Lena Dunham and why 2015 was the year of the email newsletter

A welcome retreat from the chaos of the web, this year newsletters came into their own and revealed their roots in the epistolary novel

┬áBy Josephine Livingstone – writing in The Guardian

Email newsletters boomed in 2015. The ubiquitous Lena Dunham even got in the game with Lenny, hiring young women writers like Doreen St F├®lix to produce a magazine-like specimen. Many internet addicts, including me, now subscribe to a clutch of newsletters via services like TinyLetter, the newsletter-delivery spot which bills itself as ÔÇ£email for people with something to sayÔÇØ.

ItÔÇÖs quite an insulting slogan, but isnÔÇÖt wrong. A lot of what passes for writing on the web today is sound and fury, signifying little. Twitter users thrash about in endless conflict with one another; comments sections roil and boil with invective. Newsletters, by contrast, are quiet, private affairs. Email is not a space for performance, or a platform at all, really ÔÇô it imposes at least a nominal intimacy between writer and subscriber.

Last year, David Carr wrote in the New York Times that ÔÇ£newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the internet, and having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaosÔÇØ.

Writers, too, like to get above the fray. In an era when readers seem more fickle than they ever have been, a newsletterÔÇÖs audience is a model of sustained attention. Loyalty, even.

I subscribe to about 10 newsletters, and each one is fantastic. TheyÔÇÖre an even mix of original creative work (Hallie BatemanÔÇÖs Pen Parade) and curated content (Rusty FosterÔÇÖs Today in Tabs). IÔÇÖm also into Chelsea G SummerÔÇÖs newsletter, and Larissa PhamÔÇÖs Cum Shots for Nerve. I like these last two because their content is often not just sexually intimate but deeply personal, telling tales of their everyday carnal lives. Both newsletters therefore confer a kind of benediction of trust on their subscribers.

There are many variegations within the newsletter form ÔÇô boastful round robin, adventuresome travelogue, secret erotic diary, satirical industry circular ÔÇô but theyÔÇÖre all united by existing a little outside of ordinary internet publishing. Above all, newsletters are voice driven, little cries of individuality against the boring pressure to retweet, hit ÔÇ£likeÔÇØ and never pay attention to bylines.

As a bonus, the newsletter echoes more traditional literary forms. Proper books long ago presaged the formal characteristics of newsletter-lit. Take the serial. Charles Dickens is well known for having serialized his novels (Oliver Twist in BentleyÔÇÖs Miscellany, The Old Curiosity Shop in Master HumphreyÔÇÖs Clock), but other novelists who published in weekly installments include Alexandre Dumas and Gustave Flaubert, all the way up to Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities ran in Rolling Stone).

Samuel RichardsonÔÇÖs Pamela of 1740 may be the most famous novel directly told in letters, and for good reason: Pamela writes to her parents seemingly even as her lecherous boss is feeling her up, a quickfire narrative that has a great deal of the live-blog about it. Even earlier, John ClelandÔÇÖs pornographic novel Fanny Hill (1748) was styled as a series of self-justifying letters. The first letter in Fanny Hill ends thus:

Hating, as I mortally do, all long unnecessary prefaces, I shall give you good quarter in this, and use no farther apology, than to prepare you for seeing the loose part of my life, wrote with the same liberty that I led it.

It reads just like the little summary you get on a TinyLetters sign-up page. Plenty of epistolary novels are much finer and less silly, however, than those 18th-century romps. Howards End begins with letters. The best of the gothics, like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Woman in White, are all epistolary novels. Aravind AdigaÔÇÖs The White Tiger, Saul BellowÔÇÖs Herzog, Alice WalkerÔÇÖs The Color Purple ÔÇô the list goes on. Every one, I think, casts a particular light over todayÔÇÖs new newsletter-lit.

And so email newsletters, too, are morphing into books proper. Charlotte ShaneÔÇÖs forthcoming book Prostitute Laundry is based on the 56 email newsletters she wrote over the last couple of years about her life, loves and careers in sex work and in writing. Shane narrates those newsletters in a kind of gentle, considered past tense that makes each missive read as if it has been very sagely composed by a writer who has lived 50 years since. Put all together, they read, conveniently, like chapters in a book. ThatÔÇÖs exactly what Dickens had a talent for, too. That ÔÇ£feelÔÇØ, the air of writerly intention behind writing that is in fact composed ad lib, is a formal and generic characteristic.

ShaneÔÇÖs newsletter-book is substantially about sex (professional, personal, erotic, not) which is, after all, the classic subject of the early epistolary novel. Perhaps the two arenÔÇÖt so terribly different, after all.