Is Epistolary Lit for You?

Did you ever have a pen pal? In addition to letter-writing and email exchanges, pen pals appear in literature in the form of epistolary novels. Written as a series of documents, this unique writing style is seen in the Griffin and Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock. These books are visually appealing and are written in the form of correspondence between two strangers who seem to be soulmates. The correspondence ranges from love letters stuffed in envelopes to images of postcards.

If you have never read an epistolary novel, I encourage you to pick one up. The books are interactive and provide the reader with various documents to review. You might find a diary.

entry, a medical report, or tickets to a concert attended by the main character. Getting to know the characters this way provides a different connection than the familiar first- or third-person narrated story.

Like pieces of a puzzle

The exciting thing about the epistolary novel is that you are given pieces of a puzzle. The author asks you to put this unique puzzle together with the elements of information that you’re given. Letters between two characters can reveal the intimacy of their relationship, whether it’s love or hate. Reading through police or coroner’s reports can show the brutality of a crime or pique your interest in the serial killer. A great example is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the author utilized newspaper articles, letters, and doctor’s notes to bring his story to life.

Fiction or nonfiction?

Even though I think of epistolary works as fiction, many examples of nonfiction masterworks exist. In nonfiction epistolary works, we tend to see letters to another individual, the exchange of letters, or the story in the form of a diary.

An example of a nonfiction epistolary is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The author writes a letter to his teenage son regarding his perceptions, feelings, and the reality of being black in the United States.

A personal favorite nonfiction work is the coffee table book Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon by James Henke. I received this interactive biography about the musician’s life as a holiday gift, and his story is told through ticket stubs, hand-rendered drawings, letters, music playlists, and interviews.

Another fabulous example of the epistolary style is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Her diary allows her to share her innermost thoughts with intimacy, courage, and grace. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is written in the form of letters to God and documents the main character’s struggle with abuse and her eventual triumph.

In our fiction category, we see many epistolary novels. Written in diary form,  The Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho might be of interest. The story takes place in Singapore, where a successful, thirty-something-year-old female is the last in her family to be still single.  Another is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, where we see a freshman who befriends two other teens. His diary covers suicide, molestation, mental illness, and trauma topics. Another novel told in logs and reports is The Martian by Andy Weir. This book finds Mark, the astronaut, stranded on Mars without any hope of rescue.

As you can see, epistolary works span a variety of topics and circumstances. Pick one up. I have a feeling you won’t be disappointed in this style.

If you'd like to know why the author is passionate about the genre, read an earlier version of this post here.