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Probably not. For a start, there’s no overarching thread that joins them up. You know, you might spend one letter to a friend talking entirely about your cats, because that particular friend is a cat person who likes hearing about your cats, and then another talking about your family, and some weird dream you had about sandwiches, and also some form that needs to be filled out by next week. And I don’t know about your letters, but in mine, there’s, I don’t know, a tiny amount of rambling and incoherence. Just a tiny amount. Well, a moderately tiny amount. Ok. A lot.
Basically, a lot of the letters we write in everyday life are, at best, only interesting to the person who received them. And a whole bunch of letters is usually exactly that: a whole bunch of letters.
Except in an epistolary novel.
Most epistolary novels are written entirely in letters, from one character to another*. And because of this, epistolary novels manage something incredible: they can make a whole story take place without a conventional narrative. There’s no third person voice that jumps in to tell us that he/she said that, and did this. We only have characters’ words to rely on. There’s no one main voice either, because the story jumps between one character and another, and from one voice to another. In each letter, the story unfolds a little more and new things are revealed, and we know the characters that much better. There’s something about epistolary novels that draws us in – there’s the quick pace, jumping from one letter to the next. And there’s the fact that they feel like you’re peeking inside someone’s mail. But not just someone’s boring, everyday mail. Someone’s extraordinarily interesting mail.
When Jaclyn Moriarty talks about writing her epistolary novels, she says this:
Letters are neither reliable nor static; they’re designed to fly through the air and gently fall into the recipient’s lap like a gift, or hit the recipient in the eye. If a teacher asked students to write letters to a neighbouring school, as part of an assignment, you couldn't trust the students to be honest or to be themselves.What's she talking about? Well, are any of us completely honest with everyone you talk to? No. You’re always aware of who you’re talking to. There are the things you make up or exaggerate, the things you hide or gloss over, the little white lies, the version of yourself you show to one particular person, as opposed to the other faces you show to other people. Characters write letters with an awareness of their audience too. They know who they're talking to. And they know who they want to be for that person.
And even then, the person they think they're writing to can turn out to be very different to the person they’re actually writing to, because of how that person has made themselves look in their letters. Which means that there’s huge potential for dishonesty in epistolary novels. And misunderstandings. And conflict. And all sorts of drama and humour.
Sometimes, just sometimes, a whole bunch of letters can be something far more than a whole bunch of letters. In the hands of a good writer, a whole bunch of letters can be entertaining and thought provoking and beautiful.
Some examples of epistolary fiction:
The Ashbury books by Jaclyn Moriarty, especially Feeling Sorry For Celia (which I’ve already written about here) and Finding Cassie Crazy/The Year of Secret Assignments.
Letters from the Inside by John Marsden.
What do you think of novels in letters? Have you read any good ones that I've missed?
*I’m going to stick to just talking about novels in letters here, but epistolary novels don’t have to stick to letters at all: they can also feature diary entries, blog posts and newspaper articles. And other things too!