Epistolary novel – is it dead or alive?

#guestpost written by Laolu Ogundele

The act of writing itself is like an act of love. There is contact. There is exchange too. We no longer know whether the words come out of the ink onto the page, or whether they emerge from the page itself where they were sleeping, the ink merely giving them color. Georges Rodenbach

Some of my best middle school memories involve passing secret notes to my crush while a lecture was going on. I would then glance over to see their reaction as they read it. Only one response was acceptable – that they’d blush and smile back at me in appreciation – or better still, hold my loving gaze as time stops, and an imaginary orchestra plays softly in the background. So surreal, right? Unfortunately, life wasn’t always so kind. What I often got instead was a disgusted frown and eye roll from my crush.

Welcome, heartbreak! 😬

But that wasn’t the worst possible turn of events. Every once in a while, the teacher would find the note being passed and punish me by asking to read the message of love in front of the whole class. Yikes.

So why did we send letters and notes in class, in spite of the inherent risks attached? Why expose ourselves to potential embarrassment? Could it be because there’s something inherently romantic and magical about written letters, if not profound? Who can deny that they’ve not been inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher or John Steinbeck’s letter to his son? Is there something deeply honorable and powerful about letters? I think so… And so did the original creators of the epistolary genre.

“Hold up, hold up. What is epistolary work?” I hear you asking.

Well, let’s look at the origin of the term. The word epistolary is derived from the Greek word “epistolē,” which literally means a letter. Thus, an epistolary novel is one written as a series of letters or documents. 

Though we’re still not completely certain of the first epistolary novel, many people consider Prison of Love, written by Spanish writer and poet Diego de San Pedro, to be the genres’ pioneering work. Readers were intrigued because, rather than contain typical dialogues between people, the piece, which was released in 1485, instead contained letters, monologues, and speeches. Over the next three centuries, more complex forms of the genre began to appear – and oh boy, did people love them! The 17th to 18th century is well known as the great age of letter writing since people were fascinated with letters and books.

“Letters?” You might scoff and wonder.
“Not an iPhone or PlayStation?
I can’t believe people were interested in that.”🤔

Yes, they were, and perhaps we should take a cue from them. Remember that literacy levels had been rising remarkably in those days – more and more people had been finding pleasure in reading. Readers had a feeling of intimacy with the characters in the epistolary novels – and why wouldn’t they? Those characters were realistic and reminded people of themselves. By shifting from the writers’ point of view to that of the characters themselves, readers could hear their voices directly. They developed empathy with the characters and became more self-aware. This empathy even spilled into their everyday lives. In fact, many historians argue that this empathy was a large contributor to the increased push for equal human rights in that era.

In our modern times, epistolary novels have evolved to include not only letters but also diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, emails, and so on. Whilst the genre reached a peak in the mid to late 18th century and began to go on a decline, we’ve still seen a few excellent epistolary pieces pop up from time to time in recent decades. For example, the 2015 sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, The Martian, is a modern-day interpretation of the genre that has even been adapted to television. Other great contemporary epistolary works adapted to the big screen include The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (2000) and Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern (2004).

The Martian is a survival story. It narrates the ordeal of an astronaut who suffers a freak accident on his spaceship and is trapped on Mars. He’s assumed to be dead by the rest of his crew members and must now figure out a way to survive. He writes a series of diary entries, and through them, we’re invited to share in his struggles to make the best of an admittedly scary situation. The novel was a great way to show and maximize the strengths of the epistolary literary device. It made us feel like silent participants. We commiserated with the hero’s struggles and gave him a fist bump whenever he did something particularly brilliant or resourceful. Kudos to Andy Weir and the other authors, who work hard to keep the genre alive – albeit barely.

We’ve seen that epistolary literary devices can be beneficial and powerful. But the question remains: what is the cause of its decline? Did humanity get bored of letters? Or is the decline simply a result of the new and flashy digital technologies? Is the new generation even likely to accept old-fashioned letters, such that authors respond to these perceptions? It’s hard to know for sure… However, the truth is a combination of at least some of these factors. Something else that’s probably understated is that it can be a particularly intimidating beast to tackle. Unlike other genres, where the mantra is often to “show” rather than “tell,” all you can do in a purely epistolary work is to “tell” or narrate in the first person. This can indeed limit the author’s capacity for expression, and if not masterfully done, it can come across as a poor read.☝️😶

To the big question of whether the epistolary genre is dead, I beg to differ because nothing pure ever truly dies. When properly done, it can still be an exciting read. Right now, the genre is on life support, but maybe the next generation can revive it. Perhaps we’ll someday be fascinated with letters again.

You can start the movement!
Now, delete that email app and pick a piece of paper plus a quill pen!

There is a charm to letters and cards that emails and SMSes can’t ever replicate, you cannot inhale them, drawing the fragrance of the place they have been mailed from, the feel of paper in your hand bearing the weight of the words contained within. You cannot rub your fingers over the paper and visualize the sender, seated at a table, writing, perhaps with a smile on their lips or a frown splitting the brow. Kiran Manral

Check NEW Andy Weir’s novel – Project Hail Mary (humorous sci-fi) – link

Or maybe grab BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta Nehisi-Coates (written as a letter from the author to his son about the harsh realities of growing up black in America) –  link

Next post – The Story of Harmless Bullet