The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters
by C.S. Lewis
An experienced devil and his apprentice exchange letters on religion. Satire.

Epistolary fiction is a popular genre where the narrative is told via a series of documents. You have almost certainly read one of these books. Letters are the most common basis for epistolary novels but diary entries are also popular. The word epistolary comes from Latin where epistola means a letter.

In the days before emails and text messages, letters were an essential part of everyday life and it was only natural for authors to embrace this form of communication.

This genre became very popular in the 18th century. Samuel Richardson wrote two successful epistolary novels – Pamela in 1740 and Clarissa in 1749. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was another important example in 1774. The History of Emily Montague (1769) by Frances Brooke is another 18th century novel of this type. Epistolary fiction become so widespread that Henry Fielding parodied Pamela with a novel called Shamela in 1741.

Some authors use correspondence or documents for the entire text while others, like Herzog by Saul Bellow and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, use them for particular sections.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is perhaps the most successful novel of all time to be written in this format but others include Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

The wonderful 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff is non-fiction but must be mentioned as the AbeBooks marketplace includes so many rare booksellers. This book is a 20-year correspondence between the author and an antiquarian bookseller, but reads like fiction.

Even in the past 10 years, there has been a steady stream of epistolary literature. Notable examples include World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks and We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. The Griffin and Sabine series, a love affair told via letters and postcards, by artist Nick Bantock is a beloved trilogy and a beautiful example of this form of writing.


A Selection of Epistolary Literature

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova

Gothic hybrid novel told via letters, stories and excerpts from books.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula
by Bram Stoker

Stoker uses journal entries, letter and newspaper clippings to tell his 1897 classic vampire tale.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint
Memoirs of an Invisible Man
by H. F. Saint

Either a letter or manuscript written in first-person narrative & left for someone to find.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Ella Minnow Pea
by Mark Dunn

This story is both epistolary (letters) and lipogramatic (writing that lacks certain letters).

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips
The Egyptologist
by Arthur Phillips

Journals, letters, telegrams and drawings tell this story of tomb exploration in Egypt.

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Up the Down Staircase
by Bel Kaufman

A comic novel about students & a teacher written in memos, notes, essays, lesson plans and letters.

The Beatrice Letters by Lemony Snicket
The Beatrice Letters
by Lemony Snicket

Thirteen letters, six each from Snicket & Beatrice, and one from Snicket to his editor.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

A novel from 1999, a teenager writes a series of letters to an anonymous person.

Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen
by Fay Weldon

Correspondence between an 18-year-old student & her aunt on the merits of Austen.


Overqualified by Joey Comeau
Overqualified
by Joey Comeau

A novel told through cover letters for job applications that take a dark turn.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
by Tobias Smollett

A comic novel from 1771 featuring letters from six characters describing the same events.

Black Box by Amos Oz
Black Box
by Amos Oz

A marriage falls apart and letters between the characters tell the story.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
Possession: A Romance
by A.S. Byatt

Byatt uses various methods including diary entries, letters and third-person narrative.


Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Poor Folk
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A bleak novel told via letters between a couple of distant and impoverished cousins.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster
Daddy-Long-Legs
by Jean Webster

A 1912 novel where a college girl writes letters to her benefactor.

The Griffin and Sabine Series by Nick Bantock
The Griffin and Sabine Series
by Nick Bantock

A trilogy of books about a long distance romance told through letters and postcards.

Letters from the Inside by John Marsden
Letters from the Inside
by John Marsden

A young adult novel featuring letters exchanged between two 15-year-old girls.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Microserfs
by Douglas Coupland

Published in 1995, this is a diary written on a lap-top set in the technology boom of the mid-1990s.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
We Need To Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

Acclaimed novel from 2003, this features letters from Eva - the mother of Kevin - to her husband.

The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend
The Adrian Mole Diaries
by Sue Townsend

Fine comic writing that describe one English boy’s painful childhood and teenage years.

World War Z by Max Brooks
World War Z
by Max Brooks

Zombie apocalypse told through interviews with various survivors for a UN report.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

An early example of detective fiction from 1859 that makes use of various documents.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

Told through journal entries – this influential book tackles issues around the mentally disabled.

Carrie by Stephen King
Carrie
by Stephen King

A horror story told via newspaper and magazines clippings, letters, & excerpts from books.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers & Robert Eustace
The Documents in the Case
by Dorothy L. Sayers & Robert Eustace

 

Look inside the Griffin & Sabine trilogy:



What epistolary fiction have you read? - leave a comment:



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