Nobody writes letters any more: at least not the kind of erudite, humorous missives that are the hallmark of great correspondence. As we are so often told, we live in the digital age. Like the rest of us, authors now largely correspond with their agents, friends, contemporaries and, occasionally, fans through email, not snail mail (I’ve only encountered one writer who refuses to use what he called “that electronic mail nonsense”. Despite his illegible scrawl – and mine – he insisted that all correspondence be in writing. But this is most certainly a dying breed.)
Emails are great for getting in touch quickly and easily, but as literary vehicles they are severely lacking. Notoriously Manichean, digital messages tend to oscillate between the deathly dull and formal and the blithely irreverent (complete with BTW, FYI, LOL’s and garbled text-speak) with precious little middle ground. Letters can be revealing, expansive, humorous; emails, even at their best, tend to exhibit only one of these characteristics of good writing. Of course, many contemporary novelists use social media such as Twitter and Facebook, sometimes to great effect; but publishing revolution or no publishing revolution, I find it hard to imagine that generations to come will one day download the “Collected Tweets of Neil Gaiman” on to their e-reader.
The article is worth a read, if only for the nostalgia kick. I own very few author letter collections – though the Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961 are quite superb, and well worth dipping into. They’re probably only for the serious fan, too, ones who look beyond novels for more understanding of them. Or for authors who led exciting lives.
Are blogs the modern-day equivalent of letters, just read in real time? I mean, they’re incredibly less interesting for the large part – a lot of author blogs seem to be graveyards of irrelevant news updates. Some do it well. Jonathan Carroll’s blog is a very good comparison to traditional letters, or even notebook. (As it says in the header: “A friend asked yesterday if this blog is addressed to anyone in particular? I said yes– it’s a love letter to someone I haven’t met yet.”)
Digital collections are often compiled in print form – John Scalzi has done so. And while there is a lot of white noise out there on social networks, which makes it difficult to find content that is profound enough, even Tweets can be collected and sold these days.
It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out over the years, and how future author non-fiction will be assembled.