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Addressed to Speculation

Dear J,

This is my third and final letter to you. You haven't replied to any of my previous messages and while I didn't expect you to, I think my desire to reach out to you has run its course. Perhaps not soon enough for your taste, but there it is.

Glint Horizontal by Morgan Crooks (2017)
My intention in writing to you was never to hector or convince you of anything. The course you have taken with your writing is your own and, frankly, I celebrate it. Rather, it was my hope that we could have extended our conversation after that one meeting.

Those who know far more than I about literary critique have cautioned of the perils in assuming intention in the work of others but nevertheless I cannot but help read some echo of our brief conversation in some of your current work. Perhaps a certain perversity or even an obstinate disregard animated your recent writing. Perhaps this is hubris but your use of a certain style in recent stories suggests you have also placed some thought into what we discussed.

If that is the case, I can only wish our conversation had been longer. I fear that I was unable to express with clarity my ideas. Sadly, your recent use of this style has gone badly off the rails.

The purpose of epistolary techniques in writing, particularly in the case of speculative fiction, is to grasp for a sense of historicity. In plain English, when writers incorporate or employ fully the device of fictional letters, journal entries, or written forms other than straight up fiction, they are attempting to suggest that not only have the events in their story happened but in some respect mattered in a historical or social sense.

I confess to a weakness for this literary style. I think I first remembered noticing it as something distinct and interesting in Stephen King's first novel, "Carrie." The use of interview transcripts, highlighted the mood of dread expressed by the story, suggesting long before the climax of the story that something of some significance would happen by the end of it. Certainly King uses foreshadowing in other works, "Pet Cemetery" comes quickest to mind, but the use of fictional documentary sources here suggests an author intent on a particular authorial voice. Beyond the events narrated in the voice of the protagonists, King adopts the guise of a historian, assembling what primary sources might remain after the fact to conjure some spirit of understanding.

Like all literary techniques, epistolary techniques are prone to abuse and mishandling. Without naming names, some of our contemporaries seem to forget the central point of incorporating primary sources into fiction. It presupposes that some agency or authority located in the future of the events survives to carefully curate such sources and marshal them for scholastic endeavor. Without such an obvious agency, the use of epistles raises more questions than it answers and even undermines the speculative component of a story. To put this another way, all those letters and reference articles work in William J. Miller's "Canticle for Leibowitz" because by the end of the novel a civilization has risen from the ashes of nuclear war to assemble such records. In this way, the primary sources serve as foreshadowing of later themes of the story, adding to its pathos.

If only everyone understood the power of such techniques.

Your work too falls short of these aspirations I am afraid. To assist you in your future endeavors, because I do sincerely believe that you have talent and vision, I will commit to this letter a short list of those recent works I think merit your attention.

Let's first discuss an excellent use of the journal style of Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly's story "Making Us Monsters." The use of letters here does more than simply ground an unusual story in the everyday vernacular of the characters. It also suggests the impossibility of true communication. The letter passed between the two characters of the story are separated by time. But let's not forget, the letters here also work in the sense that they extend and deepen the reader's appreciation for the speculative elements of the story. By framing the story as a collection of letters, the writers here are addressing explicitly the way that history buries and minimizes records that don't fit orthodox readings. By excavating these fictional letters, the story draws parallels between the horrors of war and the thousand petty injustices that precede them.

I'll point, as well, to the excellent story "The Lighthouse Girl," by Bao Shu, translated from its original Mandarin by Andy Dudak for Clarkesworld. This story about a young girl sifting through the scattered memories of her childhood in an effort to to understand her troubled relationship with her father. Gradually both reader and the narrator learn this distance stems from a tragedy connected to her own origins. While the narrative and concept of the story are straightforward to this reader, its power comes from Bao Shu's decision to adopt the form of journal entries. By capturing discrete moments of a child's fumbling attempts to understand herself, we come to understand more of the process that lead to her creation. Journaling is act of self curation; insisting that individual events in a person's life are worth recording is in itself an act of rescue and escape. Here those two threads intertwine with the larger themes of the story.

Short works able to pull off this trick remain rare, however. The issue is that the epistolary style, by its very nature, works at cross purposes to the demands of the form. A short story is a tale boiled down to its absolute essence. I am not original in desiring short fiction to contain not one single word more than absolutely required. And yet, incorporating a letter that only speaks to the events of a story comes off didactic and obvious. There has to be some 'noise' alongside the 'signal,' in order to convince the reader to put aside doubts to the letter, journal, etc.'s authenticity. But that noise, unless added with a deft hand, might also strike the reader as superfluous.

Which takes us to the last work I would mention to you. Nightmare published "A Head in a Box, or Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation" by Lori Selke in their most recent issue. The story concerns a young, rising starlet struck down in the early portion of her career by a terrible accident. As a result of an unfortunate encounter with a suspended cable, this poor woman's head is taken from her neck in the most abrupt and precise manner imaginable. Selke relates this story in a manner similar to a collage: impressions and observations of the young woman's post-decapitation existence, arriving from a variety of sources. In one segment, the young woman's head makes an appearance on Oprah Winfrey, an event captured in a transcript. This is a clever use of the epistolary style requires the absolute minimum of description to get across its meaning to the reader while giving the reader a sense of the starlet's resumed fame. Here the question of where this transcript is coming from and what its relation is to the rest of the story is clear. The same narrator that is describing other events of the story is clearly also responsible for obtaining this fictional transcript. Its presence reinforces the voice of the story as one coming from some distance after the accident, able to consider subsequent events and arrive at some unsettling conclusions.

I have taken more than enough of your time with these considerations. I do hope that you continue with your work in fiction. Although your latest work fell short of my expectations, I have great faith you will find a path forward. Who knows, perhaps some future biographer will include this letter as a moment of hilarious irony compared to your future success. I can only hope for such a fate.

Yours sincerely,


Post-script: Hopefully you have enjoyed my essay on the epistolary style in recent speculative fiction. My intention was entertainment and so, while the short stories mentioned here are very much real and well worth your time to read, the author and recipient of this letter are fictional. 


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