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Reach for the current issue of Private Eye and you will find "Bookworm", the anonymous author of the magazine's Books & Bookmen column, indulging his or her fondness for schadenfreude by rounding up the worst reviews of this season's crop of new books. The writers mentioned will no doubt simply shrug – or perhaps grimace – to have readers' attention drawn to less than ecstatic comments, especially when numerous glowing reviews are ignored. But "Bookworm" also has a few sharp words for those whose work is undertaken outside the glare of publicity: "it's not only the authors who will and should wince on reading these words. The editors . . . are responsible as well, for being too indolent, timid or unobservant, if the reviewers are right. But will pain spur them to remember that editors are supposed to edit?"

Editors are supposed to edit: well, of course. What else would they do? And why should Private Eye, in the process of tweaking a few authors' noses, alight on those who labour behind the scenes and accuse them of incompetence? The answer lies in the changing role of the editor, in the turning wheel of the publishing industry and in the expectations of readers.

One evening at the end of last September I found myself all set to interview Jonathan Franzen about his new novel, Freedom, on the stage of the Southbank Centre in London. I had anxiously worked and reworked my list of questions, but while my preparation was not in vain, it was swiftly put into perspective by an unexpected turn of events. It transpired that Franzen had that very afternoon, during the filming of a BBC television programme, discovered that the UK edition of his novel contained a number of errors – errors that he thought had been corrected during previous stages of production. In other words, the copies of the novel stacked high in the foyer, not to mention the tens of thousands on their way to bookshops, were not as Franzen, or indeed his publisher, intended. In the green room at the Southbank Centre, a clearly shaken but phlegmatic Franzen outlined his plan to tell his audience – and, by extension, the reading public – of the unfortunate development and to urge them to wait to buy the corrected edition. When he did so, there were – an unusual moment for most literary events – gasps of shock, followed by a nervous silence.

It seemed like something from a (rather heavy-handed) novel itself, and it was certainly a gift to headline writers; not only was Franzen's previous novel entitled The Corrections, but that book's US edition had suffered similar teething troubles. And, in a pile-up of ironies, one section of Freedom goes under the heading "Mistakes Were Made". But the affair also cast an intriguing light on our curious relationship with literary texts, on the authority we feel should be vested in them, and on the obvious but somehow occluded reality that books are, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a collaboration between writer and publisher. Franzen and his publishers had a horrible although mercifully rare experience, but it was not one entirely without amusing side-effects. One was the number of people – including me – who had read advance copies of Freedom and failed to notice errors, whether straightforward typographical slips or stylistic infelicities. But despite the hoopla over Freedom, in truth it had very little to do with the day-to-day business of publishing, bookselling or, indeed, writing: Franzen, one of the literary world's heaviest hitters, has extraordinary care, attention and money lavished on his work.

But what happens the rest of the time? Away from the world of freak glitches, what fate befalls the writer as his or her magnum opus enters the publishing production chain? For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts. The time and effort afforded to books, it is suggested, has been squeezed by budgetary and staffing constraints, by the shift in contemporary publishing towards the large conglomerates, and by a greater emphasis on sales and marketing campaigns and on the efficient supply of products to a retail environment geared towards selling fewer books in larger quantities. In more broad-brush terms, the question is whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market's latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor.

It's not a new debate. In 2005, Blake Morrison wrote a long essay on the subject in which he noted that, despite the inherent fuzziness of the line between facilitating a writer's work, with the occasional firmness and wing-clipping that entails, and the kind of over-editing that can result in a loss of authenticity and spontaneity, editing was vital to the business of writing and publishing. "When a book appears," he concluded, "the author must take the credit. But if editing disappears, as it seems to be doing, there'll be no books worth taking the credit for."

Last year I read a lot of books when I was a panel member on a BBC2 Culture Show special on emerging novelists; I also underwent a similar process during the compiling of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003. Reading work by new writers can be – and frequently is – a truly exciting experience; it is part of the territory that you will also read a lot of misses for every hit. But what saps the spirit are the manuscripts that leave you with the question: why did no one sit down with the writer and point out where this isn't working? Why didn't a red pen mark the hackneyed phrase, or the stock character, or the creaky dialogue? And, sometimes, why didn't someone deliver the unfortunate verdict: this simply isn't ready yet, and may never be?

Make it known that you're interested in the past, present and future of editing, and there are plenty of people who want to share their thoughts – although not all of them, given the chatty and precarious nature of the world of publishing, on the record. Many speak of the trimming of budgets, the increasingly regimented nature of book production and of the pressure on their time, which means they have to undertake detailed and labour-intensive editing work in the margins of their daily schedule rather than at its centre. One freelance editor I talked to remarked that "big companies used to have whole copy-editing and proof-reading departments. Now you'll get one publisher and one editor running a whole imprint." She'd noticed that some editors tended to acquire books that arrived in a more or less complete state. From her own experience, she also noted that writers at the beginning of their careers were far more open to suggestions than those further down the line; one suspects that that must always have been the case, but it's her opinion that writers with a healthy sales history have become more powerful, and their editors less. "It's certainly easy to imagine that writers with a lot of financial clout – whether literary prizewinners or mass-market bestsellers – feel that they have gained immunity from having their work tinkered with."

