Epistolarity and its others

Epistolarity and its others

It has become a truism over the last few decades of epistolary scholarship that ‘the letter’ is just one albeit extremely important manifestation of something larger and more complex, that is, epistolarity. In a context of absence and often also distance, epistolarity involves an ‘I to You’ communication which, implicitly or explicitly, invites response and turn-taking across time/space, so that the You who had been the addressee becomes the I who is the writer, and then the process runs again. The heart of the matter is that epistolary communication and its reciprocal aspects traverse absence and distance and facilitate the continuation of relationality when people are apart. But even epistolarity has its bounds, and there are limits as to how far these characteristics can be stretched without breaking and a communication becoming something else, something different in kind.

The Curiosities section of the WWW pages provides discussions of a range of examples of these border crossings or at least border troublings. Advertisements can look like letters, letters can be written using the definitional conventions of advertising, something can be an ostensibly a letter or postcard from A to B but actually be a put up job on the part of C, epistolary communications can be forged, inventories and lists can be sent from J to K headed ‘Dear K’ and signed off by ‘Yours sincerely, J’, and so on and so on. And as various of these examples intimate, yes something that is epistolary can begin to meld into a something else, but it also works the other way round too. That is, something that strictly speaking starts as belonging to a different genre of writing (or a different form of representation), like an inventory or a list, can in some circumstances begin to shape-shift and take on some of the genre characteristics of epistolarity, including those of the letter as in the example above.

Does this flexibility and permeability mean that epistolarity becomes everything communicative and nothing that is specifically epistolary? The genre conventions are helpful at this point, because they provide some, albeit historically- and culturally-located, points of relative fixity, like using compass points and a map to make sense of a complicated and very mixed terrain on the ground. Both are real and interrelated but their ontological basis is very different. However, while the map and compass may be essential, surely what takes ontological priority is the lumpy bumpy ground itself: if the map implies straight on over level ground, but what opens up in front is a bottomless chasm, best take notice of the chasm! Best, then, relate the complexities of the terrain to the genre convention compass points, and let the actual practices of epistolarity take priority.


Last updated:  9 November 2018