Pitfalls and Unexpected Benefits of the Epistolary Form

Welcome to June and our new mentor: Alice Walker!!!!
Alice Walker, Miami Bookfair International, 1989

Alice Walker, as you may or may not know, is the Pulitzer Prize winner author of The Color Purple(you may’ve seen the Oscar nominated movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg).

The Color Purplewas on my to-read list for a looooong time. And I have only one, somewhat shallow, reason for this. I hesitated for so long because The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. Just in case you need to know what an epistolary novel is, don’t run to Wikipedia. It’s a novel written in different media – like letters, emails, news articles, etc. Some very famous, iconic novels have been written in this format. Dracula and The Sorrows of Young Werther are two classic examples. Bridget Jones’s Diaryand World War Z are a couple contemporary examples.

As fun as a few of those are, I have found epistolary formats troublesome. In my opinion, epistolary formats automatically kill some of the suspense that a novelist tries to build.

Take World War Z. It’s an epic, hugely sweeping novel of the (possibly coming?) zombie apocalypse. By writing it in an epistolary format Max Brooks has made sure the reader understands two things off the bat: 1. The apocalypse has happened and the zombies were, essentially, defeated and 2. The humans have survived. I’m not spoiling anything. As a reader you figure this stuff out after the first couple pages. You know these two things are true because people have to be around in order for documentaries to be made – so people lived. And, if people have moved on enough for documentaries to be made, the zombies can’t be posing a daily threat anymore. So you know the ending before the story has even really started.

So, if you’re going to use an epistolary format, be aware that there is an inherent loss of tension that comes along with that choice.

I managed to get past my epistolary hang-up (which is just a personal, reader preference – the way many people get annoyed with first-person, present-tense formats) and read The Color Purple.
The opening scenes are so emotionally wrenching that I wasn’t sure how the tension could be held throughout the book. Celie (in the movie: Whoopi Goldberg) writes to God about her shitty – sorry, there’s really no other word for it – circumstances. Later she writes to her sister, Nettie, who also writes letters to Celie.
And here is where it gets interesting. Nettie’s letters to Celie are held back from Celie by her jerk of a husband (played wonderfully in the movie by Danny Glover). Celie finds the letters and is quite, quite angry. When Celie starts to direct her letters to Nettie, there’s no way for the letters to be delivered. She has no address. She has no point of contact at all. Nettie is on a different continent. Celie keeps talking to her sister, but her sister can’t hear her.

I found this to be technically brilliant. One of the underlying thematic elements of The Color Purple is the question of faith – who keeps it in the face of adversity and who loses it, who gains it where they never had it, and how to hold onto faith once it’s found. Sending a letter that will never be read by its intended recipient is a gigantic leap of faith for Celie. And Nettie’s constancy with her own letters – when she has no guarantee that Celie is receiving them – shows Nettie’s faith. They cling to each other in spite of the silence on either side. It’s a really beautiful, poignant undertone to the story that couldn’t have been achieved without the epistolary styling.

So, I suppose the point to take away is this: be aware of the pitfalls of the form. (I knew Celie wasn’t going to die, for example, though her life could’ve gotten progressively worse.) You’re going to have to build tension in a different way with an epistolary format.

Some of the things that can be played with – and played with gusto – within an epistolary format:

1.       Silence vs. noise. What is being said, and to whom? Why? Who can overhear or intercept the message? Aside from the reader, who has access to the information presented via letter/note/news column/whatever?

2.       Lending credence to unbelievable events. This is where World War Z is effective. A documentary is a trustworthy source, presumably. If someone is making a newsy story about zombies, it adds a certain buyability to the story. (Also one of the reasons District 9 was such an effective movie.)

3.       Multiple viewpoints. Most of the epistolary novels I’ve read, including The Color Purple, utilize multiple points of view. Journals and letters are the ultimate first person POV. It’s next to impossible to get a full story when the cards are held so close to the chest. Celie and Nettie exchange their stories – and both stories inform the main narrative, fleshing it out whereas a single POV would’ve been very one note. (And, as a side note, I think this is a flaw with the movie version. It’s all Celie, all the time. And the viewer of the movie doesn’t get a lot of Celie’s vivaciousness because there’s no letters to read.)

4.       Stream of consciousness. This is always a risky bit of territory, but the epistolary form allows the free flow of thoughts, one connecting to the other, the way real people think.

What are some other possible pitfalls or benefits to the epistolary form? Have you read any books recently that used letters or journal entries to great effect? Have you ever written anything using an epistolary form? How was that experience? Did the story work to your satisfaction?


One response to “Pitfalls and Unexpected Benefits of the Epistolary Form”

  1. Debbie Avatar

    Isn't Celie's writing to Nettie not only an act of faith, but also a way for her to examine her own life? When you write about yourself–whether in journals, a memoir or letters–it can be an act of stepping back from events in order to record them.

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