Clarissa, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Sorrows of Young Werther…the epistolary novel has a long and distinguished tradition, predating the classic doorstoppers of the 18th century. It’s a fascinating form that allows for a complex interplay of different characters and plot lines—and for plenty of dramatic confusion as messages overlap, are read by the wrong people, or are read in the wrong order.
The advent of email created a sort of electronic sub-genre of the classic epistolary tale. The email novel often takes place in a corporate setting, where it can shed light in interesting ways on the scandals and disappointments of office life. But as this list shows, writers have used emails in lots of other interesting ways too, delivering effects that are by turns hilarious, moving, romantic, poetic, and even erotic. What follows is a list of ten of the best novels written as email.
1. e by Matt Beaumont (2000)
Probably the best-known email novel of them all, Matt Beaumont’s e was originally published with the subtitle The Novel of Liars, Lunch and Lost Knickers. The story takes place in a fictitious ad agency, Miller Shanks, and captures some of the hedonistic excess for which the ad industry was notorious in the late 20th century.
At the start of the book, Miller Shanks has two weeks to win the prestigious $84 billion Coca-Cola account. The company’s big idea was actually stolen by creative director Simon Horne from a couple of recent college graduates. Because of an IT snafu, all the CEO’s messages are being rerouted via the Helsinki office, which brings the Finns in with a rival pitch of their own. There’s also a creative team on a location shoot for a porn channel in Mauritius, where they bump into Ivana Trump and lose each of their models to a series of comedy misfortunes.
The plot is pure office farce, and with its exploding implants, Y2K references, light bulb-obsessed jobsworths, creative prima donnas, and a boss with “an MBA from the Joseph Stalin School of Management,” it feels a tad dated now. But at the time, reviewers welcomed a hip new voice that had updated the epistolary novel for the modern age. In the ad industry itself, meanwhile, copywriters gnashed their teeth with envy and tried to work out who was who.
The book was a bestseller in several countries, and for a time Miller Shanks even had its own fictitious website. Beaumont, who had worked as an advertising copywriter himself, went on to write a follow-up, e Squared (2010), with text messages added to the mix.
2. Who Moved My Blackberry? by Lucy Kellaway
Though Who Moved My Blackberry? is a clear descendant of e, it is a triumphant satire of marketing and corporate nonsense in its own right. It’s largely told through the emails of fictitious marketer Martin Lukes, the sort of man who sends motivational emails to his own children, advising them, for example, to come up with “six key behaviors that will help you going forward.”
When Lukes, a character who began as the subject of a humorous weekly newspaper column, fails to land a plum new job, he engages life coach Pandora (motto: “Strive to thrive!”) and is soon engaging in heated negotiations with her over his maximum potential. (“Can we compromise and say I’m going to be 22.5 per cent better than the best I can be?”)
We follow him over the course of a calendar year in which he must deal with marital separation, professional rejection and rebirth, troubles with his children, office affairs, rebrandings and corporate cock-ups—and all of it set against the expensively nonsensical nostrums of Pandora. “Think of yourself like a colander,” she advises him. “Energy pours in, but pours out again through the holes. We need to find where those holes are, and find ways of blocking them.” Well, quite.
A kind of Bridget Jones for marketers, this is a very funny book indeed. But as with all satire there is a serious point here too, about the way in which corporate culture allows language to obscure narcissism, inauthenticity, and unpleasantness. A series of sackings are described euphemistically as “off-boarding 15 to 20 per cent of our family,” and the individuals affected are chosen by a process known as “Project Uplift.” Or as Lukes, who has little time for his wife or children or mother, observes: “There is a lot of negative baggage around the term ‘homeless.’”
3. Eleven by David Llewellyn
Eleven is set on a single day—9/11—in Cardiff. It is peopled by a cast of young office workers who spend most of their time emailing each other about anything but work—gossip, banter, the weekend’s plans, dreams of escape to London. At the center of the story is Martin Davies, a process accountant and would-be writer.
