Guest Post: Ben Greenman on writing letters to fictional characters

One of the options in our latest forum is to write a letter to a fictional character (you can read Pico Iyer’s letter to Thomas Fowler, from The Quiet American, here). The writer Ben Greenman, who published a book called Correspondences in 2008, had a similar idea: In connection with an expanded version of that book called What He’s Poised to Do, he launched the blog Letters With Character; we asked him to write about it here.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Correspondences. It was published by Hotel St. George, a visionary small press in Brooklyn, and it was more a box than a book—a banded, folded assemblage that contained three small pamphlets, each with two short stories. The stories all dealt directly or indirectly with the art of letter-writing, and how it both aided and impeded human communication.

There was a seventh story printed directly on the outside of the box, and it was intentionally uncompleted: I left lacunae in the story in the form of unwritten postcards sent between the main characters, and I invited readers to imagine them and send them to me. The Postcard Project wasn’t entirely new, of course: it was a mix of Mad Libs and Choose Your Own Adventure and crowdsourcing. But the postcards that came in had a strange energy: people took up arms against one character, or strove to create sympathy for another, or hijacked the narrative entirely.

Early last year, Correspondences migrated over to Harper Perennial and evolved into a longer collection called What He’s Poised to Do, named for the intentionally uncompleted story. My editors and I briefly debated reviving the Postcard Project, but decided instead to come at the question of letters and readers and fiction, and how they collide and collude, from an entirely different direction. The result was Letters With Character, a blog that invites readers to write letters to fictional characters. We launched the site at the beginning of May, and the letters trickled, and then poured in. Within ten days we had more than a hundred submissions: letters to Austerlitz and Tyler Durden, to Karen and Amir, to Charly and Brett and even Blue Coat. A few authors (Conan Doyle, Melville, Murakami) surfaced frequently, and certain genres (fantasy and particularly vampire fiction) were disproportionately represented.

But this is just demographic data, and the sample size is fairly small. What is more apparent is that almost from the first, readers perceived the site’s purpose in vastly different ways. A significant minority of the submissions were simple letters of devotion to characters, fan mail thanking Harry Potter for inspiring children to read, or congratulating Holden Caulfield for holding his own against a tide of hypocrisy, or praising Jane Eyre for just being herself. They could not all be published, in part because there were too many of them and in part because they were not, in the end, particularly interesting. They stayed outside the work, interacted with it only insofar as they pointed and smiled. Others were quick hits, brief missives criticizing a character’s choices, and usually romantic choices. This seemed like a valid approach—all of us have been busybodies when we read—but it was not always the most rewarding one.

The meatier letters approached reading not as a passive experience, but as an active one—and, moreover, as an equivocal one. They admitted that the best characters are difficult to locate too precisely: attractive characters, because they are ultimately unavailable to us, can cause us to feel a longing that verges on repulsion; and inoffensive characters, precisely as a result of their ingratiating nature, can inspire surprising upjuts of aggression. These better letters recognized that literature always touches us in many places at once, and they used the conventions of the epistolary form (address, signoff, highly personal voice) to control this welter of emotions.

Often, this led to comedy. A letter to A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh demonstrates an almost sadistic curiosity regarding the puffy little bear’s dressing habits (“I noticed that you’re wearing a shirt, not just into the pool anymore but all the time. You’ve changed. Are you embarrassed or something?”), and a short, sharp letter to Jay Gatsby chides him for his indiscriminate carousing (“Can I make a suggestion? Cancel the band. Turn off your lights. Lock your doors, for once”).

Not every submission resorted to humor. There is a pained, naïve challenge to Mearsault. There is a melancholy commiseration with Magnus Derrick. There is a lovely romantic overture, of a sort, to Eva, the doomed heroine of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” There’s a brief statement of brotherhood to Xuanzang, from the sixteenth-century Chinese epic Monkey. And there is a wonderfully desperate appeal to Nicholas Payne, from Tom McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano (one of my favorite books, and one I was inspired to reread as a result of the letter). As the site grows—since I started writing this post, we’ve received letters to Jesus, to Werther, to Ma Joad, to Dracula, to Seymour Glass, and to Dare Wright’s Lonely Doll—the individual cases begin to feed a larger consideration of the psychological process at work. What does it mean to address a fictional character directly, and to consider him or her independently of the author? Are people more honest writing when they write letters to fictional characters? Are these letters diaristic at one remove? Do the letters adopt the style of the work they’re writing to, or adopt a contrary style to establish independence? The project continues, so the answers to these questions will, I hope, come into sharper focus.

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the forthcoming What He’s Poised to Do. He lives in Brooklyn.


Francesco Sinibaldi said...

On a purpose.

The light
of a sunshine
invents in a
moment a
luminous care:
inside my
heart, in a little
desire, with

Francesco Sinibaldi

Little Ping and Momo said...

During grad school, I secretly hated how English professors kept telling me that literary characters are not real people. (Deep down, I never believed it). Recently, I started a blog called "The Reading List: Ruminations of a Recovering Academic" at www.the-reading-list.com to explore this other imaginative dimension of reading.