Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letters from Whom

epistolary novel, the--a long narrative related through exchanges of letters between characters.

As technology expanded from the handwritten letter to the post card, the typed letter, and telegrams, the epistolary narrative could reasonably be expanded to include messages left on telephone answering machines, While-You-Were-Out messages, email, text messages, journal entries, blog posts, and one-hundred-forty-word Twitter entries. In short, anything that could be taken to have come from characters with agendas and intent.

One of the earliest examples of epistolary novels came from the printer, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), with Pamela, the first of three. Pamela carried the subtitle, Virtue Rewarded; it appeared at a time (1740) when the English reading public was not as used to the concept of fiction, consequently believing it to be a real account involving real persons. It was so successful that Richardson was motivated eight years later to produce another, Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, and yet another, The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753.

The most notable contemporary epistolary novel is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a series of letters written by John Ames, an elderly Protestant minister to his young son, the delightful surprise evolving from his later-in-life marriage to a younger woman. By 2004, when Gilead was published, the reading public was sophisticated enough to understand the concept of fictional characters, applying the standard of willing suspension of disbelief to it and to any novel they read.

Since Gilead, at least one other epistolary novel, The White Tiger, by Adida Aravind, appeared to great critical acclaim. In between Pamela and The White Tiger is Ring Lardner's iconc letters from Jack Keefe, a bush league baseball player, published in 1916.

There are enough epistolary and epistolary-like novels in the publishing stream (The Beatrice Letters from Lemony Snickett, Flowers for Algernon from Daniel Keyes, and Nick Bantock's imaginatively extravagant Griffin and Sabine) to suggest that the epistolary novel has a solid footing in the literary landscape, relying for its effectiveness on the same elements a traditionally narrated novel uses: intriguing characters, believable situations, surprise, and revelation.

Mainstream and literary writers alike (Vladimir Nabokov with Ada, John Barth with Letters, to name two) have ventured into this stream with works that are likely to last.

Hint: Back in the day, when Richardson was attracting readers to his seemingly actual characters, his contemporary, the great satirist Henry Fielding, was inspired to quit Pamela, which is to say answer it (See quitting). He did so with Shamela, which also used epistolary format to show that Richardson's virtuous serving girl was actually lascivious and scheming, using her wiles to effect a good marriage for herself. Accordingly, think of the fun inherent in such possible approaches as Letters to a Young Screen Writer, or Hester Prynne's Guide to Feminist Freedom.

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