The Epistolary Novel

January 30, 2008
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THE EPISTOLARY NOVEL

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

February 2008

"Writing the epistolary novel… has all the same demands as regular fiction . . ."

 

 

—Shapiro

Dear Readers,

Many of you probably began to write because you loved to dash off letters or people whom you sent them to remarked, “Oh, you should be a writer!”

And then you tried to write a story and found out that it wasn’t like letter writing at all. In writing a letter, you can write, “It was like that weekend last February in the ski lodge in New Hampshire” without ever elaborating because the person you’re writing to was there with you. You can end your letter with “Gotta run,” and finish what you were about to tell him in a phone call the next day.

But writing the epistolary novel, written as a series of documents, usually in the form of letters, sometimes diary entries, and/or newspaper clippings, has all the same demands as regular fiction: character, background, action, drama, conflict, plot, climax, and denouement.

". . .explore tremendous possibilities
of the epistolary form
. . .changing perspectives."

 

 

—Shapiro

Aprah Behn’s Love Letters between a Noble-Man and his Sister written in the seventeenth century, was the first novel to explore the tremendous possibilities of the epistolary form – its changing perspectives. The author’s moral judgment was suspended and there were intrigues with letters falling into the wrong hands, counterfeit letters, and letters withheld by heroes and heroines.

The tradition was carried on in the eighteenth century by Richardson in his popular novels, Clarissa, and Pamela as well as Laclos in Dangerous Liasons. In Germany, Goethe wrote The Sorrows on Young Werther in letter form.

Keep going and you’ll find Nabokov and C.S. Lewis and Agatha Christie all writing novels in letter form as well as so many others.

Stephen King’s first published horror novel, Carrie, one of the most frequently banned books in U.S. schools because of its threatening theme, is about a high school girl who is victimized at home and at school. Carrie White discovers she has the power to move matter with her mind (telekinesis) and wrecks revenge on her tormentors. The terror is built by King creating an absolutely believable fictional world pieced together from news reports, journal entries, and scientific papers as well as first and third person narration.

We Have to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a compelling psychological novel written in letters from the mother of a teenaged boy who massacred eight students in his school to her estranged husband, the boy’s father. The story, leading to an ending as horrifying as in Carrie, feels inevitable.

". . .a lot of tension can be built by . . . discrepancy of awareness."

 

 

—Shapiro

In epistolary novels, a lot of tension can be built by the reader knowing the differences between what each character knows. This device is called discrepancy of awareness. For example, the reader is biting his fingernails because a character named Heath has written an anonymous letter to his priest telling him that he has fantasies of murdering a woman he met at a cocktail party. “Her throat is so white, vulnerable, and throbbing, that it makes me want to make it smile in blood.” (My mind is running along these lines because Stoker’s Dracula that I recently reread is an epistolary novel, or at least I hope that’s the reason.) Pamela writes Heath a billet doux, telling him that she goes for long midnight runs in a deserted park. Pamela doesn’t know what Heath has in mind, but we, the readers, do. To further complicate it, she might also write a similar letter to another man she has a crush on? Carl, a police chief. Pamela hopes that she’ll find out which man is truly interested in her by which of them show up. The reader is plotzing. (Fainting in Jewish.) Will both men show up? Which one will get there first? Will they arrive at the same time? If so, which man will prevail? (I think Heath should be Johnny Depp and Carl, Brad Pitt. Pamela, unfortunately, is up for grabs.)

In re: Pamela’s throat, Dracula, Bram Stoker not only included letters, but diary entries, and fictional newspaper accounts as well.

". . . consider the epistolary form
for its verve and endless
possibilities."

 

 

—Shapiro

There are three types of epistolary novels. The first is monologic, made up of letters from only one person, dialogic is made up of letters of two characters, and polylogic, made up of the letter of three or more characters.

The latest in epistolary novels are made up entirely of emails. Right now, in Finland, author Hannu Lunniala has made quite a buzz with her novel done entirely in text message about text messages.

So, dear readers, the next time you sit down to write a short story or a very long story, consider the epistolary form for its verve and endless possibilities.

 

Sincerely,

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

About

 

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/

 

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