The lost art of letter-writing
Correspondences’ author Ben Greenman explains why e-mail is the enemy
Launch event for “Correspondences”
By Ben Greenman
Thursday, November 6
at 6:30 p.m. Free
Featuring special guest Arthur Nersesian
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
By DAVID TODD
Brooklyn-based writer Ben Greenman appreciates old forms like the letter as well as new ones like the interactive short story. He works in what appears to be a exhaustive manner on a number of projects, from his day job as an editor at the New Yorker, to his side job as a writer at McSweeney’s and Moistworks, to his home job of finishing his forthcoming novel, “Please Step Back.” Born in 1969 in Chicago, Greenman has a feel for both the contemporary and the parodic, as seen in his series of topical musicals with titles such as “Palin!,” “Steroids!,” and—for his tribute to O.J. Simpson—“I Did It!” Greenman’s idea-packed collection of short fiction, “Superbad” (2001), garnered praise for its “wicked, mercurial intellect,” and featured stories like “Blurbs,” composed entirely in bits of cover copy. The book was “remixed” as “Superworse” before the release of a second collection, “A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love” (2007).
But before you scream hipster, rest assured that Greenman is more than just a literary Red Bull, cranking out experiments for their own sake. In his work and in conversation, he conveys a deep drive to explore how innovative forms can reach a changing, perhaps disappearing, literary audience.
Greenman’s latest work is “Correspondences,” a limited-edition, hand-crafted “book box” of seven stories—six printed on accordion-style booklets, and the seventh on the folds of the package—released this month by Brooklyn’s Hotel St. George Press. “Equal parts short story collection, art book, and independent publishing manifesto,” as the press release contends, “Correspondences” is literary in part by asking what literature is, as well as by putting the reader into a collaborative role via the “Postcard Project” and its call for contributions to a single unfinished story. At first glance, the fiction pieces themselves have a slightly random feel, set as they are in various continents at various times, but they find their connections on the topic of relationships, in Greenman’s deftly jabbing voice, and in the genre of the old-fashioned letter. Most valuably, “Correspondences” invites an appreciation of the acts of writing, reading, and of text-making, each as a process to be savored. It is a book by people who love books aimed at seducing others who may not.
DAVID TODD: “Correspondences” is tricky to describe. Have you found a good way of characterizing it?
BEN GREENMAN: Well, there’s two parts of it, and that’s why it’s tricky. The actual book box came out of very specific discussions I had with Aaron [Petrovich] and Alex [Rose] at Hotel St. George [Press] about how books are changing as text gets sent through all these different kinds of platforms that it didn’t used to. I mean, this process has been going on for about 10 years now, and it’s accelerating, everything from the normal Internet through iPhones through Dick Tracy wristwatches or whatever. The traditional book becomes something that’s less…I don’t know if it’s less valuable, but its status has changed a lot. So then the object, the book object, becomes something that’s potentially much more interesting.
I had a novel coming out in April, a normal old traditional novel, so I actually couldn’t do another regular book this close to it. By happy coincidence, [Hotel St. George] had interest in doing something that was much more object-like. And so Alex and Aaron and I worked on it and designed this. And that book box, with the four-flap, three-accordion book casing, that’s one part, and that also comes from thinking about the theme of the work, about letters. It’s also about letters as objects and how those have changed and become e-mail. So that’s part one.
Part two is the Postcard Project, which is equally high-concept, but more dependent on collaboration, and so what becomes of that remains to be seen. The hope is it will get hundreds of people participating in it in some way.
DT: The book seems to present the act of communication in a kind of ritualized way, equating it with the printing and even the unpacking process of the reader. Was that intentional?
BG: Yeah, definitely. Most of the work I’ve done up unto this point deals with that in some form. In this case, it’s almost literalized because [the book involves] the process of making something that’s sort of fancy, and hand [crafted]. Like if you go to a used-book store, you assume that all the books are made the way books are made: author wrote it, editor edited it, it got put into the press, and it’s done. This project seems slowed down because there’s so many other layers to it. When you’re holding it, you know that the box had to be built, these weird little accordion-books had to be letter-pressed out. It’s not as faceless as a normal book.
DT: The presentation also suggests the value of isolating a literary moment, even a compact one, for its own sake, as if the text didn’t need to be a thousand-page novel to justify the treatment. Was that done by design?
BG: That’s a good question. If I’d had my way, if [the publishers] had had unlimited money and unlimited time, would I have done 50 stories? I write a lot of material so there might have been 50 or 100 stories, or there might have been 2000 pages’ worth of material. But as we talked about it, we came to the conclusion that you just mentioned, which is that you’re trying to increase the value of smaller moments. Because people have so much to choose from. This is the terror of going into a used bookstore, that you look and there’s 50,000 titles and you have no way of knowing if anything is of value to you. So both thematically and structurally, we wanted to create the impression that these stories are about common experiences that are of value, even though they take place in odd settings. You know they’re all basically about people who can’t communicate effectively with the people that they love. As diverse as they are in treatment, they’re pretty much about that.
DT: The copy for “Correspondences” says that it “provides a bittersweet glimpse at the lost art of letter-writing.” Do you actually remember letter-writing personally?
BG: I remember it very clearly. The bittersweet part for me is how e-mail has, on the one hand, made it so easy, and, on the other hand, ruined it. E-mail is an enemy we have to make peace with, but it is really the enemy, because there aren’t drafts anymore. There’s no waiting.
The test that I always like to do is to think of old ’60s or ’70s soul songs. Often there are scenes where a guy has sent a letter or is waiting for a letter. And I like to imagine how much time actually passed. Let’s say you’re in a Sam Cooke song, and somebody wrote you a letter and said they’re coming back. What’s the timeframe in that song? I think it’s just nothing like what we think about now.
DT: There’s definitely a speculative aspect to letter-writing.
BG: That’s why they really were literary works. Because the best you can hope for is to get lucky with the person you’re writing to. You can either get lucky and catch the woman in the right mood—let’s say, when you’re writing a love letter—or you can be skillful enough to create that mood. That’s the lost thing about e-mail.
DT: Though you’re renewing an old form, you’re also looking into new forms. Do you see the project as a kind of intersection between modes, then?
BG: Yeah. It’s really to find out what happens. One thing we didn’t want to do is to take responses to those postcard points through e-mail. And everybody keeps asking about that, because that makes it so much easier, right? But we’ve resisted it so far for exactly this reason, because we want to see what happens when this old form collides with this new presentation.