The Epistolary Genre

I have enjoyed writing handwritten letters ever since I was kid, but I never knew that there was a genre for letter writing called the epistolary genre. This quarter I am taking English M138 – Topics in Creative Writing: Letters and Letter Writing where we discuss epistolary fiction in different works and our own. I conducted the following interview with Professor Hollander to briefly discuss the epistolary genre:

What is the Epistolary Genre?

Epistolary fiction if it’s fiction doesn’t have to be, it’s a narrative that is constructed through letters, sometimes journals, interviews and ephemera. It can be a mixture of different types of materials but the most commonly used reference is to refer to narratives that are one or more letters.

What is the history of the Epistolary Genre?

Some of the earliest Epistolary English that was really popular and one of the earlier novels was by Aphra Behn Love Letters by a Nobleman and his Sister and it immediately has a salacious title. The sister is actually his sister- in law who he seduces and it is an epistolary novel because they are often books of romantic first person book tension. This carries over to the French novel Dangerous Liaisons. The letter was introduced as a specific medium for communication and it was something that was very interesting for fiction writing because people can intercept letters, imitate people, have seals that are broken…etc. There is also an artistic flourish too in the hand writing, the quality of the paper and the ink, the seal that is used, and the color of the wax. There are many things that can be made that are physically very artistic but there is also a romantic notion that grows around the letter of the idea of its the truest communication of one’s soul.

What is the format of the Epistolary Genre?

You have a salutation which is the opening of a letter. Some letters don’t even have them if they are written in haste they may just be the body of the letter which is the content between the salutation and the concluding valediction which is how you sign off. There’s also a signature how you sign the letter so it could be your first name, your full name and initial, or a pet name. Then you can also have a postscript which literally means the after writing so the material that you add to a letter afterword. Usually those can be done just as an afterthought or it can be material that you forgot to mention in the body. It can be used often in fiction to express anxiety, excitement (i.e. Please write me as soon as you get this letter) this kind of urgency.

How do you think the Epistolary Genre is relevant today and do you think it is very common for people to write letters to each other now?

You could argue that blogs sometimes operate as letters a first person addressed to an audience and there’s an argument about that. The Epistolary Genre continues to be relevant because people are drawn toward feeling connected, most people want to feel connected to others and there is something really personal about a handwritten letter more so than email. Actually, sometimes people are using social media to build a narrative can be epistolary in it of itself. If we are thinking of handwritten letters, not only is there a sense of nostalgia which also can lead to a false romanticization, letters can also be bills. I think too there’s something very intimate about thinking carefully about the words you want to send to someone, conversation when spoken tends to be spontaneous, people do craft their responses very carefully in advance but you can be open and even more emotional with someone in a letter because the page separates you from that. It really ends up becoming a way to offer more of your unfettered self to someone whether that is intimate or not, but there is a trust and intimacy build through letter writing that I think it’s hard to achieve through other mediums.

After our interview, I thought about how much easier it is for us to communicate now. However, I feel that letter writing has granted me the power to express myself more creatively. I can decorate my letters and change my handwriting whenever I feel it is necessary. I challenge you to write a letter to someone and see how creative you can get.

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