BOOK REVIEW: The Letters Page Vol 3 Edited by Jon McGregor

The Letters Page, Vol 3. edited by Jon McGregor is a celebration of handwritten correspondence. This epistolary journal features letters from established and emerging writers on the theme of departure. Its smart design boasts a fold-out mailing package combined with all the nostalgic features of handwritten letters. There’s a red wax seal on the cover, for starters, and the contributor’s handwritten letters are reproduced and tucked inside (including some classic lines that don’t make it to final print.) The editorial footnotes are succinct, vibrant stories in their own right. Aesthetics are finished off with snow white typeface and bold claret design which gives the volume a distinctly retro and winterish feel.

Jon McGregor’s opening letter is written on the train to the Folio Awards where he may or may not win a grand cash prize for his novel, Reservoir 13. The literary prize’s credibility and the gift of good writing are considered with McGregor’s trademark wit and insight but there’s also this beautiful sense of uncertainty in the not knowing if he’ll return with that award. He writes in anticipation of a glamorous evening where he will ‘talk to smart people’ and ‘eat tiny pieces of food on tiny sticks’ and then, there, in the footnotes: ‘The Editor did not win this prize.’ The temporal space between then and now exposes human vulnerability keenly and serves as a smooth introduction to the letters that follow.

Luke Kennard’s letter snaps open the tab on the can of capitalism with real satirical bite. The letter is addressed to —— in standard corporate style and asserts Luke Kennard’s brand as being ‘based on authenticity, feeling ill-at-ease, repetition, anxiety and a kind of epistemological sarcasm.’ A darkly amusing anecdote follows about a friend who switches from mis-selling PPI to recovering PPI in a call centre; a paradoxical micro-fiction which not only lays out the deviancy of capitalism and debt but acknowledges the naivety of employees carrying out their evil for them. Colloquial in voice, Kennard draws readers in amicably and with such humour it may as well be round a pub-table with a packet of pistachios: ‘I’m not trying to portray myself as, like, anti-banks or anything. I don’t keep my wages in a burlap sack under the mattress…’ An accomplished letter which exhibits the irony of a capitalist society with such [seeming] ease.

The humble holiday postcard is up for analysis in Chris Arthur’s epistle where he unravels why he hoards all his unsent ones. Postcard format as a medium is given a collector’s close scrutiny and explored with pleasing poetic delicacy. He describes postcards as openings in to other’s lives like a slow train journey: ‘looking into the lit-up windows of the houses that line the track, each one presenting a little tableau vivant.’

In a similar vein, Emily Lu’s letter exposes the generic language of psychiatry in a self-addressed letter about the emotional pain inherent in a medical career: ‘During interviews when they asked for failure you didn’t tell them about the newborn who developed kernicterus.’ Lu refers to her personal statement, generic post-qualifying questionnaires and Canada’s matching day all which mark her success on paper with no truth about the traumas she must ‘hold’ on to, bear silently and without witness. A letter about emotional wellbeing in medicine, or not, and timely in respect of the UK’s NHS crisis.

What these letters have in common is the language of industry; sales patter, bureaucracy, marketing and consumption, and behind it all the individuals quietly making their way in the face of adversity or sheer social absurdity. Humanity is forefront with compassion and candour. There is also much unexpectedly hard laughter. An overarching theme of departures runs through the letters like a silver thread but what also emerges are marked moments of regret, the loss of time, how the inevitable passing of it means that any non-action or inertia cannot be remedied. It is a catalogue of departures which carries a portent for change.

There is elation to be had, too. Max Porter’s contribution bought me untold joy. Porter considers his written communication with the late John Berger, who he admits influenced him ‘more than any other.’ He speaks of Berger’s ‘fraternal hug’, a gesture he offered to Porter in writing which was received with deep gratitude. This piece rejoices in the marks made on paper and the generosity of spirit correspondence can offer humans in isolating times. For me, it pinned down how love in all its guises really does transcend the paper and ink it’s written on, using what Porter affectionately refers to as: ‘Hand-drawn feeling.’

Keren Pickard’s first published letter makes the ordinary exquisite in her experience of peeling an orange. An exercise in mindfulness and isolating the senses, Pickard lends the simple act of unwrapping a citrus fruit a synaesthetic power of its own when she speaks of ‘driving my thumb into the centre and hearing the Velcro-like crackle as the halves are pulled apart.’

My absolute favourite in this volume is Claire-Louise Bennett’s wild dispatch on the itchy mania of an unrequited crush. Bennett fuses a woman’s solitary rural existence with pacey sightings of a handsome neighbour ‘with his slow and great biblical stride.’ Conversely, what we get is intimacy of the highest order via this man’s non-appearance. Wry imaginings and a quirkiness in Bennett’s poetic objectification leaves readers bent over her every word: ‘The small creatures are haunting me. Your belt haunts me. The holes in your belt haunt me.’

This is an exquisite collection that will withstand time with its diverse offering of literary missives written for a contemporary culture. In short, The Letters Page Vol. 3 showcases why letter writing should be preserved and more importantly, how to write a letter well.

To find out more about The Letters Page vol 3 click here.

– The Letters Page –

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The Letters Page published its first issue in October 2013, sending a selection of letters from Magnus Mills, Colum McCann, Clare Wigfall, and Gerard Donovan, amongst others, to our small-but-heroic band of early subscribers. The issue was launched by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Sir David Greenaway, who pressed the appropriate button on the laptop and sent the PDF file winging its way into the world.

The subsequent six issues, featuring letters from Kevin Barry, George Saunders, Claire-Louise Bennett, Naomi Alderman, Andrey Kurkov, Joanna Walsh, and many more, have reached the email inboxes of an ever-growing list of subscribers; some of whom have chosen to print out and fold the issue into a variety of formats, others of whom have preferred to read it on the screen of their choice.

We’ve been sent letters from every continent except Antarctica (and we’re working on that); letters about love and loss and hope and annoyance, letters that have made us laugh and letters that have made us gaze wistfully through our office window; letters on blue paper, cream paper, white paper, letters on tissues and napkins, letters on postcards and letters stuffed into bottles. We’ve enjoyed reading them all, and choosing which ones to publish.

The first print issue of The Letters Page was published in 2016. Volume 2 was published in September 2017 and following on from the celebration of the printed object of Vol 1, Vol 2 comes in a limited edition embossed envelope.

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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