What will happen to the epistolary novel in the age of email? Will it slip into the past, just as letters have? Or will it find new life? The novel in emails is not an epistolary novel, for emails are to letters what 300 is to The Aeneid: comparable in only the most superficial sense. The heroes and heroines of the new epistolary novel will be eccentrics, characters uninterested in conforming to the usual customs, or to be more contemporarily customary, trends, and unable to adjust to the hyper-evolution of technological change.
More than once I've come across a 'witty' article, listing off all the novels that would end on the first page if the characters had access to the technology that we have today. Jane Austen heroines discover their potential suitors' misdeeds on social media, Dickens's Pip finds out just who has destined him to great expectations before he's so much as bought his new London suit, Hamlet gets prescribed anti-depressants, and so on. Aside from the joke being rather obvious - haha, the past was different than the present - what these sorts of critiques, if I may deign to call them so, miss is the forest for the decidedly trite trees. The limitations and freedoms of any particular age are not simply tending to the now. What the epistolary novel accomplishes that no other form can is the relaying of specific relationships of specific characters with the illusion that the author has disappeared entirely. The characters speak, unmediated - though of course that lack of mediation is a trick, a sleight of pen, and conscious of their own speaking, shaping their discourse according to their interlocutor.
What we mean today by technology - mostly the internet and devices that connect to the internet and collect and store data - connects us more closely, but only in a superficial sense. Modernity has given rise to tools of immense communicative power and has equally created a culture of alienated, atomized individuals. The person who sits down and writes a letter, dares to write a letter, refuses to be deluded by the promises of instant connectivity, refuses to leap straight to the destination without making the journey. The person who writes a letter is not taken in the delusion of living in the future, in a pious superiority over the past.
The epistolary novel, then, if it is to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond, must be the medium of the few, the stubborn, the introspective, those who are unafraid of being out of the gaze of the many in order to seek communion with the few. The epistolary novel, once the province of blistering social satire, sentimental agony, the busy comings and goings of being in the world, must retreat to a new realm, that of the misanthrope, the cynic, the skeptic, but also the kindred spirit, the bosom friend, the rebel who genuinely doesn't care about appearing rebellious. This genre that exposed the hypocrisy, greed, and lasciviousness of a doomed class (Les liaisons dangereuses), that cleaved through snobbery, racism, and misogyny to deal the first blows of the feminist cause (Letters from a Peruvian Woman), turned over the seamy underbelly of sadomasochistic desire and terror (Dracula), shrieked the agony of an impossible love (The Sorrows of Young Werther), ran shivers up and down our spines and set detectives on our trail (The Woman in White), this revolutionary genre must seek its defiant course away from the mainstream, away from the proliferation of thoughtless, split-second exchange, and find its own, strange, singular way forward and into the unfamiliar future.
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