In recent years, a number of journalists and critics have lamented the death of the literary letter. The publication of Saul Bellow’s letters in 2010 and William Styron’s last year were accompanied by waves of speculation about how many more such collections we can expect. There was also no small amount of hand-wringing about how “The Collected Emails of Dave Eggers” (or whomever) will never cast quite the same spell. These are legitimate concerns. But a less remarked upon and equally worrisome question is what the death of letter writing — and its replacement by emailing — is doing to the process of creative writing itself. Before the advent of email, many writers maintained a healthy relationship with their correspondence; they found letter writing to be a useful complement to their main literary projects. Letters were not only a way to stay in touch with colleagues or test out ideas and themes on the page, but also a valuable method of easing into and out of a state of mind where they could pursue more daunting and in-depth writing.
John Updike, for instance, often began his writing day by answering a letter or two. Cynthia Ozick has said that she does the same thing, answering letters after breakfast, before beginning her real work. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, turned to his letters when his fiction wasn’t going well; they were a welcome break from what he called the “awful responsibility of writing.” Iris Murdoch worked on her fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon and then returned to her fiction for a couple hours in the early evening. Thomas Mann’s days followed much the same pattern: serious writing in the morning, then letters, reviews and newspaper articles in the evening.
For these writers, and many more like them, keeping up with their correspondence was a valuable para-literary activity — not quite “real” writing, but something that helped them warm up for or cool down from the task. (And, of course, it should go without saying that many of these letters were beautiful works of literature in their own right.) This is not to say that all writers found dealing with their correspondence pleasant. H. L. Mencken replied to every letter he received on the same day that it arrived — out of politeness, he said, and also for more selfish reasons. “I answer letters promptly as a matter of self-defense,” Mencken once explained. “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.”
Charles Darwin was similarly compulsive. He made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious cranks. If he failed to do so, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. Is email really such a different beast? I would argue that it is. I recently compiled a book about artists’ daily rituals, and as part of my research I spoke to several contemporary writers, painters and composers about their working habits. Nearly everyone was wary of the distractive potential of email. The novelist Nicholson Baker, for instance, told me that he tries to avoid checking email too early in the day because “it just does change everything. As soon as you have a couple of emails pending, the day has a different flavor.”
In a 2010 interview with The Paris Review, the novelist David Mitchell voiced a similar sentiment. He talked of “hearing the blip blip blip of emails arriving in your inbox, and knowing that at some point you’re going to have to sit down and sift through them, but not today, damn it, not tonight, please, not until I’ve just finished this one last scene.” It is this constant background awareness of email that can cause real problems. Unlike traditional mail, email is always active. You can’t fire off an email and then put it completely out of mind; there is at least some slight awareness of the message’s continuing life, the possibility of a reply, the need to keep refreshing the stream of digital correspondence. And that’s the best-case scenario — more often, it is the nagging collection of unanswered emails that weighs on one’s mind.
So can contemporary writers — and nonwriters who are overwhelmed by email, i.e., pretty much everyone I know — take away any lessons from our literary ancestors’ less fraught relationship with correspondence? One possible tactic is to set aside a portion of each day for email and deal with it only at that time — to process email in batches, treating it like a daily delivery from the postman rather than a constant slow drip of communication.
I realise that this is not an entirely original suggestion, nor one that is likely to work for most people. An alternative is to adopt a habit that I have noticed in several especially busy editors and journalists, and it is simply this: Spend as little time as possible reading and replying to emails, and dash them off with as much haste, and as little care to spelling and punctuation, as you can bear. In other words, don’t think of them as letters at all — think of them as telegrams, and remember that you are paying for every word. n
(Mason Currey is the author of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.”)