Martin’s girlfriend has left him, another woman he loves is getting married, and he can’t see how he can ever escape work because he’s deeply in debt. He is bored and frustrated and charts his quiet despair in a series of unsent emails saved in drafts. “I work so that I can have money,” he writes, “And in the days that fall between the times when I’m working, I’ll fill myself with chemicals and I’ll put on a smile and pretend to be laughing. My pretend laugh is now more realistic than my real laugh.”
Gradually, as the day unfolds, news filters through of a tragedy that has struck the United States. Against the backdrop of the horror of 9/11, our characters start to question their lives and all sorts of secrets and confessions emerge. But, despite the day’s events, the gossip and bickering and life’s immediate concerns can’t help reasserting themselves. Brilliantly paced and often very funny, Eleven’s blend of petty office politics and bloody world events makes this short book powerfully poignant.
4. The Closeness That Separates Us by Katie Hall and Bogen Jones
Ed and Lena meet at an unspecified conference in a French town that is foreign to both of them. They enjoy an evening together with a few other attendees; afterwards, they exchange email addresses. Even though their time together is brief, some sort of powerful attraction occurs, and as soon as Ed is back home, he sends Lena a message.
So begins an intense and curious correspondence, in which Ed and Lena gradually explore their feelings for each other as a strange virtual intimacy grows between them. Jokes and banter turn to confessions of desire and deeper feelings. But this growing passion is complicated by the fact that they barely know each other, live in different countries, and are already attached: Lena has a fiancé, while Ed has a wife and two children.
Most of the novel takes place in a sort of tortuous limbo where feelings and desires exist only digitally. Both writers are intense, cerebral types, and their emails are often as long as the letters in epistolary novels. Ed and Lena play a dangerous game, and each seems to be waiting for the other to make the decisive move. That both write in English, which is not either of their first language, adds to the sense of strangled erotic inertia.
At the end of the book, Ed and Lena finally meet, and the relationship is consummated—and ends in a rather convenient tragedy a few pages later. For all its intensity, it’s not always easy for readers to really believe in Ed and Lena’s passion, and the drawn-out suspense gives the book an unfortunate ponderous quality.
Author Katie Hall’s first book was a collection of poetry, Scribbling. Her co-author here is playwright Bogen Jones.
5. The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot
The Boy Next Door is just the first of a bundle of four loosely connected novels that make up the Boy series by Meg Cabot, the author of more than 50 books of romance for teens and younger readers, who is best-known for the hugely successful Princess Diaries series, which were later made into two Disney films.
The four novels in the Boy series comprise the personal communications between a group of staffers—and their families and friends—at a fictional New York City newspaper. Later installments use IM and journal entries too, but The Boy Next Door is all email.
The plot is pure rom-com. Deeply lovable if slightly eccentric Mel, thus far unlucky in love, runs into a boy next door, John, who’s looking after his aunt’s cat. The aunt is in a coma after being banged on the head by an intruder. Boy and girl hit it off; only boy turns out to be pretending to be someone else, a trendy photographer named Max. But they both love each other really, and once he’s found a way to make amends for deceiving her and she’s found a suitably comic way to take public revenge, you just know they’ll get together and maybe even solve the mystery of the aunt’s assault in the process. Oh, and though the boy is trying to make a career on his own merits, bless him, he also turns out to be a millionaire, which is nice.
The use of email between the characters inflates the dramatic ironies of the mistaken identity plot line. We also see how it helps office gossip spreads like wildfire, with various colleagues offering Mel relationship advice after every new development with John that she “confidentially” shares with her BFF. The milieu is unrealistic, the plot is utterly predictable, and the characters are glibly two-dimensional. But the whole thing is slickly done, with some enjoyable touches of spiky humor, and you can’t help rooting for Mel and John.
6. Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer
Emmi bumps into Leo on email; she’s trying to cancel a magazine subscription and contacts him by mistake. After a few brief exchanges, the pair becomes hooked on a virtual correspondence that quickly becomes more intense and intimate. As they start to share their secret desires and fears, the question of whether they will or should actually meet in person—especially as Emmi already has a husband and two adopted children—keep readers guessing all the way.
Plot-wise, there’s not much more to it than that, really. But the story keeps readers in suspense as the relationship winds through its various twists and turns and the near-meetings pile up. Leo has an ex that he’s struggling to get over, his mum dies, and he’s offered a job in Boston. Emmi sets Leo up with a good friend and then regrets it; later, an intervention from her husband sheds new light on our understanding of her family life.
