Since the Postal Service recently announced that it was cutting Saturday delivery–in order to save $2 billion!–it seemed appropriate to me to say something about literary letters: letters from one writer to another, about their lives, intellectual and emotional.
Literary letters–letters in general–are already obsolete as a primary form of first-world communication, and have been that way since the invention of email (not as long ago as it feels). Though I exchange letters (you know, the real papery-feeling things) with friends on a regular basis, as often as I can find good correspondents, I can’t help but feel that I’m engaged in a slightly anachronistic, slightly romantic act–despite how much I actually enjoy writing and receiving the letters themselves.
This feeling probably comes from the fact that I usually have to talk my acquaintances into corresponding with me–that is, I have to go to some length, usually, to explain why I’d rather not “write that email”. But funnily enough, despite the vague feeling that one is doing something silly and inefficient, no one has ever complained to me about having to write a letter if they want to communicate with me, and often–almost all the time–my friends tell me they’ve really enjoyed the process and wish they had more people to correspond with.
But the general pleasure of epistle writing itself is tangential to my ultimate point–which I’m rapidly digressing away from stating–that the practice of writing long-form letters–whether by hand or typewriter (which I use) is essential practice for anyone with literary ambitions, or anyone with the ambition to write well, at length.
One of my underlying concerns, I’ve realized, writing these columns for Indiereader, is trying to cultivate what is best about the traditional literary life, in order to marry those traditions to what’s best and what’s new in contemporary literary life. There used to be an entire genus of practices that writers took for granted (I’ve written about literary friendships in an earlier column) that are now dying or dead; letter writing among them. The incredible efficiency and democracy of on-demand publishing makes it easy to think that literary life has gotten easier–when the truth is that only, a part of it, publishing has gotten easier. My concern, basically, and consistently–so far at least–has been to try to show how self-publishing might have gotten easier, yes, but that writing well, has no, not become any simpler.
A physical letter, or better yet, a lifelong habit of writing letters, was–and still can be–one of the ways writers could get better at their craft. It was a daily or more than daily opportunity to think on the page and yet have the freedom to try out different techniques, tones, and ideas. Writers giving up the habit of letter writing reminds me of a precious piece of farmland or woods being razed for a strip mall or housing complex; in ceasing to write letters we lose as much intellectually and spiritually as we do when there are no green, leafy places to take a walk.
For anyone with definite literary ambitions, it’s worth noting that almost every great writer–every writer who hasn’t been forgotten after their death (or before)–has left behind a corpus of letters that sometimes rivals their body of published work. Henry James, Beckett, Rilke, Keats, Hart Crane, Byron, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Flaubert, among many others all left a lifetime of letters that are often stunning in their insight and range. But more importantly, absolute quality aside, one can detect in those letters the development of the writer writing them; the day by day progress of an artist’s realization of their own essential nature.
In Beckett’s letters, for example–only half of which have been published–we see the young Beckett immersing himself in philosophy and languages in order to escape the despair and boredom of his years in Ireland and France after graduating from university. The fundamental elements of what Beckett will become–the 20th century titan–are already contained in those early letters. The ideas might not be fully formed, but the direction, the force is there. While there is no real measure of letter writings’ effect on Beckett, it seems fair to suspect that without them, his progress as a writer would not just have been different, but would have been slower and less effectual.
Saying that writers can flourish without maybe a thousand or more words a day of written introspection, intellectual dialogue, and emotional bloodletting is almost like saying that we should expect Brazil to continue to produce great soccer players if children were banned from playing in the street–or expected to learn by playing Fifa 2013. The comparison might seem a little forced, but writing an email, usually in the midst of several other activities simultaneously–that is, while distracted and unfocused–fundamentally can’t be the same thing as sitting down in a moment of relative quiet to compose a letter. There is some hard science to back this statement up–our brains just read and process text differently on a screen–but I think basic reflection on how we use email will suffice to make my point.
The real tragedy of the loss of regular letter writing isn’t the Postal Service cutting on Saturday delivery–though that will be annoying–but the fact that our writers, the writers in the next ten or so years who might be the first to really exploit the falling cost of publishing, won’t be able to one day print their own “collected letters”. The best we’ll have is “collected emails”–and I just don’t think that will be the same.