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.
PW: In the introduction you note that you actually began this project in the '90s? Do you think, in this case, because of the way technology has evolved, it was better that you didn't finish the book quickly?
Mallon: Yes, I do. I signed up to do this book in 1994, the second book on a publishing contract for my novel Dewey Defeats Truman, which came out in 1997. Dan Frank, my editor at Pantheon, has been very patient! But if the book had actually come out on time, if it had been published sometime in the late '90s, say, I wouldn't have perceived a lot of the material in it through the contemporary prism of e-mail because e-mail was really just sort of reaching everyone as I was starting to work on this book.
PW: Can you draw correlations between what's happened with letters and e-mail and what you see happening with media and literary culture?
Mallon: No question, it's a much rougher environment now. I signed my first publishing contract for a trade book about 30 years ago, and the industry that I entered in 1980 bore more resemblance to the publishing world of the 1920s than it does to the publishing world of today. There has just been wave after wave of change. At the beginning, it was word processing. Then transmittal of material, all of that, and then the advent of the superstores and Amazon, and then the advent of the e-book, and now changes in consumer habits, which is the most profound change of all. I think people are reading quite a lot, but they don't seem to have the patience for books because they're used to going from one thing to another, and I think a lot of people just get itchy sitting and reading a book these days. It exhausts me just to think about it because I have this sense that we're really only at the beginning.
PW: And yet, as you mentioned, because of technology there's more writing than ever going on, which has to, eventually, benefit publishing and literary culture, does it not?
Mallon: Oh, I agree. People have certainly not lost the desire to write or to read. And, basically, with the computer everybody's been given a printing press. That, however, doesn't make for a uniform rise in the quality of writing. One of the real problems, when you have everybody writing with their own printing press on their desktop, is that everyone is fighting for attention, and we've seen an increase in the volume—and by volume I don't mean the quantity of writing, I mean the decibel level. I find there are some wonderful blogs out there, but I also find the whole culture of blogging to be very, very shrill. It's instantaneous and it's loud. It's accusatory. It can be very nasty in the way that the opinions that are fighting to be heard just keep getting louder and louder.
One of the things I think blogging culture shows is that writers need editors. They need editors to say, you know what, this isn't very good. Why don't you have another crack at this? Why don't you abandon this altogether? Or why don't you refine the argument that you're making in the third paragraph? As things proliferate online, I do think readers who really enjoy writing and care about good writing are going to want to find venues where they know some kind of editorial guidance has been exercised before everything goes online. Right now, everybody keeps talking about new platforms. Well, when writing migrates to these platforms, and when you have a lot of fiction online, I think readers are going to be drawn to the sites that exercise some measure of editorial control.
PW: You've written about all these great literary subjects that have profound relevance on the Web—plagiarism, diaries, and now letters. Do you see some day, somebody perhaps, if not you, doing a book of this nature on, I don't know, tweets, or blogs?
Mallon: Oh, certainly. I teach part-time at George Washington University, and I'm actually giving a course on the diary next spring, which I've never done before. One of the things we're going to have to consider in that class is the extent to which blogging and tweeting are the next step in diary writing. You know, in A Book of One's Own there was a sort of thesis I had that nobody ever kept a diary just for himself, that the diarist always wanted somebody to read the book eventually, even if only when he or she was dead, that the diary was always, in some way, addressed to somebody. A lot of people took exception to that idea. They said, no, surely the real appeal of the diary is the chance to unburden yourself in secret. Well, what's been happening in the last few years sort of confirms my thesis—all the blogging and Twittering, particularly Twitter, because what is Twitter if not a diary? Tweets are little, scratchy diary entries, 140 characters or less, and they're being broadcast to everyone. So in a sense, I think we've gone from how the unexamined life isn't worth living to how the unrecorded life isn't worth living.
PW: In addition to letters and diaries, you've written about plagiarism—another hot button topic in the digital age. Before cut-and-paste, it used to be much harder to copy things, yet easier to get away with it. I wonder if the Web is changing our entire notion of, well, what's permissible when it comes to borrowing, sharing—or, some would say, stealing?
Mallon: I think it has. My plagiarism book came out in 1989, the year I got a computer, so it didn't really address electronic plagiarism very much at all. But the question you pose is a very good one. I do think it's much more difficult now to impart, especially to young people who've grown up with the Internet, a sense of ownership about writing, because they are used to everything being literally at their fingertips, to passing things around with great speed—sharing things, dipping into them, then racing off to another link. But I think that the sense that words can belong to you and the sense that you've created something that you have a right to is part and parcel of creativity. If the notion of ownership of words goes away, I think writing will get worse not better. At the same time, one of the things that I think is kind of silly about the Internet is that it's also enabled us to have this kind of gotcha culture, where, when somebody is found to have replicated a phrase or two here and there, it becomes this enormous, overstated issue. Technology has made the detection of plagiarism much easier, but that kind of gotcha thing doesn't interest me. I think that's just a hazard of the writing life—writers make mistakes.
PW: For me, I think e-books will reach their apex when they are capable of achieving for books what e-mail did for letters—for example, e-mail is quicker, more functional, cheaper, and just better. Given your perspective on letters, diaries, etc., traditions that have now migrated largely to the Web, how do you feel about the future of e-books vs. books?
Mallon: I would confess to loving the physical nature of the printed book. I don't think the printed book will ever go away, and very few people are saying that it will. I don't have a Kindle, but I would also say that I have no particular opposition to the Kindle. I tend to bring up the rear where technology is concerned, in all forms, but I always adapt, eventually. To me, the idea of e-books as the most popular format bothers me less than the possibility of a publishing world in which the editorial apparatus has collapsed. As the world of self-publishing proliferates, I just worry about so much stuff being out there that people don't know how to find what's good. That, I think, is the big challenge, more than the shifting technology itself. I suppose that immediately provokes charges of elitism from people. Well, so be it. I don't want to live in a world where everything receives the same imprimatur as everything else. I don't want to live in a world without editors.