Up the Down Staircase
Bel Kaufman was a schoolteacher herself, so it’s with firsthand knowledge that she penned this 1964 bestseller, which follows a disorienting first year of teaching high school English for fresh-faced college grad Sylvia Barrett. The woes of the public school system—and the dogged commitment of teachers who work in them—comes through via a swath of materials, from bewildering school-wide memos to eager homework assignments.
As with nearly every book by Ali Smith, Artful evades anything resembling easy classification. It has its origin in a series of lectures on art, which form the bulk of the narrative—but gradually, the book reveals itself as an unconventional ghost story and a powerful meditation on loss. The result might be unpredictable, but it also strikes a mournful, resonant chord.
Given the prevalence of the epistolary form in the 19th century, it would be a mistake to overlook one of the most well-known examples of it. What’s notable about Dracula is not only the array in which Stoker uses a host of different styles to tell the story, but how he’s also able to use them to create an abundance of suspense.
Super Sad True Love Story
With each passing year, the satirical vision of the near future on display in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story seems less comedic and more ominous. In telling the story of the romance between Eunice Park and Lenny Abramov, Shteyngart makes use of fictionalized diaries—but also deftly comments on how people of different ages utilize social media and technology. The result is a thoroughly complete sense of this fictional world.
Last Words from Montmartre
“If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere,” reads a note from the author at the beginning of Last Words from Montmartre. Over the course of the book, Qiu Miaojin’s novel tells a powerful, fragmented story of love, emotional intimacy, and identity—and uses the shifting tone of a series of letters to illustrate its narrator’s current state.
In this novel, Robertson Davies tells the story of the life of Dunstan Ramsey, a recurring character in several of his books. It’s done in the form of a letter Ramsey is writing after his retirement, leading to a memorably succinct closing line. It also brings together aspects of the memoir (albeit a fictional one) with the epistolary novel, creating a memorable portrait of a single life.
How to Set a Fire and Why
The novels of Jesse Ball often take bold risks with their form, finding unconventional ways of exploring themes of parenthood, authoritarianism, and the creation of art. How to Set a Fire and Why is structured as a series of writings from the novel’s narrator: a singular young woman with a frustrated take on the world around her, and a penchant for arson.
House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Mark Z. Danielewski’s beloved cult novel encompasses several aspects of the epistolary, as its structure posits it as a series of found documents within found documents, each of which has its own unsettling properties. The ensuing storyline, about a family who discovers their house contains numerous unsettling properties, is scary on its own; in this larger context, it becomes magnificently unsettling.
When handled well, epistolary novels can make for a stunning, multi-layered reading experience. They’re frequently thought of as novels told through the form of letters, but there are other variations on this form as well, from diaries to collages of “found” material. With the advent of social media and the internet, writers have found new ways to supercharge the epistolary form, taking it to new and exciting places.
The charm of the epistolary novel comes from the way in which it mirrors our own experience reading a text. Some writers have done interesting things with the gulf between the fictional reader in the world of the novel and the actual reader taking in words on a page. Others use the evolution of correspondence as a means to show a character’s development over time. In the hands of the right writer, the epistolary novel can offer a host of literary pleasures. These books show a multitude of ways in which they do.
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