Here again, email is a space for shared intimacies, an outpost for feelings and confessions that can’t be expressed elsewhere. But a book like this stands or falls on how much you invest in the growing relationship, and whether you believe in their growing attraction for each other; personally I struggled. The idea of a woman randomly connecting with a stranger on email feels a bit uncomfortable today, too.
Love Virtually was a bestseller in Germany, and its inconclusive ending paved the way for a sequel, Every Seventh Wave. Interestingly, although the book has a single author, it was translated by a husband-and-wife team, Jamie Bulloch and Katharina Bielenberg, who took respectively the male and female characters.
7. The Night Visitors by Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst
With The Night Visitors, we have moved far from the worlds of romance and office politics into the realm of the truly uncanny. The story begins when Alice Wells, a woman at the crossroads of a disappointing life, emails Orla Nelson, a distant aunt who was once famous for a decades-old book and is now trying to make a comeback. Desperate to make something of her life before it’s too late, Alice wants to write a book about Orla’s grandmother, Hattie Soak, a silent film star best known for fleeing the scene of a gruesome multiple murder.
Orla at first resists Alice’s overtures. She is tired of people digging up the old story, and adopts a cattily patronising attitude to her unknown relative, whom she dismisses as an amateur and a sensation-seeker. But her frostiness conceals infirmity and loneliness, and a series of mysterious tragedies soon turn the pair into uneasy virtual companions and amateur sleuths. The plot thickens. A film buff with a Hattie Soak obsession kills himself and his family in a car crash; Orla, whose sight is failing her, starts to see strange visions. Alice, who has visions of her own, goes to stay with the lone survivor of the crash, and finds that he, too, is behaving oddly. And what secrets are revealed when footage of Hattie’s final movie is uncovered?
We learn more about Hattie, about how both Orla and Alice had difficult childhoods, and how each has been withholding information from each other. The tension builds to a gripping and macabre climax. No more spoilers, except to say that in this very contemporary ghost story, the ghost is truly in the machine, as evil finds a way to transmit itself along wires and through the ether.
This is another email novel with co-authors. Richard V. Hirst is a journalist and author based in Manchester. Jenn Ashworth is the author of four novels, including A Kind of Intimacy, which won a Betty Trask Award in 2009.
8. Two Solitudes by Carl Steadman
Published in 1995, Two Solitudes—the title is taken from a phrase in a Rilke poem—has the distinction of being perhaps the very first email novel ever. Like many early email works, this story first appeared in performance—as a series of actual emails that were sent between two participants, with subscribers to the story cc’d on the unfolding tale. Now, despite being such a venerable digital antique, it is available only in an obscure online archive.
Both Love Virtually and The Closeness That Separates Us are inferior descendants of Two Solitudes, which is another dreamy, whimsical dialogue between two cerebral, introspective types reflecting on where their relationship is heading. But here, the exchange is far more subtle and oblique, and the overall effect far more satisfying.
Dana has to go away for a few months. She is living in her mother’s house and does some temping and some teaching. Lane waits for her. Each aches for the other, and they fill the yearning between them with stories of their daily lives: the funny office where Dana works, her shopping trips, Lane’s obese cat and his inability to control her diet. Each email concludes with a quotation, some clever, some pop-cultural, most quite obscure, that together serve as a kind of chorus, providing another indirect commentary of the eddies of the relationship.
As the emails slide by, we sense that Lane yearns more for Dana than she does for him—her evident fondness for him has a rival in her desire to be alone. The end, when it comes, has all the electronic finality of an undeliverable mail notification. This is not a story in which much happens, and yet it is beautifully written and its intimate, poetic mood stays with you long afterwards.
Carl Steadman was co-founder of Suck.com, an early satirical web magazine, and wrote several pieces of fiction influenced by the emerging Internet.
9. Blue Company by Rob Wittig
Another little-known gem from the annals of early electric literature, Blue Company is another tale that was initially told live: sent out in daily (or more) bulletins to select recipients over the course of May 2002.
