Amélie Nothomb once said that while novels and poems are texts where others are allowed to enter or not, letters and epistles cannot exist without the other person. You may write a letter to an imaginary friend, to a deceased addressee, even to a fictional figure – a letter is always a social gesture, involving two or more people.
As a fundamentally social literary genre, epistles have always been regulated by strict rules, the do’s and don’t’s of letter-writing style.
Until recently, at least. As the epistolary genre has ceased to play a role on the literary scene, an important social artefact has been left behind. Letters are now permanent fixtures of museums, libraries and works of historical biographies.
Who will ever seek to turn their Outlook archive into an edited collection of emails for posterity to see and admire? Who will ever allow themselves to be seen and described through and by the electronic missives they’ve sent to family and acquintances, friends and foes of a lifetime?
Cicero wrote letters that changed the course of European history. St Paul sent letters that built an entire faith up. Abelard wrote letters that altered our perception of an age. We write emails, encrypted and ephemeral, that no one will ever read again, even if they survive in perpetual storage.
In his Heroides, Ovid had Penelope address a grief-stricken letter to Ulysses, her husband. Petrarch directed his letter to Homer across 2000 years of history and cyberspace. Antiquity had its strict rules about how a letter should be. The medieval West had stricter rules still. Writing letters was an ars, the art of an artisan, a skill acquired, a practice applied. Learning to read and write, pupils used to learn how to write letters as well. We no longer abide by letter-writing rules, and that learning process has been removed from us.
It may be fair to say that emails are not letters after all. The metaphor of their name, the electronic mail, has eaten its own tale and dissolved into bits of written orality, if you pardon the oxymoron. Emails and letters are both communication tools, but that’s where the similarity ends.