7 Variations on the Epistolary Novel

The epistolary novel, even the very term, smacks of anachronistic formality—one might expect characters to “call upon” one another in such stories. But the letter form offers fiction writers all kinds of fascinating angles through which to not only observe characters but to present them. If I begin reading a novel and the first thing I come across is a salutation, I immediately have to figure out: who wrote the letter? To whom are they writing? What is their relationship? And why is the person writing? These are dramatic questions for a reader to be asking, and all this just from the sight of “Dear…”

Moreover, the epistolary novel is commonly defined as a novel made of letters, but it can include any kind of documented communication pertaining to the characters. And so with each variation of the “letter” comes a new set of implicit usage guidelines (e.g., we write very differently in an email to a friend than in, say, a formal resignation letter or a note-to-self reminder), which we the readers, as cultural participants ourselves, understand and completely relate to and which knowledge the author exploits for the sake of intricately and practically revealing character through a notion called “discrepant awareness,” which really just means dramatic irony, which really just means that some characters are aware of things while others aren’t, but the reader knows everything except for how the story unfolds and thus creates the tension of which great stories are made.

To show you what I mean, here are seven variations on the “novel in letters,” from diaries to Instant Messenger, from yearnings to God to notes in the margins of a library book. (Technically, there are only three types of epistolary novels—mono-, dia-, and polylogic, i.e., one character’s documents, two characters’, or several, respectively—but those are narrative POV distinctions and I’m interested in the forms these works use, which is totally different and so screw the academics—here’s my list.)

1. The Good Ole Fashioned Novel-in-Letters 

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One may as well begin with the classic example of the form. Just to establish some of the conventions here. Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire ur-text Dracula employs epistolary pastiche to high effect. There are letters and diaries and newspaper clippings and ship’s logs and, even, in Chapter XXIV, “Dr. Seward’s Phonograph Diary, spoken by Van Helsing”—all of which lend a vital verisimilitude to such a fantastic tale. Dracula, then, did more than establish the contemporary vampire story; it was also exemplarily epistolary.

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2. Dear Diaries

It is not a coincidence that the conventional diary entry begins, “Dear Diary.” These are letters we write to ourselves, yes, but also to an invisible entity whose interest in our thoughts are imagined. In this way, a diary creates a need in the world for our own stories to be told, even if that need is invented. What emerges though, no matter how lonely the enterprise, is complete honesty, a naked intimacy that amounts, for a novelist, to access, to a full immersion into their creation’s mind.

In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is told as the diary of Junior, a Native American teenager who leaves his reservation to attend high school in a white community. Through the intimate, self-written narration (which also gives Alexie space to include Junior’s drawings; he’s a budding cartoonist), Junior has room to personally navigate the conflicts of identity that arise, and also to directly engage with some of the harsher realities of reservation life, like crack and alcohol abuse. Alexie’s novel won a National Book Award in 2007, and it deserved it too. It’s a wonderful and honest use of the diary form, and an important American story.

3. Open Letters to People or Entities Unlikely to Respond 

McSweeney’s Internet Concern coined the above phrase for a column they run of short, comic pieces, but the name aptly conveys the way these types of epistolary novels use “discrepant awareness,” not by having different voices expressing different things, but by making it clear that the recipient of the letters will never reply or even read the words.

In Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines, a middle-aged father gets stuck at the airport because of a delay and decides to write to the titular airline. Of course, as he does, the letter becomes less and less about the delayed flight and more about his failed relationship with his daughter. The title of Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary refers to a “coma diary” written by artist Misty Wilmot for her husband Peter, comatose after a suicide attempt, to record all the days he’ll miss, but of course Misty’s thoughts turn to their marriage and the nightmare of the life that Peter left her with. Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t even know the person he’s writing to; he merely overheard a girl talking about him and who “sounded like such a good person.” This unknown guy, Charlie explains, “is better than a diary because there is communion and a diary can be found.” But this tenuous connection is enough for Charlie to pour his heart out all over the page. In Alice Walker’s seminal 1982 novel The Color Purple, Celie writes letters to God for want of anyone else, and because what she tells God in those letters—Alphonso repeatedly raping her and then abducting the children borne of those rapes—is so heart-breakingly devastating and harrowingly traumatic, and not the kind of ordeal a fourteen-year-old girl would share with just anyone. But God, being the unlikely entity that he is, remains maddeningly nonresponsive, and eventually Celie writes to her sister Nettie instead.