It tells the story of Alberto, a sensitive copywriter working for a heartless corporate giant, who finds himself transferred with a bunch of other staff to Italy—only not modern-day Italy, but the Italy of the 14th century.
What sounds like a weak gag turns very quickly into something far more satisfying and entertaining because Wittig proves to be quite the historian, and fleshes out his medieval world with insight and wit. Food and hygiene are bad, of course, and the threat of violence is everywhere. But Wittig also gives us the post-traumatic impact of the Plague, the rise of humanism, the realpolitik of the city states, and wonderful sleights of perspective: “It still feels weird to pass by a brand new castle occupied by its original inhabitants.”
Of course there are all sorts of parallels between the medieval Italy and 2002: “Bush-the-son pursuing Bush-the-father’s personal vendetta against Iraq—That kind of shit happens all the time back here!” Alberto’s new role is not unlike his old one in marketing: “creating a fearsome field reputation for the company [of knights]—rumor mongering, essentially—so that people are (a) eager to contract us, (b) loath to fight us. It’s all about the brand!” At a party in Milan, when the smart people break out the white powder, it turns out to be that elusive Renaissance commodity, salt.
In this story, too, there is much yearning; prior to his transfer, modern-day Alberto had fallen in love with a woman and it is to her that he sends his secret bulletins via a smuggled laptop. Because there are no cameras, he sends simple but expressive ink drawings instead, which greatly add to readers’ enjoyment of the narrative.
Our lovesick troubadour relates his travails and woos his centuries-distant love as he travels with his band of fellow mercenaries (‘Blue Company’) towards Milan. In order to enter the city— and for a chance to get an autograph of his hero Petrarach—Berto et al. have to compete in a grand tournament. Later, they are caught up in a real battle (something their employer had reassured them wouldn’t happen) and are tested as never before. The whole thing is wonderfully clever, funny, and original.
Blue Company inspired another serial email novel, Kind of Blue, by digital theorist Scott Rettberg, with the same cast of characters. In this story, sanctioned by Wittig, Berto never ever actually made it to the 14th century at all, but was in fact simply “a mad sojourner trying to escape from the ruins of the 21st Century’s earliest days.”
10. Kitten on a Fatberg by Alex Woolf, Martin Jenkins, and Dan Brotzel
A very British combination of pathos and farce, Kitten on a Fatberg tells the story of a group of eccentric wannabe writers who join a critique group in their town of Crawley, England. The idea is to meet every few weeks, read out work, and share feedback. But before long, there are all sorts of complications: romantic entanglements, jealous rivalries, conspiracy theories, a whiff of scandal, and even an obsessive fan in a furry cosplay costume.
Written by three authors who are all members of the same real-life writers’ group, the characters are a smorgasbord of endearing if eccentric writer types. Keith, for example, is a sci-fi hack who’s obsessed with monetizing his work and thinks nothing of banging out 5000 words before breakfast. Keith claims to have invented a whole language for his 12-volume Dragons of Xęn”räh saga, but on closer inspection it’s really just English with funny a few extra funny symbols.
Alice is an obsessive writer who hasn’t managed to start writing yet; she’s been working on the first sentence of her novel for two years. Jon is a drug-addled hippie type with a UFO obsession; he writes deeply symbolic animal tales that people are forever misinterpreting. Peter sees himself as a “conceptual literary artist” who is always trying to push the boundaries in his stated aim to “re-present the present;” in practice, however, this mostly means just looking for new ways to spy on people. Blue writes very gloomy if rather derivative verse, Tom has an eye for the ladies, and Mavinder never actually shows up.
The self-appointed leader of the group is Julia, a part-time actress with a wealthy husband whom no one ever sees. She organizes the meetings, and tries to defuse frictions and keep everyone’s morale up. But she has quiet ambitions of her own, and when her glamorous connections help her secure a publishing deal, her true colors emerge.
The book culminates in a transcript of a farcical fly-on-the-wall documentary of a group meeting—commissioned by a TV company to promote Julia’s new book—where the group’s tensions explode in a variety of messily farcical ways. A series of appendices tell us what happened to the characters after this, and the mysteries of Alice’s fixation with her opening sentence are at last revealed.
Image: Tarun Dhiman
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.