‘And what a gift a good letter can be.’ (John McGregor) – The Letters Page, Vol. 3 (review)

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If you have been keeping an eye on the art of letter writing in recent years, you will have noticed that the news of its death is somewhat exaggerated. Letters and their close digital relatives come in many shapes and guises these days – you find them in your mailbox as well as in art and literature, in your electronic inbox as well as on social media. Once you start looking, you will spot them everywhere. Having said that, there are currently not that many literary journals which take the form of letters. That certainly is one of the unique selling points of the The Letters Page.

It is not, however, its only attractive feature: so far, each of the journal’s anthologies has not only given letterphiliacs a good excuse to revisit the pleasant land of epistolary writing but has also been a feast for the eyes of bibliophiles. Vol. 3 is no exception to this rule, although there have been changes. Unlike its predecessors – which had been produced by the very capable hands of the little Cyprian publisher Book Ex Machina – the current volume was printed in Nottingham, where the journal is based. The result may not be quite as sleek as its older siblings, but it gets quite close: when it arrives at your doorstep, you will find that the book cover doubles as a mailing box complete with wax seal and even includes an in-built bookmark. Inside the book, each letter is prefaced by a simple illustration in red whose motif relates to the content of following piece. A folded facsimile which includes the first page of the original manuscript letter on one side and the journal’s address written on the original envelope on the other precedes six of the fourteen letters.

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Like volume numbers 1 and 2, Vol. 3 again resembles a variant of the old mixed-mailbag genre in presenting a range of fictional letters written by different authors from the UK and abroad. In his opening piece, editor John McGregor suggests ‘departures’ as the collection’s leitmotif. While, to this reviewer at least, this theme did not seem equally apparent in all contributions, a quality all of them seem to share is an imaginative playfulness, or in other words: a strong sense of pleasure in exploiting and exploring the epistolary form in all its glorious potential.

As with any anthology, different readers will find some letters in the volume more memorable than others. Apart from the editor’s very enjoyable introductory letter, this reviewer particularly loved Chris Arthur’s musings on the nature of the postcard which he succinctly describes as the ‘haiku of correspondence’; John Saul’s stylistically intriguing monologue of a man called Wilson who sounds as if he just spent some time imprisoned on a psychiatric ward; Max Porter’s celebration of an epistolary ‘fraternal hug’ he received from the marvellous John Berger; and Mark O’Connell’s darkly humorous lines on his knowledge (or lack thereof) of the ‘future of technology and humanity’ which he composes, of course, with a goose feather quill and gall ink.

All in all, Vol. 3 could be described as a pretty varied literary mailbag. As with most publications, one can find a thing or two to nit-pick at. This review wants to list two minor criticisms in the hope they might perhaps be addressed by the editor and his team. Firstly, some of footnotes that are appended to the letters seem a little too extensive or try a little too hard at sounding less than serious. Secondly, this reviewer wondered why the first page of letters together with the address was given as a facsimile instead of the letter as a whole, and – more importantly – why the printed version did not always match the original completely (in Max Porter’s case, for instance, the opening paragraph was not included).

This last quibble aside, one should hasten to add, that it is of course wonderful to get a glimpse at an authors’ handwriting. Even the truncated facsimiles go a long way in restoring the individuality of the handwritten piece which was, as a paper-and-ink object, submitted to the journal for consideration long before the publication of this book. In view of this last point in particular, The Letters Page – Vol. 3 is not only another testament to the literary potential of letter writing but also, albeit maybe in a small way, a reminder of the material attractions of epistolary cultures which any letter lover will appreciate.

This reviewer, at least, is definitely looking forward to Vol. 4.

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