It doesn’t matter that American Airlines, or Peter, or God, will probably never read these letters—in fact, this may be the very point: recall, a diary can be found. And maybe these characters don’t want what they wrote to ever be found. Maybe they hoped to get rid of them. What matters is that they are written, and that we read them.

4. Tech Talk 

For a while after the Internet boom, authors kinda went nuts on using technological communication in their novels. Douglas Coupland is a multiple offender. His 1995 novel Microserfs used DOS-level technologies and nomenclature that became anachronistic like a week after the book’s publication, like, e.g., phrases like “e-mail system” (and where also a character complains of receiving too many “pieces” of e-email, “about 60 a day”(!), which would be a total holiday for most of us now). Eleven years later, Coupland updated his tech talk with JPod by introducing comments, spam, social media profiles and even some new fonts.

Of course, emails and other current means of communication are fruitful for novelists, and many use them quite effectively. It is when the narrative (or its theme) seems to require or at least lean on the particular forms in use that the result really sings. In 2004, Lauren Myracle gained popularity with ttyl, the first novel written entirely in IM, replete with usernames and a litany of acronyms. It’s a YA novel, so ostensibly its target audience would grasp all those in-jokes and be able to sustain interest for the duration of the book (though I would wager that today’s teenagers would find ttyl’s language musty and uncool). In Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, those tropes become embedded in the texture of the novel, so like, e.g., characters are referred to by child-star nicknames like Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning and converse at length on “Gmail chat” (and, c’mon, it’s Gchat, okay? What is this, 2010? Oh, wait. I guess Richard Yates was 2010.), and the effect is less about what people are communicating but how, which in a literary essay like this one is totally fine but in a novel is sort of distracting and honestly a little irritating.

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5. Meta Missives

Okay, now things get a little weird, so I’m just going to jump right into it. John Barth’s nearly 800-page novel Letters is an obscure work for an already obscure writer. It is comprised of letters written by former characters of John Barth directed to John Barth. Because it’s all very confusing, here’s an example, by way of explanation. Barth’s second novel The End of the Road (1958)—and this was before he went full-blown postmodern with 1960’s The Sot-Weed Factor—focuses on a philanderous love triangle between a professor, Jake Horner, his colleague and his colleague’s wife. Horner tells us that, “It was on the advice of the Doctor that in 1953 I entered the teaching profession.” The affair, of course, yields disproportionately tragic results. Now, in Letters, we learn of what happened to Jake post-The End of the Road. His opening letter, written to himself, informs us that, “It was on the advice of the Doctor that in 1953 you Left the Teaching Profession.” What a funny and elegant re-introduction.

Philip Roth used a similar technique for his autobiography The Facts (1988), which is bookending by letters, one from Roth to Nathan Zuckerman, his fictional alter-ego who appears in no less than nine novels, and the other from Zuckerman to Roth. Both Barth and Roth exploit the inherent intimacy of letters to explore the many ways in which their own identities affect and determine the characters they create—and the characters get to comment on their author, which if you possess a certain kind of sensibility is really a lot of fun.

6. Documents in the Case 

We could call this one “The Dossiers.” These are narratives, like Dracula, in which documents are compiled for the sake of solving a mystery or retracing events, and they’re usually made by participants in the story. An early example is the perfectly titled The Documents in the Case (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers (with Robert Eustace). The novel’s form is the result of Paul Harrison’s attempt to bring justice to the murder of his father. We as readers are, in a sense, merely looking over the evidence in the investigation, placing us in the shoes of a gumshoe. The assembled notes and letters and emails in Maria Semple’s hilarious and rollicking Where’d You Go, Bernadette? were put together by the titular missing woman’s daughter Bee, a fact the reader is made aware of early on. A.S. Byatt, a master of metafiction, hinges the plot of her 1990 bestseller Possession around two academics compiling documents to trace a suspected love affair between two fictional Victorian poets, and the novel scrutinizes the philosophical and ethical implications of such pursuits.

