Dear Diary,

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?

11 Responses to Dear Diary,

  1. josin says:

    I think you have to treat letters and diaries in literature the same way you do dialogue – it has to be realistic, but better. Real diary entries, unless there’s some heavy stuff involved, are full of in-jokes and asides that an outside reader might not get. (not to mention doodles)

    So long as the writing’s good, most will probably forgive the over-polished nature of novel diaries vs. real ones.

    (Have you read Jennifer Hubbard’s “The Secret Year”?)

  2. Tracy Jorgensen says:

    Have you considered Bram Stoker’s Dracula? It was written in epistolary format as the diaries of the various characters. Stoker indicated they were using shorthand to simplify the time involved in writing in journals. He even includes legitimate reasons for them to use and know shorthand.

    Dracula is certainly no fluffy YA novel (though it has inspired some). It’s a classic.

  3. Donn says:

    I’ve always wondered about the Lovecraftian protaganists who keep up their letter-writing even in the face of annihilation – “The beast is nearly upon me, I can see its maw widening – such horrors within! It is grasping the very hand that holds this peeaaaaaargGghGH!”

    Wow. If only Coleridge had been that uninterruptable at his work.

    And on the idea of narrators sequestering themselves from the world – have you heard of Robert Shields? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Shields_(diarist)

    Oh dear.


  4. I would recommend Stolen by Lucy Christopher. It’s a letter written by a kidnapped girl to her kidnapper.

  5. Lisa Marie says:

    Epistolary books appealed to me as a young adult and teen – but then again, so did epic fantasy. For me, it was simply a matter of my tastes evolving as I became of my own identity. Letters and diaries are extremely attractive to young readers – blank slates – who want to project themselves onto imaginary characters and become “one” with those characters. At this particular developmental stage of my reading, I’m generally not a fan of any book written in first person.

  6. Angie says:

    I don’t read many books in this style, but I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a great example of a recent epistolary novel.

  7. Neil Gordon’s _The Company You Keep_ (2003) is a recent example that I liked a lot: a novel written as e-mails from several characters to a single character — essentially, telling a young woman what she never knew growing up about her fugitive (underground) radical parents. The novel was a NY Times Notable book, and I believe Robert Redford has a film based on the novel in development.

  8. Laura says:

    I actually love epistolary fiction. I very much enjoyed Erin O’Brien’s HARVEY AND ECK. And, of course, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY.

    I was always under the impression there aren’t many epistolary novels being published currently because, for whatever reason, they are viewed as a hard sell.

  9. Kurt Hartwig says:

    I’d recommend two epistolary plays, A.R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS, and its more recent satire by Kira Obolensky and Bill Corbett, the dysfunctional HATE MAIL, also about “love.”

  10. Sarah says:

    Check out SCRAWL by Mark Shulman. (YA, but definitely not fluffy or boy-crazed)

  11. Cindy says:

    “On Agate Hill” by Lee Smith. :) Loved it. Not YA, in my opinion. Takes place just after the U.S. Civil War.

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