Others speculate about the changing nature of text itself, and of readers' expectations and demands of it. While most readers are understandably enraged when they buy a book and then spot spelling, grammar and factual errors, some may feel that other considerations are more important. Given the proliferation of user-generated content of all kinds, and the demand for instant gratification, it's unsurprising that speed and economy are often prioritised over care and quality.

And perhaps that has also led to a change in the way we think about creativity. Kirsty Gunn, a novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Dundee, is concerned that the business of publishing is becoming more collaborative in the wrong way: "To my mind, there's a wicked expectation that literary work can be created by some kind of committee. I've always been horrified by the notion of sending in a draft that isn't finished. I think there's a real difference between sitting down and creating a piece of work and then having a conversation with someone you respect, and sending in a piece of work and thinking, we'll work on this together."

Gunn's worry is that the culture of workshops and a desire to be published at all costs can lead to an erosion of the writer's sense of control over and responsibility for their own work. In her view, "the business of being a serious writer, of creating a piece of work that is your own, is about being your own editor . . . If you're creating something that's ultimately there as a product of the economy, then it is going to be made in a different way. That's very different than if you have the sense of a project in your mind that you want to develop and see to completion. I think this is why there's a lot of talk about books not being edited properly any more."

Gunn's concerns chime with a more widespread view that publishers are keener than ever to second-guess their readerships, to create a clearly defined product that will tick the boxes of picky retailers. And one begins to wonder whether the anxiety about editing is also part of a more general anxiety about the position of the book in contemporary society.

The literary agent David Miller, whose clients include Nicola Barker, Kate Summerscale and Victoria Hislop and who is a director of the Rogers, Coleridge & White agency, recounts the moment when he explained his job to a diplomat at an official function. "You mean," she chipped in after a while, "that you're a money manager in a very small slice of the leisure industry." Miller laughs when he tells the story, but he is also realistic about the efforts to which the publishing industry must go to compete in a crowded marketplace. At the same time – and he is not alone in this view – he believes that "publishing is one of those businesses that is brilliant at thinking it's perpetually at crisis point". And what it needs to do, therefore, is to shout its virtues from the rooftops: "In a world where digital publishing has made a large number of people think that authors can go direct to an audience, publishers have been utterly crap at explaining what they do. And most of what they do is intrinsically invisible."

Miller has recently had cause to examine the editor's role from the other side: in March, he will publish a short novel, Today, which was inspired in part by his passion for the life and work of Joseph Conrad. His experience, he insists, is at odds with the idea that books are simply rushed through publishing houses; his editor at the independent Atlantic Books, Ravi Mirchandani, responded to the delivery of his 32,000-word manuscript with an editorial letter that ran to 20 pages. It was, Miller says, "full of absolutely superb comments", which ranged from spotting anachronisms to continuity errors to inexact uses of language. He adopted, he thinks, about 80% of the suggestions, then submitted to the attentions of "a completely brilliant" copy-editor and subsequently refined the book through four stages of proofs. "I have been totally heartened by the whole publishing process," he says. "I completely see why the book takes so long to go from the agent to the publishers to the bookseller to the customer. And I do not think I am rare."

Indeed, many writers pay tribute to their editors. Linda Grant, the Booker-shortlisted novelist whose We Had It So Good was published recently, speaks warmly of Lennie Goodings, the much-admired publisher at Virago, in particular her advice on changing characters and structure. When I spoke to Goodings about editing, I got a strong sense that, for her, the process combines making practical assessments – for example, whether a character has a sufficiently well-drawn and believable back-story – with allowing a more emotional and intuitive response to find its place. Of primary importance, she says, "is finding out what the writer thought they wanted to do". Other highly acclaimed editors – and there are many – include Dan Franklin and Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape, Mary Mount at Viking, Sara Holloway at Granta, Nicholas Pearson at Fourth Estate, Jenny Uglow at Chatto & Windus, Hamish Hamilton's Simon Prosser and Faber's Neil Belton; and it is clear that commitment and passion on the part of the publishing professionals exist in both large, multinational corporations and small, independent companies.

Peter Straus has experienced the business from more than one angle. In 2002, he moved from Macmillan, where he had been the publisher of Picador for 12 years and then the head of adult trade imprints for the entire company, to become an agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White, where he represents writers including Kate Atkinson, Don Paterson, Alexander Masters, Carol Ann Duffy and Colm Tóibín. Regarded in the industry as one of the most passionate proselytisers for new writing, he is also an enthusiastic book collector; realistic about the difficulties presented by the business, he is a great defender of its history.

Consequently, he is clear-eyed about some of the more challenging aspects of the editor's life. "It's the kind of business," he told me, "where as soon as an author has a tipping point and becomes a big brand, then other forces come into play. Sales and marketing and publicity departments want that author's next book as soon as possible, and it takes its place in budgets and forecasts." He remembers an example from his time at Picador, when Helen Fielding delivered the follow-up to the vast-selling Bridget Jones's Diary; such was the appetite for The Edge of Reason that the editorial team and Fielding herself worked day and night to finalise the manuscript; in other circumstances, he says, the same work would have been carried out, but at a more leisurely pace.

