This article was originally published in Cherwell on 10 February 2017.
You know the old stories. The ones in between the words. The ones that fill in the spaces between poems, between novels, between plays. The formative, catalysing, contextualising stories, that we only find if we delve deep into the lives of our favourite writers.
You know the ones I mean. Where Elizabeth Barrett ran away with Robert Browning after a courtship which began with Brown- ing sending Barrett a fan letter. She — later Elizabeth Barrett Browning—would come to immortalise their love in the sonnet beginning “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, or ‘Sonnet 43’.
What about this one? Where Steinbeck, social polemicist and great American naturalist author, wrote letters to his son in order to guide him through the trials and tribulations he would later encounter: giving him some sage advice about the heartbreak to come.
How we do know this? Because it is helpfully chronicled in the letters which the writers we study and adore sent to each other, or to their friends. Their correspondence now serves as what Gerard Genette calls ‘paratexts’: they have become a new way of viewing their work before or after the main text, allowing for more biographical detail or for a more contextualised reading of their contributions to the writerly craft. We know all about Milton’s piety, Woolf’s influences and Proust’s depression via their letters. Indeed, Alexander Pope even went to court when his letters were allegedly obtained and published against his will.
But consider your place in this. Yes, you, reading this. You, the budding writer who will define millennial literature. If it is indeed true that we all have a novel in us, presumably we all have enough comments and complaints and compliments to fill a compilation of our correspondence after our masterpieces are published.
Ordinarily, according to the literary customs with which we are familiar, your seminal post-post-modernist reflection on the selfie generation would be parcelled in a volume including your letters to your lovers and your friends and your parents, to shed light on what gave you that irrational hatred of the selfie stick.
Yet in the coming years, the years in which you will make your mark, this will be anything but the case. Not because you’re inept or dull, but because when you have a crush on someone, or when you want to send a congratulatory email to that poet whose work you really enjoyed in ASH, it will be via Messenger, binary which masks the words you chose with such care (or inebriation). When these paratexts are later collated into a compendium which could later reveal so much about the art you’ll one day produce, your good name will be tarnished by all those questionable messages you sent to your ex in the Bridge smoking area.
The implications are serious. If we know so very little about, say, Shakespeare, who lived before the days of easily-disseminated print records, what of us? It would appear that we are making a return to those days of literary mystery. Will someone study our sexualities based on fragments of drunken messages sent to that hottie you spotted in Plush and examine our work in light of it?
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Much of modern literary criticism is, as Roland Barthes helpfully pointed out, obsessed with the cult of authorial identity. He called for the “death of the author” so that the text is once again the be-all-and-end-all: he may, in a very roundabout way, have got his wish.
Because if we think about how our literary contexts might be shaped, the results aren’t going to be very satisfying to the reader. Perhaps a series of screenshots of drunk texts, or verbatim messages complete with time and GPS location stamps. The thought of reading the typo-ridden, hyperlink filled ruminations of this generation’s best and brightest doesn’t exactly make me tremble with anticipation.
However, the allure is never going to be your own. It will be for those who come after you. Regardless of paratexts and correspondence, the status of your work itself won’t be in question. You’ll still write that epic poem, or that visionary fantasy trilogy. And it is that which will lead some intrepid literary historians to trawl through Facebook’s archives, with permission from your estate, using your embarrassing password and the email account you made in Year Eight, to find the story of your life one way or another—as well as those high scores on Facebook football, and all those songs you posted on the wall of Burning Down the House to get cheaper entry into Cellar.
One way or another, your legacy will be preserved. The alternative, that we’re doomed to anonymity, is even more terrifying.