Twitter and txts are no match for the literary letter
A whole literary genre is almost certainly gone, and our constant electronic communications are no substitute, says Michael Deacon.
The last letter I received was from my bank. Little as I like to kick an institution when it’s down, I regret to say that RBS is not the most stimulating correspondent, with its Mastercard promotions and its APR rates and its wine discounts. I haven’t replied. I do hope it isn’t offended.
Still, at least it was a letter. A magazine poll last week made clear how rarely we write them now. Many commentators have been mourning the love letter. I’m pretty sure I can get by without those. Hell, I’ve been getting by without them all my life.
Literary letters, though – those are the ones we’re going to miss. Some of our greatest writers wrote marvellous letters. I love the novels and essays of Kingsley Amis, but it’s the collection of his letters I return to most often: it contains the vicious wit we find in his public writings, but condensed and amplified. His descriptions of the enragingly muddle-headed Professor Welch in Lucky Jim are outdone, in hilarity and cruelty, by the descriptions in his letters of his own father-in-law, the man on whom Welch was largely based.
Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Evelyn Waugh – all wrote letters that showed their writing at its best, and sometimes, their personalities at their worst (Larkin and his racist doggerel, Hughes and his barmy spiritualism, Waugh and his… well, every prejudice under the sun). So if the literary letter has died, it’s not just readers who will be bereft, but biographers.
A whole literary genre, almost certainly gone. Perhaps it’ll be replaced by something more modern, and 50 years from now our bookshelves will groan with The Collected Text Messages of Zadie Smith, or The Selected Facebook Status Updates of Simon Armitage, or The Faber Book of Literary Tweets.
The internet and mobile phones allow us to communicate in an instant, but unlike the letters of Amis and co, they can’t keep us in touch with our literary past.
* Pleased as I am for the football fan who won £41,000 after betting that Liverpool would draw 4-4 in successive matches, it reminds me unhappily of a match a few years ago between Spurs and Manchester City, which Spurs led 3-0 at half-time. I was watching on TV. “Wonder what the odds are that it’ll end 4-3 to City?” I said idly to a friend. “Be worth a tenner.” But I’m no gambler, so I didn’t place the bet: £3,000 that cost me.
Just as bad was the luck of a friend who was about to watch a snooker final between the world Number 1 and a rank outsider. Lazing on the sofa on a warm Sunday while checking the odds on his laptop, my friend saw that it was 50-1 that the outsider would win the first four frames. “I’ll have a piece of that,” he thought. “Must just click on…” Sadly he dozed off before he could place the bet, and was woken by the sound of wild applause coming from the television, as the rank outsider went 4-0 up.
* My sympathy goes to the salesman who, six months after being laid off, has applied for 1,200 jobs – and been rejected every time. I once felt a similar desperation for work. After leaving university I didn’t keep count of the number of jobs I missed out on, but it certainly felt as though it was in four figures.
Perhaps my lowest point came when I applied to be a sub-editor on Pregnancy & Birth magazine, and they rejected me on the grounds that I didn’t have “sufficient experience”. Whether they meant experience of sub-editing or of giving birth, they didn’t say.