Letters, modern communication, and the epistolary novel
When is the last time you received a personal letter via regular mail? When is the last time you sent one?
The Internet and affordable long distance rates have reduced the need for old-fashioned letters. We communicate with those dear to us, near and far, via email, Skype, social media platforms, text and phone, a change likely welcomed with relief by those who hated writing letters.
Over the years, I have enjoyed writing letters, but admit that these days often the only personal letter I write in a year is the annual Christmas letter. And I send out fewer and fewer each year. It seems silly to recap the highlights of the year for those who have already see them all on Facebook or somewhere else online.
While preparing to downsize this summer, I came across box of old letters. Letters written thirty-eight years ago by a close friend, who had moved halfway across the country, brought back memories I’d forgotten. Letters between my husband and his parents and siblings when he was nineteen and travelling through Europe amused me and highlighted how personalities and relationship dynamics are revealed through our correspondence. My husband, in the cavalier way of the young, did little to alleviate his mother’s worries about her son so far from home, sometimes ending his letters with things which would only intensify her concern, such as the earthquake he experienced in Spain or the knife fight down the road from his London flat. His mother’s letters usually ended with the latest deal on airfare back to Canada.
Novelists understand how letters and personal documents reveal character and relationships. Epistolary fiction is narrative told via a series of documents, usually letters, but may include journal entries, telegrams, newspaper accounts and other similar items. Famous examples include Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. A favourite of mine is In the Hands of the Living God by Lillian Bouzane because of its poetic language and the way what isn’t said reveals as much as what is.
Fiction is often a reflection of our times. Many novels now incorporate the new ways we communicate. Antagonist by Lynn Coady is told via emails. Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers tells the story of a relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter as they weather a family crisis via notes exchanged on the fridge door.
While the literary world adapts to new ways of communication, it is not clear to me how the change will affect our personal histories. I have trouble accessing Facebook status updates or tweets from a few weeks ago. I’m not likely to be scrolling through years of online posts and reminiscing. Although my husband claims I do not clean up my mailbox often enough, it is also unlikely old emails will be readily accessible for a trip down memory lane. Even if they were, I can’t imagine it would feel the same as pulling a paper letter from a box and instantly recognizing it as one from my great-aunt by the scrawl that winds up and around the border of the page, using every inch of real estate to squeeze in one last thought.
And what about the biographies of famous people, biographies enhanced or told solely through letters written and received? Will we see collections of emails in the future?
I don’t have time to ponder these questions right now. I must check Facebook and Twitter, answer my emails, and maybe write a Christmas letter.
Do you still send old-fashioned letters? What do you think about the changes in written communication?