A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

* To: readers@independent

* To: readers@independent

* re: epistolary novels re-cycled as e-mail fiction

The novel of manners began, in the 18th century, with a fictional exchange of letters. Samuel Richardson re-cast his guide to correspondence as Pamela; across the Channel, Choderlos de Laclos put a steamier spin on the genre in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Come the 19th century, the epistolary form declined but the growth of postal systems delivered a parcel of plot devices to suspense-hungry writers.

Even in the 20th century, ruled by the ever-ringing telephone, the odd man (or woman) of letters lived up to the name. In the 1980s, Carol Shields collaborated with another Canadian writer, Blanche Howard, on a shrewd and sprightly epistolary tale. Now published, at long last, in a UK edition, A Celibate Season (Fourth Estate, £6.99) features the letters of a professional couple divided when the wife takes a plum job, 3,000 miles from home.

The form appealed to Shields and Howard because, as friends, they enjoyed writing to each other so much. In the 1970s, as Howard recalls, that felt like "a somewhat Victorian diversion". No longer, of course. E-mail has hauled the private correspondence out of its cultural grave. Now novelists are rushing back to an epistolary future. Jeanette Winterson's The PowerBook, due next month, exploits e-mail conventions but makes sure that they remain the servant of imagination.

In a more playful vein, Matt Beaumont's novel e. (HarperCollins, £6.99) consists entirely of e-mails sent by the staff of a frantic ad agency as they try to land their trade's Holy Grail - the Coca-Cola account. Emoticons, bad jokes as attachments, porn downloads, ruinous grammar and incontinent punctuation ("!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!") - it's all here, to the max, in a guise that mixes exuberant (if predictable) satire with a gimmicky layout that palls well before page 341. Matt Beaumont deserves credit for his sharp gags, and plaudits for crossing this tape first, but I hope that e. fails to set a trend.

Even in his hysterical adland world, what really counts is not the e-mail format but the social climate that it reveals - a familiar blend of surface chumminess and utter ruthlessness beneath. Hi-tech etiquette pinpoints this universal truth of office life; it can't explore or explain it. For that, the novelist's trad tools will suffice. Yes, e. offers a few spam-free hours of digital devilry - but other writers should beware. Save, if you wish, but don't copy.

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