Epistolary Fiction: A Novel Affair


Blue-grey book laying on a wood table with spine facing out with the name 'Rosenmeyer' in gold, separated by two vertical gold bars, from the words 'Ancient Epistolary Fictions' in gold.
Spine of Ancient Epistolary Fictions by Patricia Rosenmeyer.

In this portion of the research, the publication and opinion of epistolary novels over time come to the forefront. This project compiles a comprehensive list of 138 epistolary works — 130 novels and eight ancient texts. By mapping the concentration of these 138 epistolary works over time, trends can be identified and analyzed to reveal not only the development of public opinion of epistolary fiction but also the developing culture of letter-writing itself.


A black bar graph depicts the number of epistolary novels per period of time. The periods are on the x-axis and are as follows: ancient, 1400-1500, 1500-1600, 1600-1700, 1700-1800, 1800-1900, 1900-2000, post-2000. The y-axis indicates the number of novels and markers range from 0 to 60. The bars by period, in order for largest to smallest, are as follows: post-2000 (52 novels), 1900-2000, 1700-1800, 1800-1900, ancient, 1600-1700, and tied 1400-1500 and 1500-1600 (1 novel each).
Number of Novels by Period

The number of epistolary novels published post-2000 is dramatically larger than the number any other era. The data used in this section comes from the compiled list of epistolary novels.  However, this should by no means be regarded as the extent of all epistolary novels. While it is researched and designed to be a comprehensive compilation, it likely does not include all epistolary novels ever published. Regardless, it includes a significant number of these novels which allow reasonable analysis and significant points to be distilled. The collected data produced a spectrum of 138 works spanning from ancient texts of Hellenic Greece to publications from 2015.1 Of the 138 epistolary works this research examined, there were 52 epistolary novels published between 2000 and 2015 alone. Meanwhile, all of the other time periods possess less than 45 publications for their respective century, making the number of epistolary novels published post-2000 remarkable. At the current rate of publication, the century from 2000-2100 would contain approximately 346 epistolary publications. This would compare to the much lower numbers in previous centuries, with 43 epistolary novels published between 1900-2000, 13 between 1800-1900, and 16 between 1700-1800.

However, it is important to recognize that there is potential for some distortion of the numbers due to two principal factors. First, in the present century, there are more books being published than previously as a result of technological advances and increased global literacy rates.2 As such, the 52 epistolary novels published between 2000 and 2015 could appear dramatically larger, but actually, compared to the total number of books published, is proportionally similar. However, investigating this proportional increase is difficult considering the international nature of the list. Second, there is less access to publication records as time goes back. Therefore, the large number could be attributed in part to the relative ease of finding recent publications, as compared to the difficulty of locating many past publications.


Despite these counterarguments to the staggering number of epistolary novels published between 2000 and 2015, the number is still surprising. This being neither the true era of the novel nor even the era of the letter makes it particularly interesting that there would be over 50 epistolary novels published in just 15 years.

Although the age of letter writing has since passed, there were many epistolary novels were written post-2000, how have they been adapted to make sense in a modern context? To understand how modern epistolary novels developed to be meaningful in a modern period, this research looks to the 36 novels of the 52 total novels (70%) from the post-2000 period for which data has been collected.  The 36 novels fall into three categories of how they are adapted.

The first category is that of adaptation to forms of modern correspondence, such as email or text messages. Since letter writing is no longer common, the question becomes: have epistolary novels developed to include the modern forms of communication as a replacement for letters in order for the epistolary style to stay relevant? Of the 36 novels with data, 11 use modern communication as their epistolary format.3 So, only about 30% of the epistolary novels published between 2000 and 2015 include some modern communication in place of letter writing. Examples of this include Texts from Bennett by Mac Lethal (2013) and Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011). For these novels that employ modern communication as their interpretation of the epistolary style, the novels tend to have significantly more outside narration than those novels that use letters. As emails, text messages, and instant messages tend to be more concise, there is more need for outside narration to move the plot.

So how are the other novels adapted to cope with the modern lack of letter culture if they are using letters as their sole form of correspondence? Perhaps, though they are published in the present century, they are set in a time period where letter writing is common. Out of the 36, 10 are set in the past (about 27%). In order to make the epistolary style relevant despite being published in the modern era, these authors set their stories in times where letter writing culture was more common, as it stemmed from necessity.4

The final category is then comprised of the 15 novels published between 2000 and 2015 that neither employ modern communication nor are set back in time. So, they are set in the modern period and are written in letter format. How are the authors able to make them relevant and plausible? The trend here is that the plot is somehow constrained, making letter writing the only option and, therefore, making the use of letters in the modern era believable. For example, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside has one character in prison who writes to her pen pal on the outside. Or, in Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead (2014), the protagonist begins writing letters as a result of a class assignment.


