I’m thinking today about epistolary novels. And I have a lot of thoughts, not all of them connected to one another, so hopefully my discussion of them here makes sense, in a streamlined, logical thinking sort of way. Mostly, I love a good diary or letter-based book, but I wonder at the relative dearth of the genre beyond YA-fiction. Some of my favorite series (I wondered a long time how to pluralize “series” and I couldn’t figure it out) as a teenager were epistolary: Dear America, The Princess Diaries, Angus Thongs & Full Frontal Snogging et al., Meg McCafferty’s Jessica Darling books (though I will admit up front that I bought the newest, fifth book in the series only last year because, well, I just had to know what happened). On a less frivolous note, Witch Child by Celia Rees Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder affected me as well.
Frankly, it was a lot harder to think of serious, stand-alone books written as diaries or letters. Is this because the style isn’t regarded as highly or as respectable as the rest of narrative fiction? Aside from old classics like The Sorrows of Young Werther, Pamela, or Clarissa, respectable, adult fiction in an epistolary format is far and few between. One of my very favorite books is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Aside from it having one of the best first lines to a novel that I can think of, it’s a really wonderful story. It has depth, humor, well-developed characters and social message. Yet, the entire story is the diary of a teenager, which seems to me that the category should hardly be dismissed and relegated to the fluffy, boy-crazed and fashion-obsessed teen series shelves.
One thing, however, that has always supremely bothered me about these types of books is the practical impossibility of them. The sheer length and detail of the diary entries or letters, presumably written longhand, would relegate the narrators to sequestered rooms where they could write, undisturbed, for hours at length—meaning also that they would have no time to actually experience the things they are writing about, if the letter or journal is not solely devoted to intellectual or philosophical thought. I know that as with much of literature and film, one is meant to suspend disbelief for the sake of the art, and usually I am able to do this, but there are times when I simply cannot abide by its improbability.
Regardless, what I mean to say, simply, is that I would really appreciate some good epistolary books to add to me collection. Whether they are out there and I’m simply not aware of them (in which case, recommendations, please!) or they have yet to be written, I will defend the genre. What are your thoughts? Do diaries and letters not rate against more standard prose or is this unfiltered, wholly personal narrative that lends itself to acceptable tangents and stream of consciousness something that should be more widely untilized?