Epistolary Art

Ellen Strenski
University of California at Irvine

"[T]he addressee plays a role; he [sic] is able, and is expected, to initiate his own utterance. Such reciprocality . . . is essential"
(Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form 117).

As recently as Spring 1990, the journal World Literature Today published a special issue on "The Letter: A Dying Art?" and more or less answered "yes." One author, John L. Brown, musing about "the decline, indeed the demise, of the letter" (220), claims that today Mme. de Sevigne wouldn't write to her daughter, but pick up the phone. Perhaps, and her daughter might not reach for the pen either, but log on to her Internet account and send e-mail. After all, more than one million American children e-mailed their 1994 Christmas wish lists to Santa Claus (Harmon D4). More to the point is recent epistolary art--a tremendous range if theater, like A. R. Gurney's Love Letters is included. Letters aren't dead; they are everywhere, not just anachronisms like A. S. Byatt's Possession, but Alice Walker's The Color Purple or John Updike's S., not to mention collage fiction and nonfiction featuring letters, like Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Saul Bellow's Herzog, or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

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Hybridity & Liminal Subject Formation | Electronic Gift Exchange | Electronic Hybridity
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A particularly telling example of the electronic epistolary genre is Avodah Offit's 1994 novel, Virtual Love, announced on its dust jacket as "a Liaisons Dangereuses for the electronic age." The novelist, Offit, is in real life a psychiatrist, a sex therapist. Her Virtual Love is mostly a collection of fictional e-mail messages between two psychiatrists, one of them a noted sex specialist. Offit has written at least two nonfiction books about psychotherapy. It is surely significant that when she turned to fiction, given her subject, she cast her story as a sequence of e-mail messages between two therapists, who identify themselves respectively as "go-dot" and "E-man." In Virtual Love, genre and theme achieve a perfect correspondence.

A similar conflation of epistolary genre and online erotic appeal is the recent development in Hollywood of recycled classic film plots, now technologically updated. For example, a new version of the 1940 classic comedy, "The Shop Around the Corner," originally starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as two lonelyhearts penpals, now features two co-workers corresponding electronically. Jim Wedaa, a producer at Parallax film studio, explains: "It's as if people are looking at old movie projects, crossing out the word letter and replacing it with e-mail and crossing out the phrase singles' bar and replacing it with on-line computer" (qtd. in Marx F10).

A fundamental dynamic operates in epistolary art, whether theater, film, novel--or e-mail--to impel response. What Altman calls the essential "reciprocality" (117) of all mail implies the possibility of a response, hence more messages: "To write a letter is not only to define oneself in relationship to a particular you; it is also an attempt to draw that you into becoming the I of a new statement" (122). Unlike most other kinds of texts, e-mail automatically evokes a response in kind--more mail. The sheer physical convenience of pushing only one key, the "reply" function, also facilitates this exchange. This one small action is much easier than initiating the original exchange. An extended listserv thread is a good illustration of this ease. A listserv thread begins on the topic announced in its "subject" line heading, but the developing conversation triggers new ideas among participants. They still reply to the last posting in the thread although the discussion may have veered away considerably from the original announced topic. Someone new to the listserv, or reading recent mail after a short absence, and opening such a message might be quite surprised by this disjunction, effected primarily by the physical ease of replying with one keystroke. Moreover, this ease is enhanced by electronic opportunities for including, copying all or snipping parts of, and interpolating responses into, the original message being answered. As a result, e-messages get conflated and sprawl into lengthy collages.

The dynamic of "epistolarity" explains the prolixity of e-mail messages, while the association with art and artistic exchange accounts for the power of emotional disclosure in these electronic conversations; "conversation, like literature seeks primarily to MOVE an audience by means of involvement, as opposed to (typically) expository prose . . . which seeks to CONVINCE an audience while maintaining distance between speaker/writer and audience" (Tannen 153). This particular kind of electronic art, necessarily framed by the letter or message format, also automatically provides tempting opportunities for irony and play, posturing and bravado, through these juxtapositions. When Derrida writes in the Post Card. From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, "In the last analysis I do nothing that does not have some interest in seducing you" (69), his poetic license may exaggerate. But his comment is echoed by Wittig, referring specifically to e-mail: "This practice of writing as 'message linking' has a certain number of seductive properties" (87). They both get at an important emotional feature that fits e-mail especially well, what Altman refers to as "the interpersonal bond basic to the very language of the letter (I-you) [which] necessarily structures meaning in letter narratives" (118).

E-mail is definitely not utopia, but once e-mailers start composing they write a lot of words; they enjoy a pleasurable process. That they think of it as talking, not writing, is an essential part of "the traditional je crois te parler motif [that] informs all epistolary production: writing nurtures the illusion of speaking with one [or more] whose absence is intolerable" (Kauffman xix). Composing e-mail, writers' creative pleasure is enhanced by the interactive, collaborative process--including the very real risk of dangerous flames and other well reported scorched earth tactics that are the flip side of an equally distinctive electronic generosity.

This pleasure and satisfaction are worth stressing. Here, in typically elegant and incisive fashion is cyberguru Fred Kemp explaining in an e-mail posting to RHETNET-L, Cyberjournal for Rhetoric and Writing, the source of users' typical range of emotional experience "from despair to jubilation":

There is an inbuilt negativism that strikes at the outset, but most of the time (not always) sheer using the CMC turns the naysayer around. Why? Because there is something inherently pleasing about the openness of interaction on CMC. We are not dealing with glitz or trends, but with basically appealing human desires to interact.... With Computer-mediated communication, global or local, the appeal is deeper, purer, more engaging somehow. So often the comments are like, "this is great, but it isn't the technology but the people." Ah, I think, but the people don't get together without the technology. Not the same way, and not with the same openness. It is just this basic human impulse to affiliate that is prompted by the "reciprocality" of the epistolary genre. If "the appeal is deeper, purer, more engaging somehow" online, then exactly how is this effect achieved?

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