It is also meaningful to note that, when analyzing at the span of epistolary novels over time, the vast majority of the novels found to make the list used in this research are Western. Of the 138 novels found, just four are non-Western — meaning that they are both not set in a Western area nor are written by a Western author. These novels are Si Une Longue Lettre (or So a Long Letter in English) (1981) by the Senegalese author Mariama Bâ, Givi Shaduri (1928) by Georgian author Mikheil Javakhishvili, The White Tiger (2008) by Indian author Aravind Adiga, and Tarzan’s Tonsillitis (2001) by Peruvian author Alfredo Bryce-Echenique. While other novels are seemingly non-Western, such as Lettres Persanes (or Persian Letters in English), they are simply Western interpretations of non-Western places. For example, the 1721 Lettres Persanes is written not by someone of Persian origins, but rather by Montesquieu. The story is the same for Lettres d’une Péruvienne (or Letters from a Peruvian Woman in English) (1747) -- written about Peru by the Frenchman, Françoise De Graffigny.

(1) This project was completed in 2016.
(2) Max Roser (2016) – ‘Literacy’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/ [Online Resource].
(3) God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster, Roomies by Sara Zarr, Texts from Bennett by Mac Lethal, Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Who Moved My Blackberry? by Lucy Kellaway, The Internet Girls Trilogy by Lauren Myracle, The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty, e by Matt Beaumont
(4) Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Bloodline by Kate Cary, The Mislaid Magician by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger, Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique.


Beyond the importance of looking at the trends within the novels themselves, looking at the ways that the novels play a role in the society is revelatory of not only the culture of epistolary fiction, but also of letter-writing culture, by extension. In order to gauge the public interest in epistolary novels, as well as in letter-writing, this research looks at book reviews of the novels this project details. However, as such records of public opinion (largely through newspapers as the primary medium) are not available for the periods preceding the start of the 19th century, this data is confined largely to the comparisons of public opinion between approximately 1800 and the 2015. For those novels published prior to this time period, reviews can sometimes be found dating from later periods. For example, Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters can be found to have been retrospectively reviewed in a New York Tribune article from 1918.1 For such instances, the review is taken into consideration as contributing to the public opinion of epistolary fiction from the period within which the review is published. For this example, then, the review of Persian Letters would contribute to the aggregate public opinion of epistolary fiction in the early 20th century.

Public opinion of epistolary novels between 1800 and the early 1900s (about 1920) is overwhelmingly negative. Repeatedly, epistolary novels are cited as being an antiquated format for novels. When the novels are regarded as successful, they are often so in spite of the perceived inherently problematic format. For example, E. Lucas’s 1906 Listener’s Lure was regarded as a “quaint, original piece of composition” despite that epistolary novels were considered “apt to be terribly dull.”2 It was considered “a dangerous experiment [to put a] story in the form of letters” in the late 19th and early 20th century, as the public opinion of the epistolary form was so abysmal.3 This is in part due to the association with epistolary fiction at the time. During this period, epistolary novels were regularly regarded as “the ancient epistolary form of novel.”4 With the association of epistolary as outdated, books such as H.G. McVickar and Percy Collins’s A Parish of Two (1903) were cited as “badly done and over-strained” as a result of their attempts to write in this style.5 Often, the novels were considered to be detestable simply on the basis of their use of the style. Reviews went so far as to claim that the epistolary style “disfigured” the novels within which it was used.6 A “bastardized blend of fiction and nonfiction,” epistolary novels during the age of letter-writing and of the novel were vigorously disliked by critics.7

In the cases where an epistolary novel is looked upon favorably, it is almost always attributed not to the style but rather to the tact and renown of the author. For example, while Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) was met with favorable reviews, the reviews rarely detailed any specifics about the text itself and, rather, focused on the renown of the author. This case is particularly interesting because the popular response to the novel was largely a result of the association with the author. However, as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was originally published under Brontë’s pen name, Acton Bell, the papers incorrectly speculated that the novel was actually written by Anne Brontë’s then popular sister, Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre had been a success the prior year.8 Similarly, reviews of Elinor Glyn’s The Visits of Elizabeth (1900) were positive simply on the basis of the author’s sensational celebrity status,9 while the sensational popularity of The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903) was attributed to the popularity of the of the man who penned it, Jack London, with his close friend, Anna Strunsky.10

Black and white cover of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the typed text: 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. A new edition. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 15, Waterloo Place. 1871.' At the top of the cover, the text 'Anna L. Mörning, from Charlie, Dec. 24th, 1875' is written in handwriting.” In the center of the cover, under the phrase 'By Anne Brontë,' 'Acton Bell' (Brontë’s pen name) is written in handwriting.
1871 Cover of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Meanwhile, the public opinion of the epistolary style from the mid-1900s through the present day is far more favorable. The correspondence style is regularly noted as interesting and fresh, regarded as “not conventionally narrated”in a way that “puts the act of writing center stage.”11 Rather than perceiving the style to be pushing obsolescence , as was the sentiment prior to the mid-20th century, the style is, at present, regarded more as a “unique [...] literary voice.”12 Despite some possible criticism of the “gimmicky” nature of epistolary fiction, the style was still more often thought of as effective for the given audiences.13 One particularly renowned piece of epistolary fiction of this modern period is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Walker’s book is regarded as a widespread success largely as a result of her “choice of narrative style that, without the intrusion of the author, forces intimate identification with the heroine.” Further, Walker’s employment of the epistolary style develops as the novel progresses: “as Celie grows in experience [...] the letters take on authority.”14 This idea that the epistolary novel is a revelatory form that gives the reader a closeness with the character is a consistent appraisal of epistolary fiction in the modern period. Reviews of modern epistolary fiction are thereby often acclaimed as being tactfully complex and tenderly poignant in their intimate relation with the characters.

