E-Epistles

A letter-writing revival

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Invoke the word epistolary, which means pertaining to letters, and images straight out of Jane Austen spring to mind: quill and paper, wax seals, liveried footmen delivering beautifully scripted letters on silver platters. The epistolary literary tradition, which dates back to Roman writers such as Ovid, Cicero, and Pliny, enjoyed a great boom in the 18th century—producing the first epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa—and by the 19th century, letter writing was considered an art form, with style books circulating on how to pen a proper missive. But with the advent of the telephone, everything started to go south for the written word. After all, why fool around with pen and paper when picking up the phone was quicker and easier?

Technology may have killed the letter, but—ironically—it might also be reinvigorating the epistolary tradition today. Checking and writing e-mail is one of the main reasons we log onto the Internet (or, for that matter, take any pleasure in showing up to work), and many people who would blanch at the thought of writing an actual letter shoot out several breezy missives daily. Even seniors, who represent the tiniest demographic of Internet users, write e-mails at the same rate as other adults.

As Rufus Griscom, co-founder of the literary magazine Nerve.com, points out in Wired (November 2002), e-mail has altered courtship patterns as well. There’s a love-letter renaissance of sorts developing, in the form of online personal ads. “Whereas the short format of print [personals] lent itself to desperate, transactional relationships (DJM SEEKS BI-CURIOUS SWF),” Griscom writes, “the endless space afforded online personals is perfect for the legions of smarties who cruise there. They can woo prospects with their fancy language skills and quickly cut through a broad pool with Boolean searches.”

However, if you’re interested in being part of this e-epistolary romantic renaissance, Griscom advises you to “get in there while you can,” because with the inevitable advent of live video on the Web, he says, it’s going to be a lot more about looks. “The online dynamic [will be] a little more like the offline one, with cheerleaders and jocks reascendant.”