The age of letters is over – but have publishers noticed?
|The latest book to land on my desk (or rather, ebook to land in my inbox) is Letters for the Ages: The Private and Personal Letters of Winston Churchill. Bloomsbury boasts that many of the letters within have never before been published – a tantalising prospect. Sadly, I’m not allowed to tell you what’s in them, as the book’s not out till next year. But I can’t stop thinking about that title: Letters for the Ages.
It’s a title that will apply to a whole series, in fact, created by Of Lost Time (a spin-off from science press FSG), with themed anthologies of “Letters for the Ages” about sport and prison to follow. It’s a publishing endeavour that seems both admirable and, in the long term, doomed.
In the world of journalism, one thing guaranteed to break out of ever-shrinking books sections and into the news pages is a juicy new volume of unseen letters by a major author or politician. Last month, it was the turn of John le Carré, whose impassioned letters arrived in bookshops soon after the eccentric postcards of Lucian Freud. Sylvia Plath’s letters inspired a small media circus in 2017, as did this year’s biographies drawing on TS Eliot’s love letters to Emily Hale, finally unsealed in 2020.
But as a publishing format, The Letters of Name Here – lavishly presented in hard covers, with one eye on the gift market – is ultimately going the way of the dodo, doomed by the decline of letters themselves. Are there any writers today licking envelopes on the kind of mail that will leave a mark on history?
Le Carré was “the last great letter-writer of the 21st century,” in the words of one critic. He sent hand-written letters by fax well into the Noughties, learning to type (with two fingers) only in his last years. When he did finally “become an emailist”, in his words, he wrote exactly as if he were still composing letters. Few people do. There are exceptions, but emails are so often, paradoxically, both more informal and less intimate. In the journey from page to screen, something in the soul of the writer is lost.
True, emails can occasionally reveal things letters can’t. Reading Fifty Fifty, an anthology gathering a half-century of letters and emails to the publishing house Carcanet, I noticed that one thoughtful email by the late Irish poet Eavan Boland was sent at 3:57AM. (Was she an insomniac?)
The forms of our correspondence are far more fragmented across different media than before. The writer who keeps all their correspondence to one orderly email inbox, printing hard copies of everything, is a rare beast. There are texts, emails, voice-notes. Historians and scholars must despair of our multimedia mishmash. But what about publishers?
Imagine a reader celebrating her birthday in 2057. She rips the polkadot wrapping paper from a large oblong parcel to find – at last, in glorious folio hardback! – The Complete Facebook Posts of Will Self and The Selected WhatsApps of JK Rowling. Ah well, she thinks. At least it’s not The LinkedIn Requests of Kwasi Kwarteng, or Matt Hancock’s Unexpurgated Tinder DMs.
PS Stray recommendations. In radio: there’s still time to catch likeable cult comedian Joz Norris’s The Dream Factory, a two-part workplace sitcom about the people who keep the show running in your subconscious every night. In art: I wrote here in May about the symbolist MK Čiurlionis, whose dreamlike music and paintings kicked off Lithuania’s 20th-century renaissance. His Dulwich Picture Gallery retrospective looks wonderful. If you go this Sunday, I may well see you there.