There was a review recently on the Publisher’s Weekly blog on a couple of new collections of letters. I love reading collections of letters, there is something thrilling about snooping through other people’s mail. While I am not so very interested in the collections reviewed, the reviewer makes some interesting comments about letters as their very own genre:
Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally ‘to try.’ They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category ‘Letters & Correspondence,’ a subset of ‘Essays & Correspondence.’ Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.
I like the idea of letters as being a literary genre. Perhaps letter writing is the most democratic of all genres, something anyone can do and is guaranteed at least one reader. But while letters can certainly be essayistic, I wouldn’t call them a subset of the personal essay. A letter is its very own thing, encompassing many genres really if you want to get right down to it. Essay, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, diary even, they can all be there in letters.
I do love writing letters and reading them too. That might explain why I am excited about a new book by Simon Garfield, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. I disagree that letter writing is a lost art, there are still a good many people who do it and do it regularly. Nonetheless, Garfield’s book sounds like great fun, filled with anecdotes, letters and historical interest. The review of the book indicates Garfield takes a bit of an alarmist stance on the demise of the letter but it doesn’t sound so very off-putting that it detracts from the pleasure of the book as a whole. Which I hope is really the case because I requested a copy from the library. They are on order, I am number eight in line and the library system is buying 13 copies so as soon as they are received and cataloged, one will be making its way to me. I think the book will make for pleasant reading in what is already shaping up to be a very cold and snowy month.