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Dear Reader: Does the Epistolary Novel Still Have a Place in Modern Literature?

By Alison Postma, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Please welcome Gina L. Mulligan [1] as our guest today. Gina is a veteran freelance journalist for numerous national magazines and the author of the award-winning novels, Remember the Ladies [2] and From Across the Room [3]. After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a national charity that collects handwritten letters of encouragement for women with breast cancer. She was honored for her charitable work on the nationally syndicated television talk show The Steve Harvey Show, and was featured on People.com and TODAY.com.

I was working on an epistolary novel and had been researching letters for years. Then I became a cancer patient and received over 200 get-well letters and cards. This was when I realized the healing properties of letters and they became my passion. Along with finishing my epistolary novel, FROM ACROSS THE ROOM, I started a charity called Girls Love Mail that collects hand-written letters of encouragement for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Since our start in 2011, we’ve sent out over 70,000 letters.

Connect with Gina on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5].

Dear Reader: Does the Epistolary Novel Still Have a Place in Modern Literature?

If you lived in the late 1700s, you drank corn whiskey, spun your own cloth, and spent your evenings in the glow of candlelight reading an epistolary novel. If the term epistolary is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. An epistolary novel is a fictional story told through letters, and though it’s not common today, it was the most popular novel format throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson was the Stephen King of his day. Then tastes changed and writers turned to Gothic romances and adopted more straightforward narratives. Since its heyday, the epistolary novel really hasn’t made a come-back. As an author who wrote an epistolary novel and runs a letter writing charity, I had to ask if there’s still a place for this beautiful, albeit challenging, format in modern fiction.

A Voyeuristic Peek

Though we now think of letter writing as a lost art, letters hold a certain fascination because they are a voyeuristic peek into private thoughts and actions. Letters have long been preserved as national historical records, and who hasn’t heard a story about discovering a bundle of long-lost love letters in the attic trunk? If real letters pique our interest, can they be used to create a compelling novel? Part of the answer is found in the format itself. Letters provide intimate insights, remove author intrusion, advance plot, and develop characters.

Because letters are first-person expressions of beliefs and feelings, readers organically develop a deep and quick understanding of characters. Think how much we know from a simple “My Dearest Rebecca,” versus, “Hey Dude.” Letters also have built-in pacing. Short or unfinished letters create a page-turner. To slow down important moments, longer, intricate letters or multiple letters with different points of view do the trick. Even setting and plot are advanced because a letter naturally demands some level of description.

Some Familiar Titles

If you think you’ve never heard of an epistolary novel, think again. The Color Purple, Carrie, Dracula, Dangerous Liaisons, and 84 Charring Cross Lane, to name a few, are all epistolary. What all of these wonderful novels have in common is that the letter format helps make them great. In 84 Charring Cross Lane, letters are carefully arranged to give a sense of time passing, enhance the physical distance between characters, and stimulate the imagination with engaging descriptions and language. Each letter in The Color Purple begins “Dear God.” In just two repetitive words, the reader understands the depths of Celie’s burdens. And humor is exaggerated in Dangerous Liaisons by clever misdirection and the intricate plot. The movies and plays were good, but the novels are definite Must Reads.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a terrific example of how letters enhance the story. Suspense is created by what information is revealed and concealed. When Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania, the reader knows something is amiss by the details he omits in letters to his wife Mina. At the same time, we feel Mina’s concern through the elaborate letters she exchanges with friends. Further, the use of diary entries provides insight into the fears of the characters. This creates a profound connection which heightens the awareness of impending danger.

The Story as a Puzzle

Still, the fact remains that in 2016 I found only seven new epistolary novels, mine included. This is likely also due to the format. A pivotal challenge of the epistolary is who to tell what. If you’ve already told one character, then how do you share it with another without boring the reader? And if letters are going back and forth, how important is the timing of the letters? The story itself becomes a giant puzzle.

That said, modern readers are accustomed to digesting information in pieces and letters provide busy readers convenient stopping and starting points. We need look no further than the prevalence of emails and texts to know that as a community we continue to bond through written exchange and engage in intimate dialogues through today’s forms of a letter.

It’s comforting to know that classic epistolary works are still studied in Literature classes, and a few modern authors have experimented with the traditional epistle by creating stories from blog entries, emails, instant and text messages. These create a wonderful depiction and record of our current culture. If, like these authors, you’re thinking of taking on this challenge, you’ll want to spend time laying out the story and finding creative ways to convey basic information. Think about which characters needs to communicate, how often, and about what. And consider how to use language to your advantage. Would your character write in the same style to a friend as he would his mother?

So, do epistolary novels have a literary place in our society? Yes. The ongoing fascination with letters continues because they connect us with our past and provide a means of recording our society with in-depth perspectives and first-hand accounts. They also improve comprehensive reading skills and are ideal in helping writers develop story pacing and unique characters.

Perhaps with a little awareness we can bring back the glory days of the epistolary novel and spark new life into this forgotten format. We should. We may not live in the 1700s, but Lord Byron’s words still resonates today. He wrote, “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Do you think epistolary novels have a literary place in our society? Have you ever read an epistolary novel? Would you consider writing one?