Saturday, October 08, 2011

Death of the letter.

A short while ago, with the folding of the big bookstore chain Borders, all the blog posts and tweets and comments seemed to focus on one outstanding question. What will happen to the book? The consensus, and it was far from unanimous, was that many still loved to have an actual, physical book in their hands, but that the sales just weren't there to back it up. I remember the day that I heard that online sales of books had surpassed the actual physical book sales.

Then I put my novel online for download.

I figured that there was no sense in bucking a trend, a wave of change that was sweeping through the readership, made available by such interesting techno gadgets as the kindle, and the iPad. There was such an uproar, as if people had sensed the shift, the change in direction of the minnow school, and some were trying to point out the implications for a long loved form of media.

But this isn't about books. I merely bring this up because I see no such uproar coming in support of the humble letter. At a time when postal services around the world are combating lower volumes, who will speak for the letter?

Two hundred years ago, literacy was an aristocratic and privileged thing. Before the outburst of public schooling in the 1800's, letters were a relative rarity, expensive, and usually piggybacking on military dispatches, paid for by the receiver, or carried by relatives or friends or acquaintances between continents for those who were lucky to travel.

In 1840 with the invention of penny postage, private mail services gave way to the cheaper public system, and soon enough letters could be sent nearly worldwide, traveling by rail, ride or sail from anywhere to anywhere. That, coupled with the rise of the public funded school system, led to an explosion of mail. For nearly a century before the invention of the telegraph, the humble letter was the sole means of communication across long distances. People used it to pass news, to do business, and to communicate, to send postcards from exotic locations, or to keep in touch with their loved ones during times of war.

You may find this part of the history facile, almost laughable, as if I'm parodying something that we who were born before the internet take for granted, but before you laugh, consider this. In the US, lettermail between 2006 and 2010 alone dropped by 20%. We see similar numbers for other postal services around the world. We aren't sending letters any more

I blame it all on e-mail.

What, you ask, do I have against e-mail? Online, we all tend to truncate things. We re-write. We edit. We write it as if it has to fit in one page, and that's where its failing lies. A letter can be as long as we want it to.

It's not as if we haven't gone through changes like this before. The invention of the public postal system and public education shifted the focus of our thousands of years old oral traditions to a more unified storytelling experience. The best example is the coagulation of all our traditional views of Sinder Klaus, St. Nicholas (all three of them), and Santa Claus into the red-suited elf we now see on the Coca-Cola ads. People no longer sat down around fires and told stories, instead reading out loud from books.

Books gradually supplanted our oral tradition. Sure, there are still professional storytellers, but the majority of storytelling, the real bulk, shifted to books, then to radio, movies, and television, and now to the internet.

If we compare the modern blog to journal writing of the past centuries, novels to their online counterparts, news to the broadsheets of the past, and the humble letter to its modern e-mail counterpart, we see a continuing trend toward truncation.

In the iPod generation, will we see our children and grandchildren unable to even find books outside museums? Could they become like the parchment scrolls of the middle ages? It's possible.

Even the content of those books is changing. How many of us can conceive of reading War and Peace, with its whopping 560,000 words, let alone writing a novel of that size? That, and Les Miserables at 513,000 words, are two of my favourite novels. Even my first novel, squeakyclean, at only 250,000 words was rejected by many publishers as being 'too long', though it would have been quite normal at the turn of the century. We want our facts quickly, and efficiently, and haven't the time to wander through a story any more.

Books are shorter, partly because the publishing industry is looking for books that fall into the neat confines of a trade paperback, but partly also because the modern writer knows this. They know where to find their audience, which means smaller novel sizes being written and queried. The skills to write an epic novel, like the ability to tell long stories of the previous centuries, are disappearing from our writing communities.

How many of you now are thinking this post is a little long? That's on purpose. We all have a meter in our head, a timer if you will, that subconsciously counts the time we've been spending on one thing, and that's the root of our problem right there. Just as we influence the technology, and become more terse and compact in our production of media, we are also changing the comfort zone of what, as a reader, we accept as long enough to pay attention to. We are producing shorter works, and in turn, shortening our attention spans.

To bring this point back full circle, I believe that just as the epic novel may be wheezing out its slow death rattles, so too we may someday see the end of the letter. We are just not able to hone those skills. It's a shame. I still have letters sent to me years ago, that I can pull out and read, some from people who are long gone, and their script brings them back to me for a few moments. I still have notes thrown back and forth in class from high school. Do kids even do that any more? I would love to think so. There's something very comforting and simple about actual physical communication, and I think in turning away from it we are losing something of our humanity.

That said, I have written three actual physical letters, a couple of pages each, and I am sending them. My friend Kirk, in Montreal, who has a paperless office, said it will be like poetry to receive an actual personal piece of lettermail.

That reaction alone tells me that I'm doing the right thing. He'll be getting a letter this week.

 My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

A teaser chapter for my current novel is now up!
Seven Gates

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
eBook, pdf, mobi, epub, rtf, lrf, palm, txt
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Kindle Germany

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