeson had texting as a crucial part of the movie.

Non Stop

Thanks for the comment! I hadn't considered the texting in Non Stop, but now that you mention it, the filmmakers did some interesting things with the onscreen text when Liam Neeson's phone was broken, similar to what one might see in some episotlary novels where a chararcter's marginalia is part of the book, like in "S" by J.J. Abrams.

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