While the perception of epistolary novels in the modern period is more positive than that of the past, the style is still met with criticism for the inherent constraints it places on the development of the characters and plot. Some modern critics disagree with the general idea that epistolary novels are uniquely intimate and rather claim that “the epistolary form prevents the reader from becoming completely immersed in the story”15 as the narrative style sometimes “struggles to sustain momentum.”16

Regardless, the period between about 1950 and 2015 has produced significantly more epistolary novels than did the 1800-1950 period, clearly pointing to some positive sentiments towards the format. So why are there so many more epistolary novels, and why are they viewed so positively? Are they perhaps viewed positively because there is a wide array of epistolary novels from which the reader can choose? Or are there more epistolary novels because authors see the success of other epistolary novels and then elect to follow that format? The causational argument here is unknown. However, by all accounts, with the popularity of novels and the importance of letter-writing during the 19th and early 20th centuries, epistolary fiction should have been more popular then than it is now. However, the reason for the upturn in popularity of the epistolary style in between 1950 and 2015 can perhaps be discerned by looking at the respective culture of letter-writing in each of the periods. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, letter-writing culture was vibrant simply because it was a necessity. With the telephone’s popularity and accessibility not coming about in the cities until 1900, and other communities following suit in the subsequent 30 years17, and the telegraph’s extremely inaccessible nature as a result of its expensive and restrictive format18, letters were the available and meaningful form of correspondence during this period. For this reason, perhaps letters were a tired form of communication. They perhaps had no allure simply because everyone used them. They were mundane and familiar and, therefore, not an entertaining novel format. Then, with the dwindling letter-writing culture from 1950 through 2015, perhaps the appeal of novels containing letters increased.  Since in this period letter-writing was not a necessity as it was in the 19th century, perhaps the public was more intrigued to be able to read novels written in the epistolary format. Without an established letter-writing culture, the novelty and allure of it is likely far greater than when letters are the mundane and essentially only form of communication.

(1) New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 09 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1918-11-09/ed-1/seq-9/.
(2)New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 06 Oct. 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1906-10-06/ed-1/seq-5/.
(3) The Topeka state journal. (Topeka, Kan.), 25 Aug. 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016014/1906-08-25/ed-1/seq-5/.
(4) The Houston daily post. (Houston, Tex.), 10 Aug. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071197/1902-08-10/ed-1/seq-15/.
(5) The Indianapolis journal. (Indianapolis [Ind.]), 12 Oct. 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015679/1903-10-12/ed-1/seq-4/.
(6) New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 17 Nov. 1901. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1901-11-17/ed-1/seq-42/.
(7) Eddy, B. (1986). PETER NANSEN'S EPISTOLARY FICTION. Scandinavian Studies, 58(1), 10-24. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/40918706. Accessed July 6, 2016.
(8) Thormahlen, Marianne.  The Brontë Pseudonyms: A Woman's Image — The Writer and Her Public, University of Lund, Sweden.  Originally published in English Studies (1994).  Retrieved from: www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/thormahlen.html) Accessed June 23, 2016.; The North-Carolina standard. (Raleigh, N.C.), 06 Sept. 1848. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042147/1848-09-06/ed-1/seq-4/.
(9) The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 13 Nov. 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1904-11-13/ed-1/seq-21/.
(10) The Hawaiian star. (Honolulu [Oahu]), 31 July 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015415/1906-07-31/ed-1/seq-2/.
(11) Theroux, Marcel. “Some Assembly Required.” (October  14, 2007). The New York Times. Retrieved from: www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/books/review/Theroux-t.html. Accessed July 25, 2016.
(12) “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” (April 7, 2003). Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from: www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-385-50945-9. Accessed July 25, 2016.
(13) “We Need to Talk about Kevin.” (March 24, 2003). Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from: www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-58243-267-0. Accessed July 25, 2016.
(14) Watkins, Mel. “Some Letters Went to God.” (July 25, 1982). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/04/specials/walker-color.html. Accessed July 25, 2016.
(15) “God is an Astronaut.” (April 14, 2014). Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from: www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-62040-356-3. Accessed: July 21, 2016.
(16) Ciuraru, Carmela. “Review: New Books by Paul Murray, César Aira and others.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/books/review-new-novels-by-paul-murray-cesar-aira-and-ohers.html?_r=0. Accessed July 21, 2016.
(17) John, Richard R. Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2010. Print. Page 201.
(18) John Page 156.