Literary Letters, Lost In Cyberspace

Back in the 20th century, when publishers had three-martini lunches and young women fresh out of Bryn Mawr became secretaries, not editors, it was often lamented that the telephone might put an end to literary biography. In lieu of letters, writers could just as easily gab on the phone, leaving no trace. 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. Publishing houses, magazines and many writers freely admit they have no coherent system for saving e-mail, let alone saving it in a format that would be easily accessible to scholars. Biography, straight up or fictionalized, is arguably one of today's richest literary forms, but it relies on a kind of correspondence that's increasingly rare, or lost in cyberspace.

This year alone Farrar, Straus & Giroux published ''The Letters of Robert Lowell'' and a biography of the critic Edmund Wilson that draws on his letters. But that doesn't necessarily mean the company is saving its own communication with writers. ''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.''

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