Epistolary fiction; 'valuable' vs. 'invaluable'
Published: November 2, 2010
Q: I like the idea of using letters in fiction, but I don’t see this often. What about e-mail? Is anything off limits?
A: You’re not alone. Many authors are drawn to the idea of including letters in fiction. In fact, there’s even a name for it: epistolary fiction. Some definitions of this term stretch to include diary entries and other forms of correspondence, such as e-mail and telegrams. Whether you label it epistolary or not, you’ll find all sorts of documents in fiction.
Annie Proulx’s novel Postcards includes—yes, you guessed it—postcards from various characters within a more traditional narrative. In Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods, the unfolding action is interrupted by chapters called “Evidence,” which include documents that shed light on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the main character’s involvement in it.
Rosellen Brown’s short story “Inter-Office” is written as one long memo to the mayor. It begins like this:
TO: The Mayor
FROM: Sid R.
These are not the promised notes from the Transit Authority meeting—sorry. I will not give them to Gail to type. She shocks and worries and mothers me enough already.
I have a couple of stories to tell you, Mr. Mayor, to drink down with your morning optimism. I am not going nuts. I am not trying to extort more pay or make the evening headlines or any damn thing.
Alice Munroe’s short story “A Wilderness Station” is written entirely in documents, many of which are letters. From these, the reader can piece together the events and reflect on the different versions of truth surrounding them.
There’s no limit to the documents you can include in a fiction. Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods includes court transcripts and excerpts from biographies of politicians and magicians’ handbooks. Lauren Groff’s novel The Monsters of Templeton includes letters as well as newspaper clippings, a family tree that’s revised throughout the novel and even images—portraits, paintings and a photograph of a bronze statue.
Q: What is the difference between valuable and invaluable?
A: Something that’s valuable is worth a lot of money and would net a good price. Something that’s invaluable, on the other hand, is valuable beyond estimation. It’s priceless. The distinction may be easy to make when discussing things: Betsy’s diamond bracelet is valuable. The moon is invaluable.
These adjectives can also apply to people, traits, actions, relationships and more. Since we don’t typically appraise these for monetary value, this is where usage can get tricky. Use invaluable when you want to step it up a notch. A valuable employee is one who has desirable qualities and consistently makes positive contributions. But a company would truly suffer at the loss of an invaluable employee. Valuable advice might help a college graduate make good choices about his future. Invaluable advice would help direct him to the job that brings him personal and financial satisfaction for the rest of his life.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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