It turns out that I’ve been using the term ‘epistolatory’ when what I really mean is ‘epistolary’. Think of all the precious seconds I’ve lost, typing out those two extra words. Think of those lost Google hits.

Epistolary literature refers to fiction where the story is told in the form of letters written by the protagonists; often the stories are passed off as being real, e.g. ‘I discovered this set of letters in a trunk given to me by my uncle…’ Given this reality-bending shtick, you can imagine that epistolary fiction is of interest to me.

How much interest? I’ve written about epistolary fiction before, at least tangentially, but I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand them very well. So when my favourite radio show, In Our Time, discussed the topic of Epistolary Literature a couple of months ago, I was quite excited. And then I left it there for weeks, unlistened.

This was partly because I was busy, but the real reason was that I was worried about what I might learn. Was epistolary fiction left to drift in a sea of colourful but niche books, abandoned after readers tired of all its silly tricks and contrivances? Or perhaps worse, would it have sailed on, transforming seamlessly into modern fiction – completely anticipating everything that will happen with ARGs? I didn’t think I wanted to know. Might the academics on the show know far more about my own job than I did? It was an unsettling thought.
In Our Time discussions are generally quite good, but lately they’ve been mixed. There have been a lot of inexperienced speakers and a lot of tedious arguments and misunderstandings. I’m always amazed and slightly in awe of the fact that despite these sometimes very serious problems, the producers never seem inclined to re-record the show, let alone edit it. Anyway, on the coach back from Oxford to London, I finally listened to the epistolary literature discussion.

It was wonderful. Not in sense of merely being good, or even great, but of inspiring wonder. The participants were all genuinely fascinated by epistolary literature and they managed exactly how revolutionary it was when it first emerged. Yes, epistolary fiction went over the same ground that ARGs are going over right now, and yes, epistolary fiction is nowhere near the powerhouse it used to be, but that’s because it got better. Who knew that Jane Austen was the person who really ushered in the changes? And seeing how it got better has given me ideas about how ARGs will improve as well. So I fully intend to follow up with the participants and find out more. I might even get around to reading Clarissa, all 1536 pages of it.

And I doubt I’ll ever misspell epistolary fiction again.

3 Replies to “Epistolary”

  1. Your correlation between ARGs and epistolary fiction has given me a lot to think about. I’m new to ARGs and old to the epistolary novel, and I would never have thought about them together. I’m looking forward to listening to the radio episode.

    I do have a book I’d like to recommend to you, perhaps before you take on “Clarissa”, or “Pamela”. It’s a later epistolary novel by Wilke Collins (mid-19th century) called “The Woman In White” (recently it was made into a musical). The novel centers around a mystery of mistaken identity that the characters all tell in round-robin fashion after the fact; they pass the narrative off to each other depending on who was present for certain parts of the story. The telling includes documents and gravestones and personal journals as well as letters.

    I reread it the other day, and, having ARGs on my mind, I was amazed at how much the novel had the feel of an ARG. Granted, my perception is probably colored by the fact that ARGs are new and exciting to me, but I swear by my pretty floral bonnet that the slow feeding of information by the author and the scramble of the characters to seek out and acquire the tidbits of information was so very much like what goes on in ARGs that it made the part of me not absorbed in the story quite jolly.

    Of all the epistolary novels I’ve read, The Woman In White is one of the best, and it’s worth a read for anyone interested in the form.

  2. There’s an epistolary game: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss by Michal Oracz, originally published in Poland in 2001 and released in English—you will probably not be surprised to learn—by me in 2002. Players play characters in a world where the mythos and cults of H P Lovecraft’s stories are real, and write letters to each other about their investigations and discoveries. The entire rulebook also functions as an example of play, which is to say that it’s told as a series of letters from an occult investigator, describing a sinister game that has been revealed to him.

    Obviously I think it’s good. It’s definitely unlike anything else. Chaosium still has a few copies.

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