Print versus screen

s-purloined-letterIt’s a lazy curiosity of mine as to what will happen to correspondence collections now that the epistolary age is dead. Editing Noel Coward’s letters, Barry Day sniffs ‘One wonders what history will make of the present illiterate email era.’ Adam O’Riordan takes the same line, asking us: ‘Will future literary tourists no longer need to travel to the homes of writers, but rather make online pilgrimages to their defunct social networking sites?’

It’s fashionable to slag the internet as a cross between nerd heaven and the symbol of our atomised, alienated, decadent and godless society (cont p.94) but, in fact, email correspondence between writers is anything but illiterate. Blogging and social networking connect novelists, poets, journalists, philosophers and artists across continents and timezones. I have relationships with people in other countries conducted entirely by email.

I think this is progress. You can send fiction and articles on attachment, making it easier for writers to critique each other’s work. And because the internet keeps everything, nothing is ever lost, making the task of future historians that much easier.

True, email may not give an accurate record of the writer’s life, but then neither did letters. Hunter S Thompson kept carbon copies of his letters for forty years, knowing even from the age of seventeen that one day they would be published: he used the epistolary form to develop a public persona. 

True, physical is better than virtual and there is something immediate and seductive about a letter – you imagine the smell of ink off cream paper, wrapped in red ribbon. And I still keep the letters I have been sent. But like fiction itself, correspondence of any kind is not just about recording a life: it is also about creating one.

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