A Novel Affair

Modern Epistolary Novel Adaptations

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.