At the Edinburgh Book Festival 2011, Michael Holroydlamented — as aging biographers are wont to do — the decline of biography. “I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said. “But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button — the horror.”
While his take is self-consciously crankish, Holroyd’s suggestion that the computer represents a turning point in biographical writing carries some weight. After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.
Contemporary literature scholar Stephen Burn, who is currently editing the correspondence of David Foster Wallace, describes compiling emails as an “exercise in reverse engineering.” Since Wallace does not seem to have kept any of his emails, Burn has had to track down friends, colleagues, editors, and fans who have saved the emails he sent them. As a result, he finds himself “tracing lines backwards from published books, stories, and essays, to make visible the various dialogues along the way that led to the finished work.”
These problems are not unique to modern biographers. Papers can be lost, thrown away, or burned. But at least as far back as Cicero, writers have, with a wry wink to posterity, been careful to preserve copies of their letters. And their correspondents, whether out of sentimentality or shrewd financial planning, have stored received letters in the attic. Besides, although it’s gotten short shrift in recent years, paper is extraordinarily durable.
In contrast, what Burn identifies as “the real dark shadow cast over scholars by email correspondence” is the fickle nature of fast-changing technology. We may believe that recent history is safely tucked away in the digital fortress, but electronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters. Whether as a result of bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence, Burn and other scholars fear that “potentially great letters or exchanges [will be] locked within hard drives that can no longer be accessed.”
However, while the digital lag may have an impact in the short-term, the practical barriers can and will be overcome. Libraries across the world are already refining their digital archiving processes, using write-blockers and advanced search tools.
The more prescient question is this: How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?
In his end notes to his biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max of The New Yorker, writes that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature” and that “with the advent of email [Wallace’s] correspondence grew terser, less ambitious.” Burn echoes the same view, observing that “the major difference probably stems from the more rigidly linear format of some of his emails. Some of the great letters look like spiderweb art: in these notes, Wallace has written over the top of the letter he’s replying to, with comments between the lines, spiralling into the margins, running up to headers and down to the footers.”
The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moserdescribed seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.
Burn also highlights that “email makes minor exchanges proliferate — procedural courtesies, note responses that probably wouldn’t have merited an actual letter.” In 2004, Nora Ephron described the six stages of early email. She traces from Infatuation (“Who said letter writing was dead? Were they ever wrong! I’m writing letters like crazy for the first time in years.”), to confusion (“Add three inches to the length of your penis. The Democratic National Committee needs you. Virus Alert. FW: This will make you laugh.”), to disenchantment (“Help! I’m drowning.”) That she was so overwhelmed by her own mail bodes ill for biographer, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post.
While letters require a commitment of time, thought, and a little money, we unthinkingly send masses of brief, entirely trivial emails. Sontag used email for less than a decade, yet the Sontag archive in UCLA includes 17,198 emails. It’s difficult to contemplate the mass of digital material that faced Steve Jobs’s biographer Walter Issacson. It’s even more difficult to envision the amount of content that will be left behind by lifelong users of computers, tablets, and smartphones.
However, although email might make the life of the researcher more difficult and less romantic, we should be wary of mistaking different for worse.
In 1969, Foucaultasked whether, if an editor found a laundry list jotted down in Nietzsche’s notebook, it should be considered a work or not. Similarly, should an email that has clearly been written with little thought to style be valued differently to an elaborately crafted letter?
Max may regret that Wallace’s writing became terse when he used email, yet it surely casts light on the life and work. It could be that Wallace, as he lapsed back into the depression that eventually killed him, simply didn’t want to write more effusively. Or that in emails he didn’t feel the same obligation to cloak his feelings in craft. Whatever the reason, clearly the expansive and carefully-wrought writing of Wallace’s novels did not come entirely naturally.
For many others, however, email is a light-hearted form. Benjamin Moser highlights his delight at realizing “that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading ‘Whassup?’”
But is this more than an endearing quirk? Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and most recently Penelope Fitzgerald, suggests that “when people are at their most frivolous, superficial, gregarious, and chatty is often when they are most revealing about themselves,” highlighting the interplay between “your secret self, your solitary self, your nighttime self, your gregarious, chatty e-mailing self.”
What does it tell us about the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” that following a career largely dedicated to war, illness, and exploitation, she was playful, tender, slightly wacky in her emails? Moser highlights that she was lonely in her last years, and was “elated to be in such easy touch” with her friends. Yet acquaintances she emailed seemed unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms. Do the emails reinforce what one already suspects from Sontag’s prolific diary-writing; that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?
The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.
Image Credit: Flickr/greggoconnell
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Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is an Irish writer living in London. She is currently studying for a Master's degree in politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find her on Twitter at @nnimhaoileoin.
