A book ms update & two thoughts on letters

A book ms update & two thoughts on letters

The manuscript of what is now called The Racialising Process: Whites Writing Letters, South Africa 1770s-1970s (but this might change again before publication) is still proceeding. What is taking a lot more time than expected concerns (a) preparing the photographs and other images, which have to be turned into JPEGs, pixel sizes adjusted and compressed, then inserted back into the text, and (b) removing all the ordinary formatting and replacing this with ‘styles’. Sounds tedious? Yes! These things are a matter of form, and as many YouTube tutorials say, the content is really not that important!

The first thought about letters referred to concerns non-dialogue and letters to newspaper editors. It has come to mind because, in one of those idle moments that frequently occur when adjusting formatting and extracting and compressing images, the ‘letters to the editor’ pages of a number of online newspapers have been read. Even more than the print versions, these aren’t ‘proper’ letters. Take the UK’s Bolton News – there is no dear editor, no direct address to anyone else either, but instead a brief ‘report’ or ‘opinion’ with the name and a short version of the address of the writer. There is no sense of dialogue here, either with the editor or with some news item written by another person that this ‘letter’ is supposedly responding to. The Los Angeles Daily News in the USA is the same. And while I haven’t looked at online newspapers from other countries, I’d bet the letters to editors in these too are similar.

These are actually short journalistic pieces by amateur journalists, rather than ‘old style’ letters to newspaper editors. They don’t respond to anything other than the facility the online newspaper provides, of enabling them to send their report and have it appear in print. However, it should be remembered that this is how newspaper journalism started, as letters from the provinces to someone at the centre who acted as the focal point for distributing this news. Perhaps this now is the start of a new development, that online newspapers are in a sense being invaded by non-professionals and ‘the letter’ is morphing again. A new development, but also an old one, because the product of the labour involved is gained at no cost at all on the part of the newspaper.

The second thought about letters concerns a shift happening in the expectations built into the epistolary pact regarding time and response. It goes like this. In Britain, people mainly have their post delivered to their home address on a daily basis. Now, when the postwoman or postman arrives, if there are letters pushed through my letterbox then these are almost exclusively false, faux or ersatz letters. Yesterday there was advertising for travel insurance disguised as a letter from the Chair of the company. On Saturday, there were two appeals from charities asking for money, addressed to me as though a letter and using my personal name at the top of the letter, and with a pretend ink signature by someone signing for the charity at the end. And so on.

Like many other people, I receive many ‘real letters’ still, but these don’t arrive by post anymore, they come either as an attachment to an email if they are quite formal, and as an email, for most of them. On Monday mid-morning I received a formal letter attached to an email, with the same formal message complete with official logo in the body of the email, asking me to act as an external assessor in a promotion case. The next morning, Tuesday, I looked at my email at 6 AM. I had been re-sent the same information in the same format, but with an additional note at the top saying ‘as you haven’t replied yet’ – I hadn’t replied in the short few hours that had passed. And it was time-stamped Monday night! I wanted to get this off my back, so quickly checked the background and decided I was not the right person. I emailed a polite refusal – and received an ‘I understand’ response from the high-ranking official concerned within three or four minutes. Yes, all this happened between 6 AM and 6:15 AM!

The feeling engendered, of being dragged along in the wake of the mad juggernaut, was perhaps that felt by the people who lamented about the change brought by the  introduction of the mail coach in the UK, and the use of the pony cart in South Africa, that their ability to reflect upon how they would write a reply was fundamentally changed by the new rapidity of response being tacitly required of them. No wonder that many people I know just don’t bother replying any more to demands disguised as requests like this. And apart from this demand aspect, the speed aspect is also interesting, that because it is possible to do things in very rapid ways, this is being treated as though normative.

The epistolary pact, as I’ve termed it in various publications, also includes notions of appropriate times to respond and related ethical aspects of letter-writing. But there seems to be an important difference between this and the juggernaut occurring now, that the epistolary pact version was emergent and mutually agreed and differed enormously regarding different correspondences. Now, mutuality does not seem to exist and there is instead an expectation coming from the sending side as a kind of absolute: instant response or close to it. This has set off a related train of thought, regarding other ways in which ‘old’ epistolary pact ideas are being modified or significantly changed by new technologies. Hmmmm.

Now back to removing formatting.


Last updated: 18 May 2017


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