Designed for constant contact, e-mail messages inevitably have a different tone from postmarked missives that allow correspondents the time to ruminate and percolate, to apply a critical eye to their own lives.Often less nuanced, more prosaic, written in haste and subject to misunderstandings, e-mailed thoughts are microwaved, not braised.
Today, a new challenge awaits literary biographers and cultural historians: e-mail.
The problem isn't that writers and their editors are corresponding less, it's that they're corresponding infinitely more -- but not always saving their e-mail messages.
"I try to save substantive correspondence about issues concerning books we're working on, or about our relations with authors, but I'm sure I don't always keep the good stuff -- particularly the personal interchanges, which is probably what biographers would relish," Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said (via e-mail, of course, like most of the editors and writers interviewed for this story).
"I don't think we've addressed in any systematic way what the long-term future of these communications is, but I think we ought to."Nor has Random House Inc., whose imprints include Alfred A.
"Our understanding of the Constitution, for example, would be quite different if the thoughts about it exchanged by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had vanished into the electronic ether," he said.
Posterity may not care about a publisher's collected spam, or the personal messages employees routinely send from their work e-mail accounts -- which are, in any case, the property of the company, not the author.
Today, there's no guarantee anyone will save anything in the e-mail inbox.
Whether writers save their e-mail seems to depend on their technical proficiency more than on any deep philosophy of preservation.
"It often occurs to me that e-mail may render a certain kind of literary biography all but obsolete," Blake Bailey, the author of a biography of Richard Yates and a forthcoming one of John Cheever, said.
The messages are "too ephemeral: people write them in a rush without the sort of precision and feeling that went into the traditional (and now utterly defunct) letter."Steven Kellman, the author of a new biography of Henry Roth, predicted the rise of e-mail correspondence would affect historians, not just biographers.