Epistolary Novels

In Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees, I find the statistic that, of all British novels published in 1776, seventy one percent were epistolary novels, i.e. novels in the form of letters, mimicking correspondence.

Imagine, if you were a Grub Street writer in 1776, the pressure to produce an epistolary novel! It must have been worse than the pressure nowadays to churn out a young adult zombie book...

For most of the late eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was the dominant literary form -- but it seems the only ones we read today are by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and, if you're an academic, Samuel Richardson. (Quick, name five other authors of epistolary novels...)

Richardson I suppose was sort of the Tolkien of this genre -- he popularized the form, then, much later, everybody else got on board...

Two contemporary novels in letters are We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, and The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. In each case, the correspondence is one-sided, there being no reasonable prospect of a reply. In each case, it's easy to forget the novel is epistolary. The action always feels on-scene; it's just that each chapter begins with some form of "dear x" and ends with some form of "yours, y," There's little attempt to imitate the style of contemporary letter writing, and how could there be, when we no longer write letters? Yet in each case, the silence of the addressee does a tremendous job of increasing the book's emotional resonance: this effect really works for me, for reasons I'll have to contemplate further...

2 thoughts on “Epistolary Novels”

  1. The other Olga

    Shklovsky’s “Zoo” is an epistolary novel 🙂
    i love it too because there are actually two people writing.. and it’s not a novel at all, but it is!

  2. I think, at least in the case of We Need to Talk About Kevin, "the silence of the addressee does a tremendous job of increasing the book's emotional resonance" because there is something to be said in getting just the one character's perspective and deducing what the other perspectives are.

    I also think there is an element of the excitement of being the voyeur in private letters between two people. It's as if the author is not purposefully sharing these words with the reader; rather, that the reader is an unintended audience. I think there is something about that feeling that makes these kinds of novels more intimate and more intense.

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