But maybe the most elaborate and literalized example is Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 mindbender House of Leaves. The introduction tells us that Johnny Truant, upon moving into his new apartment, discovers pages and pages (some scrawled on envelopes or receipts) of text describing a documentary called The Navidson Record. Trouble is, the film doesn’t exist (so far as Johnny can find) and, more, the man who wrote the description was blind as a bat. Stranger still, the documentary is the story of a Will Navidson, a photographer who realizes that his house is bigger on the inside than it is on the out. And then a hallway appears where there wasn’t one before. More than any novel before it, House of Leaves recreates the blind man’s writing with astonishing authenticity—so some pages only a contain a few words, while others resemble the original source, like, e.g., the fold of an envelope. This hyper-intricate verisimilitude is at complete odds with the dizzying and bizarre events of the novel. (Danielewski also published a book of letters written by Truant’s mother, The Whalestoe Letters, which besides being another example of #5 is also just a very weird little book.)

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7. Nonfiction Notes 

Not all epistolary works, of course, are fictional. In fact, the technique of letters-as-narrative comes from the popular publication of great figures’ correspondence. But nonfiction writers have used missives to tell all kinds of stories, and to express various emotions and points of view. Rainier Maria Rilke’s immeasurably influential Letters to a Young Poet established an entire genre to itself, yielding such luminary-penned derivatives as Letters to a Young Scientist (2013) by E.O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Teacher (2007) by Jonathan Kozol, and Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) by Christopher Hitchens.

But many writers choose to write just one book-length letter. Although Oscar Wilde composed De Profundis in Reading Gaol in 1897 as a long, bitter screed to his former companion Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (a wretched creature, if there ever was one), he intended it to be published, as he wanted the public to hear his side of the story. The result is a harrowingly sad meditation on the vagaries of love and lust. Sam Harris, on the other hand, directs his argumentative epistle to an entire country. Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) is a response to many of the criticisms of Harris’s controversial (and 9/11-inspired) The End of Faith (2004). Much more recently, the actor Mary-Louise Parker penned a fascinating and contemplative memoir as not one but a series of letters to various men she has known, but Parker’s prose is good and her letters so effective, the impact is that of one, big, brilliant letter. Dear Mr. You is a wonderfully inventive way to tell your own story, as it allows Parker an immediacy to each of the major turning points, good and bad, of her life. And she can be scathing and compassionate in the damn near the same sentence.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me uses the epistolary form in an incredibly poignant way. Writing to his young son Samori (named after Samori Touré, leader of the Wassoulou Empire who fought against the French colonizers in what is now Guinea, and which means “the Struggle”), Coates recounts the story of the murder by police of his friend Prince Carmen Jones, a fellow Howard University student. “Prince Jones had made it through,” Coates writes, “and still they had taken him.” Taking on America’s deeply engrained but perpetually ignored systemic race issues is an enormous task, and doing so against the backdrop of finally publicized police murders of black men is even bigger—but because Coates is writing to his son, the task is suddenly put into personal and emotionally vital terms, and it forcefully makes the point, to use Claudia Rankine’s powerful phrase, that black life in America is a condition of mourning, a legacy sadly passed down to Coates’s son.

So there you have it: the many uses of the epistolary form. It’s a surprisingly versatile technique that allows authors to figuratively pick up the pieces left by their characters’ lives, the improvised flotsam and jetsam of existence, and gather them together and put them between covers. Writing to others, recording our personal thoughts, complaining to a multi-national corporation—these activities reflect so much more than the words that make them up. They are hints into our deepest selves, like sunlight bursting in through the window of a pitch-black house. They reveal social propriety, intimacy, inter-office politics, and self-delusion—and what’s more, we all recognize the tropes. We know that not every word we write is the truth, and that our diction shifts as we move from one person to another, and that often during difficult times our reasonable side breaks down and we make the mistake of recording it. The epistolary novel is not old-fashioned; it is as timeless as writing itself, and adapts with each era. Like mail itself, the form isn’t staid or fixed; it’s always arriving, wherever we are.

Image credits: Kudryashka/Shutterstock.comElena Kharichkina/Shutterstock.comNeirfy/Shutterstock.comAgnes Kantaruk/Shutterstock.com.

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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