The Contemporary Role of the Epistolary Novel

Epistolary novels are a literary niche that gained traction in England during the seventeenth century, becoming well-known in the eighteenth century, and despite the substantial history, they continue to stay relevant in contemporary literature.[1]

They are frequently adapted across multiple platforms and this form flexibility is evidence that the genre is capable of evolving with the changes in our information consumption. The form in contemporary literature is typically fragmented, with infrequent letters used to drive the plot rather than forming entire novels, though that has been done to great success too. First-person entries are a common interpretation when heavily incorporating the form into literature, an example being Bridget Jones' s Diary by Helen Fielding which is a story primarily told through diary entries.[2]

While there are no official accolades for the epistolary genre, there are a number of novels written in the form that have received prestigious awards such as the Man Booker Prize, which was won by Aravind Adiga’s epistolary novel The White Tiger in 2008.[3] Their place within the market is fused together with various genres and artforms.

Epistolary novel in popular culture

Popular culture is arguably saturated with this niche form of communication, it has been both unintentionally influenced by it and deliberately remade. When epistolary novel rights are purchased, moulded to fit on another platform and that adaptation becomes successful, then society is embedding the form into the consumption of information stream and continuing to support its growth. On Amazon’s bestseller list for epistolary stands Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, an award-winning novel written in 1999 that was later adapted into the highly recognised film.[4] By 2016, the novel had reportedly sold over 1.5 million copies and it has also been translated into over a dozen languages, providing the evidence needed to show that the form can be accessible to a global audience and is not restricted by geographical popularity.[5] Another example of one of the most iconic multimedia adaptations of the epistolary novel would be the famed rapper Eminem’s use in the song Stan.[6] While some reviews suggest that the use of letter-writing within the musical context is now considered ‘old-fashioned’, it could be argued that the original definition of epistolary is in the process of being updated.[7]

Any creation that uses another’s written word, whether that is an email or a text, could be classed as epistolary. Within this definition, the epistolary structure and effect can be applied to a plethora of films, music and literature even though they are not directly acknowledged for using the form. However, the repeated theme within criticism is that the form is outdated which undoubtedly will impact the reception of future work. Yet, when taking into consideration the fact that the term ‘epistolary’ was created around 400 years ago, modern progression in technology could potentially warrant the form evolving beyond the known tropes. This change in definition could prevent the niche from becoming obsolete.

With that evolution comes the recognition of adaptations from the epistolary platform which are not limited to performances that include written or spoken word. For example, Liam Scarlett transformed Frankenstein, which is ‘an epistolary novel’, into a Royal Opera House performance.[8] Debra Craine describes epistolary as ‘virtually untranslatable into dance’, nevertheless Scarlett defied the boundaries of the niche and ‘cherry-picked’ the novel’s plot to create something ‘theatrically powerful and memorable’.[9] Scarlett’s transformation could give further evidence to the survival of the epistolary form because it proves that one of the problems it is often criticised for, restriction by its own creation, can seemingly be overcome. Moreover, some of the reasons behind using the epistolary format could be said to transcend the issues presented by critics as they still deliver a powerful message. Elizabeth Campbell suggests that authors have often used the form for gender politics. In 1995 she claimed that ‘during the last twenty years a significant number of epistolary novels by women have appeared’.[10] It was her opinion that women were using the form as a ‘subversive and freeing agent’ and a ‘mirror’. This implies that epistolaries are being used, for the author, as either a reflective experience or one that reflects the ideal life that the oppressed long for. It may be argued that the consistent use of the form is a reflection of society, particularly women, searching for connection through relatability which helps explain sales.

Literary sentimentalism?

It is widely recognised that epistolary is ‘literary sentimentalism’, drawing in an audience with the promise of exposing raw emotions.[11] The form is often perceived as being released from the social expectation of emotional suppression, offering an honest insight into the character’s mind. S. E. Craythorne, author of How You See Me, has an appreciation for letters representing a ‘private space of preserved conversation’, with the form offering a ‘rather delicious sense of intrusion’.[12] This is the sensation that is often utilized in the marketing of epistolary novels. However, critics claim that epistolary literature has drawbacks that impact a story’s potential and prevent it from achieving what it sets out to do. One primary problem highlighted is that it relies on realism but the audience often requires a context that would not naturally go into letters, diary entries or otherwise. Putting too much information in will, they claim, remove the audience from full immersion and receive negative feedback.

It is often stated that epistolary novels are the eighteenth century’s version of the twenty-first century ‘social media stream’.[13] The target demographic is perhaps people seeking the instant gratification they find online but through a medium that allows them to feel they have disconnected from those platforms. This may mean that epistolary novels could gain more attention alongside the growth of genres that provide insight into the individual, such as self-help and autobiographies, providing both escapism and connection. Because the niche has the capacity to cross platforms, a strong history and relatively consistent following, large publishing houses will continue to contribute to the genre. The risk of becoming obsolete is one associated with the majority of literary niches. The epistolary novel, however, has a strong contemporary standing, continuing to win prizes across the board and gain respect among the publishing community. This may be because they have an association with literary nostalgia, a psychological theme that has been studied by scholars across the world. The audience may be looking for something simple, such as a written letter, that offers a look back in time before communication gained more levels. The niche is arguably withstanding criticism and evolving at a delayed pace with society, creating the nostalgic marketing that allows it to continue.

by Josie Heaton


[1,13] Louise Curran, ‘Letters, letter writing and epistolary novels’, British Library, 21 June 2018

[2] Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary (Picador, 1996)

[3] Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Atlantic Books, 2008)

[4] Stephen Chbosky, Perks of Being a Wallflower (Pocket Books, 1999)

[5] Colette Bancroft, ‘Column: Banning 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' will only attract more young readers’, Tampa Bay Times, 27 May 2016

[6] Eminem, Stan, music video, Youtube, 24 December 2009,

[7] Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, ‘Eminem’s new album Revival — a curious, word-swollen affair’, Financial Times,15 December  2017

[8,9] Debra Craine, ‘Review: Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House’, The Times, 6 March 2019

[10] Elizabeth Campbell, ‘Re-Visions, Re-Flections, Re-Creations: Epistolarity in Novels by Contemporary Women’, Twentieth Century Literature, (1995), 332-348, p. 332

[11] Barbara M. Benedict, The Margins of Sentiment: Nature, Letter, and Law in Frances Brooke's Epistolary Novels (University of Calgary, 1992)

[12] S. E. Craythorne, ‘Top Five: Epistolary Novels’, The Bookseller, 26 August 2015