“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”
On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.
But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.
I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.
A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.
Whom to bury, whom to praise.
Always get the last word.
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On occasion, e-mail delivers good news—the acceptance or contract, the invitation or windfall notification, its enticing subject line (in bold type) floating serenely among the drab gray others on the screen. These occur just often enough to nourish magical thinking. Like eager lab rats pressing a lever repeatedly for a treat, we continually check e-mail for anything tasty, exactly the way we open the refrigerator a thousand times, imagining something tempting will appear though nothing was there last time we looked.
Because it might. It did before.
The medium can also be as dangerous as drug-smuggling.
Everyone knows this. Yet almost weekly, prime-time figures and their posses are outed by the viral publication of what they thought were private musings (or rants, or worse). They’re made to regret, mightily, their keyboard noodling. Somehow, though, the giants risk themselves again and again. The form’s too seductive. That instant response time, that fluidity! (Those strange tonal effects, that ease with which dead messages can be resurrected and forwarded!)
Most literate adults can tell e-disaster stories: information sent to the wrong recipient or group, or discovered by the wrong person, or issued in careless wording that gave offense, or did real damage. Some of these stories are funny. Some end marriages, families, careers. Most horrific—for me, and I’d wager, for most authors—are those tidings (cannonballs) of dismissal or rejection—sometimes the more formal, the worse. These can release a kind of deadening gas, a terrible, unfiltered dismay which, when it happens, seems to enter the body to stay.
Trying to fix such sink-holes tends only to drag us in deeper. (I confess to re-reading my own e-mails, combing them for the least speck of offensiveness, which may seem reasonable to you until I also admit—winning the neurotic sweepstakes—that I do this post-facto.)
Few writers, particularly, go unmuddied in the sticky realms of e-correspondence, and few forget their own calamitous errors. An e-clash with a late best friend—after years of impassioned exchanges, serving as the most intimate of journals—dissolved our bond when I questioned, in one daytime message to her, the behavior of the married man who was her lover. My heart fell when I opened her response: “You have only contempt for him.” After that, to my sadness, communiqués grew polite. I’d lost my friend, even before illness claimed her.
Jobs, across the professions, create e-mail mine fields, where the paranoid can indeed have enemies. I’ve been called into a boss’ office to explain an e-mail I’d written, mocking him, that he’d somehow retrieved. (I talked fast—unpersuasively—but escaped being fired.)
Making art? Strap on your armor. A literary agent once e-mailed: “I’m always in a quandary with a writer like you: fine quality, but essentially literary and published by small and university presses, respectful reviews and no sales record worth speaking of. I honestly don’t see what my representing you would do for either of us.”
Ice-pick finality: another of e-mail’s festive traits.
The form’s catastrophic power seems to draw directly from those above-noted “strange tonal effects.” A poet friend remarked that we often “hear” the language of e-mail in colder ways than the writer may have intended. Why, remains unclear. Reading words onscreen could bear part of the blame. But most writers work onscreen now, and most people do much of their reading onscreen.
Why then, I have long wondered, should our stories, novels, and essays—which lay out shocking particulars, down and dirty as it gets—never quite carry e-mail’s bomb-like capacity to explode in faces, to stab hearts, to obliterate trust? Does the difference dwell in the printing out of material, in work that’s been edited on paper first? Or is it simply that no literary form packs the same personal punch as the uncurated, electronic letter, its flashing cursor parked alongside like a revving race car, inviting you now, why not now, to slip in and launch your (instant, non-retractable, potentially viral) reply?
Surely it’s the letter form itself that makes trouble: that delicious intimacy, that exclusivity, an almost illicit-feeling privacy that practically seems to lure its own violation. The personal letter, remember, drags behind itself a long history of vulnerability to exposure and treachery. Witness the posthumous instructions by generations of artists and writers—heeded or not—that their letters be burned.
From all this, one would suppose we’d have learned to be wiser, more careful.
I had a late, brilliant uncle, a statesman and scholar (attaché for Eleanor Roosevelt, translator for Voice of America) who suffered a fatal professional crisis, triggered—during what should have been his best years—by an intercepted note, written long before anyone had conceived of e-mail.
Tragically (and now, I hope, anachronistically) it appears my uncle was fired from his distinguished position, in those witch-hunting days, because someone discovered he was gay. And in a riddling, paradoxical reversal—since the insatiable aim of most writers in contemporary literary culture is to become known, seen, maximally exposed—my beloved uncle, in helpless anguish, lamented then to his brother, my father: “Never, never write down anything you do not want the whole world to know.”
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction. A MacDowell Colony Fellow and winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Fiction, ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, she lives in Northern California.