Email lit sends wrong message

What was the earliest English novel?

Though preceded by such eminent works of fiction as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) is often cited as the first “proper” novel written in English.

This is debatable. But what is certain is that, in basing Pamela (and his two subsequent novels) upon a series of letters — or, more grandly, epistles — Richardson laid down a marker for the now classic sub-genre: the epistolary novel. Notable examples in recent times include Saul Bellow’s Herzog and We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. But people don’t write letters any more, let alone epistles. They write emails. So, will the epistolary be superseded by the e-pistolary?

Will tales of lovers’ secret notes in sealed envelopes, or narratives turning on the discovery of scribbled revelations in the pockets of murder victims, be outstripped by books (and ebooks at that) based upon messages pinging identically from one screen to another?

While this seems plausible, the subject matter, whether fiction or non-fiction, is likely to be unrestrained and unappealing — certainly if two recent books with a strong Jewish element are any kind of indicator.

Give Me Everything You Have, by James Lasdun — an accomplished writer who also teaches creative writing — is an account of an ongoing cyber assault directed at him. His tormentor is one of his more talented former students, a young Iranian woman whom he has encouraged by introducing her to his agent.

An email correspondence ensues in which the student, initially friendly, turns vicious and threatening. As the stream of outrageous messages becomes a torrent, Lasdun describes his feelings of becoming terrorised and unhinged. It is not until he is subjected to insane outbursts of antisemitism that he begins to recognise that it his “virtual” assailant who is the unhinged one, and seriously so.

The book is engrossing but not in the way intended. Unlike in any number of more conventional thrillers, it is difficult to empathise with Lasdun’s professed terror. The book’s strength lies not in his antagonist’s manic rantings but in his own elegantly written musings on his Jewishness, his relationship with his father (the National Theatre’s architect, Denys Lasdun) and upon the art of writing. Not in the emailed material, for where’s the art in that?

Well, you might think it would be in Distant Intimacy, a year’s worth of lengthy, transatlantic email exchanges between two brilliant writers of, cumulatively, novels, essays, short stories, screenplays, drama, criticism, translation, journalism and much else of consequence.

Although the authors, Frederic Raphael in London and France, and Joseph Epstein in Chicago, have never met or even spoken on the telephone, they share their thoughts in relentless detail electronically with a view to publication in the book form now available.

Neither man has anything to prove in terms of writing ability. Both have colourful social lives and glamorous acquaintances. Each is well-read, highly educated, politically literate, consciously Jewish, and touched by the profound pain of one’s child dying at a moment of blooming young adulthood.

Had these two employed their powers in more traditional, crafted letters of genuine intimacy, we could have had something valuable. Instead, like an embarrassing pair of dancing dads, these seasoned scribes embrace the tossed-off immediacy of the email culture. Had I sent emails like these to a friend, far from publishing them I would beg him to delete them.

Distant Intimacy delivers plenty of entertaining literary gossip but more substantial observations are drowned in a sea of insufferable conceit. Contemptuous of uncountable others for such faults as envy, ostentation, vanity, self-delusion, false modesty, prolixity, vulgarity and so on, Raphael and Epstein (especially Raphael) glaringly exhibit the very same failings.

I cannot recall reading anything so immodest, lacking in self-awareness and rank with sour grapes.

It is perhaps left to less literary writers to highlight the pitfalls of the email culture, as in Abe Foxman’s forthcoming Viral Hate, co-written with Christopher Wolf, on the perversion of freedoms of expression.

‘Give Me Everything You Have’, James Lasdun (Cape); ‘Distant Intimacy’, Frederic Raphael/Joseph Epstein (Yale); ‘Viral Hate’, Foxman & Wolf (Palgrave Macmillan).

Last updated: 12:06pm, May 30 2013