Epistolary fiction is fiction presented in the form of letters ("epistles") and other forms of correspondence. Often epistolary fictions invite readers to take voyeuristic pleasure in reading other people’s mail -- private, even intimate, communications not "addressed" to us. In all cases, epistolary fictions construct specific kinds of distance and intimacy between narratives and their readers, expose transgression as a constituent aspect of fiction reading, complicate supposedly clear demarcations between public and private, and make peculiar authenticity claims.
English-language epistolary fiction has a long history and is experiencing a resurgence in popularity today. The form was ubiquitous during late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the early nineteenth century, all-letter narratives had become less common; but letters continued to be important plot catalysts, and writers were beginning to experiment with building narratives through forms of correspondence other than letters. The genre has made a remarkable comeback in recent decades. It has expanded to incorporate electronic technologies and forms, with significant interpretive and ideological results.
This course will consider the functions and appeals of epistolary fiction over many centuries. We'll concentrate largely on texts from the form's English-language hey-day between the mid-seventeenth and late-eighteenth centuries, but we'll also look at examples from as far back as the 12th century and from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. We'll ask what is at stake -- in aesthetic, political, moral/religious, and market terms -- in writing and publishing works of fiction supposedly built from correspondence.