Epistolary Adventures: What Is An Epistolary?

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'Epistolary Adventures' written atop image of stack of old letters
Epistolary Adventures

I love epistolary novels. Indeed, these stories written in the form of letters have always held a special place in my heart.

Something about the intimacy of reading someone else’s correspondence—even if it’s all made up—always gave me a sense of closeness and insight that drew me in more than a traditional narrative form could. I figure I can’t be alone in this, so I’m sharing this love, with the hopes of finding my fellow epistolary fans (Would we be called epistolarians? Or is that reserved for letter-writers?). Regardless, here’s an introductory guide.

What Is An Epistolary

Here’s a good five-minute intro by Shaun Kunz, an English teacher, as he instructs his class about the epistolary form:

It’s a good start, but I’d like to delve deeper. However, I do want to give a shout out to the reminder that the Star Trek series is essentially epistolary, framing each episode as an entry in the Captain’s log.

Parts of an Epistolary

As you think about what an epistolary is–a story made up of letters–it’s helpful to consider the elements that define the form, either explicitly or implicitly. By knowing these elements and how they fit in, you can then look at an epistolary and see how these elements play an important part in the story.

To clarify, an epistolary doesn’t have to be made up of just letters. It can also be a diary or contain newspaper clippings, radio transcripts, etc. But for the purposes of defining the parts, I’m going to focus on letters. In fact, let’s work with an example.

In Same Sun Here by Silas House & Neela Vaswani, Meena and River write letters to each other. Meena is an Indian immigrant living in New York, and River lives in Kentucky.

Letter Writer

This one’s obvious. A novel made up of letters needs to have someone writing the letters. In Same Sun Here, there are two letter-writers, Meena and River.

Recipient

Again, obvious. Meena is the recipient of River’s letters, and River receives Meena’s letters. They are the intended audience.

Space

Letters are a form of communication meant to bridge physical distance. In later posts, I’ll delve into how the epistolary form has evolved to accommodate electronic communication (a pet project of mine), but for now, let’s stick to traditional paper letters. While you could certainly picture two people jotting notes back and forth to each other while sitting next to each other in a lecture hall (and this would certainly fall under the epistolary umbrella), most other forms of epistolaries introduce a sense of distance, of physical space between the characters. (And frankly, in the notes-jotting scenario, the sense of distance—or lack thereof—is also clearly defined).

Time

There are multiple moments in time that are implicit elements of epistolaries:

  • Letter Writing Time – the time during which the letter is being written,
  • Letter Event Time – the time when the events being referenced in the letter occurred,
  • Letter Transit Time – the time it takes the letter to be received by the recipient, and
  • Letter Reading Time – When the recipient reads the letter

Distance clearly factors into these times, at least in traditional epistolaries, as you can imagine that between the time when a letter is sent and when it is received, things can happen and situations can change.

Archives, A.K.A. the Physical Letter

Even after the letter has served its purpose, that of conveying the sender’s message to the recipient, the letter still exists. If the letter contains sensitive information, the physical existence of the letter can be troublesome, which often factors into the plot.

Examples of Epistolaries

Of course, no literary discussion is complete without examples for you to go out and check out. Here’s a list of a few epistolaries that I’ve enjoyed. Be sure to comment with ones you like (so I know what to add to my To-Be-Read list!)

  • Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – imagine writing letters using fewer and fewer letters. It’s a challenging twist expertly and entertainingly managed in one of my all-time favorite books.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – set on a small island between England and France in 1946, it’s charming.
  • Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock – this one’s a little mind-bending. In a good way.
  • Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.

I know there are plenty more wonderful epistolary novels out there, and I’m always looking for recommendations. Next time I’ll delve into my favorite subject, Epistolary Novels in the Age of Email.