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Yours Ever: People and Their Letters

Excerpt from Publishers Weekly interview with Thomas Mallon (November 29, 2009):

For all the uneasy transitions facing writers and publishers, it could be worse: you could be the U.S. Postal Service. With the advent of e-mail and other cheap, efficient communication methods, post office volume has dropped considerably in the past decade--to the point where there has been serious discussion about eliminating Saturday delivery, and other cuts. If it wasn't for online shoppers, whose purchases have to be delivered by someone, it would be even worse, as letter volume has dropped significantly--even gift cards have shifted online. Think about it: when was the last time you put pen to paper and peeled a stamp? When was the last time you sat down to compose a good old-fashioned letter?

In his just-released new book, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (Pantheon), critically acclaimed novelist, biographer, essayist, and, well, man of letters Thomas Mallon takes a look back at the seemingly lost art of the letter and offers a window into the most basic elements of our literary traditions. At the same time, the elegantly written book (PW called it “ a smart, witty and lively account”), captures the timeless essence of writing and storytelling. In addition, one can't help being struck by how technological change has similarly affected letter writing, where inside of a decade, the written letter has been almost completely replaced by its digital counterparts, and book publishing, where over a similar span blogs, self-publishing sites, and e-books have transformed the way “books” are consumed, marketed, and written.

For a man who proclaims himself as bringing up the rear when it comes to technology, Mallon's nonfiction has been awfully prescient: in 1989, he wrote about pilfered texts in Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism; in 1997, it was diaries, with A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries; and, now, his book on letters. That makes three subjects that have been transformed in the wired, online world of today. PW caught up with Mallon--also the author of seven novels and a biography of Georgian poet Edmund Blunden--to talk about his new book.

PW: So, let's start with a simple question: are you a letter writer?

Mallon: I confess, not as much as I used to be. I caught myself the other day e-mailing an expression of sympathy to somebody whose sister had died. And as soon as I hit the send button I realized this is about as low as you can go. So, no, I don't really write letters much, but I really didn't want to make this book scolding or nostalgic, because whatever the electronic format may be, e-mail has revived letter writing to some extent. We're writing all the time now.

PW: As a sort of scholar of “letters,” have you noticed a difference between how e-mail has evolved vs. the written letter?

Mallon: Oh, yes. First, if you look at most e-mail programs on computers, the write or the compose function will often have a little pen with it. You look at the send function and it's a little graphic of an envelope. So, we were conditioned from the start to think of e-mails in terms of letters. And at the beginning, it was much more common to get e-mails that had salutations and closings. Now, you rarely see that unless it's an e-mail coming from somebody you don't know. And to young people, e-mail is already somewhat antique. It is almost antediluvian compared to texting and instant messaging and things like that. Still, there are people that I have what I would call correspondences with, and they tend to be via e-mail, where every couple of months or so, I'll send a long, newsy e-mail the way someone in the old days sent a long newsy letter. In that sense, I think it's just a matter of technology. I have that same sense of sitting down to write a letter, and it feels a little bit like the old letter-writing used to.

PW: When I was reading the book, it struck me that letters are the most basic literary unit in the way they condition us to read and tell stories. In the book, you have chapters on love, war, advice, confession, friendship -- very much like literary genres. Is that a fair assessment?

Mallon: Oh, sure. In a way, when you sent somebody a letter you were expected to be entertaining. And we did once think of people as good letter writers the same way we think of people as good storytellers. I don't think we think of anybody as a good e-mail writer today! Especially before the telephone, letters were also the best means of communicating. The mail service used to be very quick, especially in England, where the post would come a number of times a day. You could send somebody across town a letter about your dinner plans. But I do think many people thought of their letters more in literary terms. That's especially true of writers' letters--when a writer would become more successful, a certain consciousness would creep in to the letters.

PW: Because the writer knew he would be preserved and published some day?

Mallon: Exactly. They knew that someday, this particular letter is going to be available. I don't really know how many more letter collections are going to be left to us from modern writers. Are today's writers archiving their e-mail? In most instances I would say no. And, in the early days of e-mail, when you would print out the e-mail it used to contain all of that tracking information. There'd be half a page of data showing exactly what systems it had passed through, and that was sort of authenticating. Now when you print out e-mails, they often don't have that anymore, so I don't know if librarians would be particularly interested in that -- it looks just like something that somebody typed. How do you know who sent it, when it was sent? I don't think we're routinely archiving writers' hard drives, where all of this stuff would remain, either, so I wonder if there are going to be very many of these great correspondences published and available. That has huge implications for biography and history.