Tuesday, May 19, would have been the late Nora Ephron's birthday. Although she scribed and directed many romantic classics, "You've Got Mail" has remained particularly relevant thanks in part to the boom in Internet dating and the modern state of book stores.
To get a better sense of how the movie came together, The Huffington Post spoke with actress Heather Burns, who played the young Shop Around The Corner employee who was also Kathleen Kelly's (Meg Ryan) BFF, Christina.
At the time, Burns said she had an "Ah, man" feeling about the movie's messages of eternal change and the values of learning to adapt. But, she adds, the movie has meant more and more to her over the years.
On that note, here are five things you may not have known about "You've Got Mail," according to Burns:
1. Meg Ryan and Heather Burns worked at a real New York bookstore as cashiers to get into their roles.
Ephron set up a long rehearsal process for the actors, which was particularly appreciated by Burns, who was making her movie debut. As Burns explained, part of this introductory work for getting into character involved Ephron setting Ryan and Burns up with jobs at Books of Wonder in Manhattan.
The jobs lasted about a week and took place before work began on the movie.
"We'd go and just kind of hang out with the staff and learn what we would be doing from moment to moment," said Burns. "How to work the cash register and things like that."
Burns lived in New York at the time, making it a pretty easy commute and enjoyable experience overall. "It was really fun, I mean it was great to be around all those children's books and be around kids."
2. The cast members actually emailed each other during filming. They did not, sorry to disappoint, use AOL Instant Messenger.
"At that time, we would have had to come home and done it from our landline ... the 'blee ooh ehh,'" joked Burns, emphasizing the cast's lack of Internet on set despite the movie's theme. In what would perhaps crush all fanfic dreams, the cast wouldn't AOL instant message each other like NY152 and Shopgirl. They would occasionally email.
3. Nora Ephron provided the cast with memorable meals that were borderline lavish, on a regular basis.
Burns fondly remembers the crab cakes Ephron would provide, saying, "She'd often take us to nice lunches during the rehearsal." Speaking further about Ephron, Burns added, "She just loved food. She loved talking about food. She loved feeding people."
As this was Burns' first big movie, she really appreciated Ephron plucking her "out of nowhere" and helping her through the entire opportunity. Food, along with Ephron's constant humor, had an effect of "making everyone else feel so important."
"Food was always the main thing," said Burns.
4. Improvising was encouraged on the set, including in the iconic cybersex scene.
Nora and her sister, Delia, co-wrote "You've Got Mail," but gave their actors the opportunity to improvise dialogue into the movie. Burns felt as if the "the whole script was so funny and so well written," but certainly appreciated the opportunity to try different things.
One of the moments where the actors were given the opportunity to improvise was the cybersex scene, where the bookstore employees talk about the merits of online dating.
Burns didn't have too much personal experience to add in this particular improvisation, however. "I wasn't dating at the time, I was in a relationship, so I wasn't going online, in chat rooms and things like that," said Burns. "But, we were all just aware of that. And you knew about it and had friends, at least in my experience I had a lot of friends who would date online at that point in time. It was getting the point then even when I don't think there was a taboo about it. It was starting to be normalized."
5. Ephron encouraged The Shop Around The Corner employees to hang out extensively to build their onscreen chemistry.
Ephron knew that The Shop Around The Corner employees would be shooting in that bookstore for entire days at a time and tried to make sure they had the chemistry to pull that off. Ephron would take them on "wonderful lunches," as mentioned, and ask that "the bookstore employees hang out together when [they] weren't filming."
Keeping it true to form, the bookstore employees didn't mingle with the Fox Books employees as Ephron just focused on the groups seen in the movie. "That's mostly what she concentrated on," said Burns. "Which was great, because it was great to start the first day and kind of have a bit of history with everyone."
BONUS: Since the movie, Burns has actually petitioned for local NYC bookstores. The death of "Fox Books" has her conflicted, though.
"I don't know about everyone else, I wasn't the biggest fan of Barnes & Noble at the time," admitted Burns, who has always had a special love for "smaller bookstores." Recently, the rent was raised on the classic St. Mark's Bookshop in Manhattan, which Burns tried to prevent by being "pretty active in sending out petitions to keep it alive." The store thankfully found a new location.
But the rise of online retailers has complicated Burns' aversion to the "Fox Books" stores of the city. "So now that Barnes & Noble is getting put out of business by Amazon, I don't know," said Burns, who wished there could be any bookstore vs. the person-less and algorithm-optimized Amazon. "Maybe I should have been more supportive of Barnes & Noble."
All images from "You've Got Mail" unless otherwise noted.