He is confident that there are as many talented editors in publishing as there always have been, but notes that "the interesting thing is whether the editor has the same level of pull in a publishing house as they had 20 years ago, or whether publishing is more led by sales and marketing". There's a feeling, he argues, that out of sight is out of mind and, especially with authors who have had success with an earlier book or who have voracious readerships such as those often enjoyed by genre writers, it's good to keep the shelves steadily and plentifully supplied. It is, he says, "a savage marketplace now". The increasingly global nature of publishing means that an editor might also be pulled in several different directions at once, with editors in different territories each wanting their say.

Sam Leith, the journalist whose first novel, The Coincidence Engine, is published by Bloomsbury in March and has just been included in Waterstone's pick of the 11 best debut novels of the year, describes himself as being "hugely grateful and impressed" by both his publisher, Michael Fishwick, and his copy-editor, who picked up an "egregious howler" that saw one of his characters enter a room from a corridor and then exit it, via the same door, on to a balcony. "I very much welcomed somebody telling me something I hadn't thought of or secretly knew. With very rare exceptions, I think everybody benefits from being edited. Probably an editor who is a sensitive, ordinary reader will do a lot of good."

Leith's remarks remind one that editors, before they are anything else, are avid readers. One of the most celebrated editors of recent decades, Robert Gottlieb – whose long list of charges includes Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Toni Morrison and John Cheever, and who also edited the New Yorker – insisted in a Paris Review interview that "editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader". In the same piece, he also set his face firmly against the "glorification of editors", insisting that "the editor's relationship to a book should be an invisible one". Diana Athill, now herself an acclaimed writer, declared in her memoir of her life as an editor, Stet, that "good publishers are supposed to 'discover' writers, and perhaps they do. To me, however, they just happened to come." It was surely, however, talent as much as good fortune that brought VS Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys to Athill's door. Great editors are more than good readers – but an appreciation of the qualities of serious literature, often hard to define, is a starting point, not an optional extra.

The concern about falling standards probably also reflects a certain amount of regret that the world of letters so brilliantly evoked by Athill in Stet has faded. The demands of a global marketplace, the advent of digitisation and the increased importance of sales, publicity and marketing have all contributed to changing the face of an industry that quietly congratulated itself on its genteel bohemianism. Writers, except for the most financially successful, must maintain the solitary intensity of their creative life while adapting to new realities; they are now often advised to add mastery of social media to the publication round of interviews, readings and festival appearances, and many take on a heavy load of teaching to supplement their earnings. Publishing in its popular incarnation – the legendary long lunches, the opportunistic punts on unheard-of but brilliant young writers, the smoke-filled parties and readings – is probably gone for good. Although you do wonder about the halcyon version of events: with all those long lunches, how did anyone get any editing done in the first place?

Something, undoubtedly, will be lost, as it is being in other media. It is not uncommon, if you are of a certain cast of mind, to fling a book across the room and wonder if there is anyone still alive who cares about hanging participles, or the difference between that and which, or the fact that "whose" is a relative pronoun. Neither is it unusual to find a slender volume that seems short-changed by its brevity or an enormous one stuffed with extraneous material. And the associated experiences of being what the industry calls a "heavy reader" have also changed. To buy a book, whether in a physical or virtual bookshop, is to navigate an obstacle course of special offers and money-off deals that are designed to make you buy more, not better; in the case of ebooks, the retailers' first aim is to sell you a device, with hugely discounted books as the bait. Finding out what book you want has also changed; although there is still plenty of high-quality literary criticism available, there is no doubt that there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down. If these peripheral factors are not directly linked to standards of editing, they are surely indicators of the extent to which books have been commodified. The word may still be the thing; but it isn't the only thing.

What we have to be aware of is that the creation of serious literature – whatever the degree of collaboration between author and editor – is the result of enormously concentrated mental and aesthetic effort. If it is reduced to a series of narrative effects slapped on to paper or screen, if it comes to be seen simply as one among many interchangeable ways to ingest a story, it will soon begin to look like a very poor slice of the leisure industry indeed.

Diana Athill

Very often I'm brought to a halt by some ridiculous mistake that hasn't been picked up by an editor, which makes me think there can't be much line-by-line editing going on in publishing houses these days. I don't know that it matters all that much. It makes a lot of people absolutely furious so they can hardly enjoy reading. But for me if what is being said comes clearly across that's what matters. It is a bit pedantic to fuss too much about the editing of detail. On the other hand, it does offend my personal instincts, having been trained in the old-fashioned ways, which meant our texts should be perfect. The answer I found for myself is that I take much more trouble than I used to in the line-by-line editing of my own manuscript, and I think authors should now take that responsibility on themselves if they don't want to be annoyed by minor details. In nearly 50 years as an editor for André Deutsch, I never came across a writer who objected to editing if it made sense, not just in terms of mistakes, which all writers want to be corrected, but the actual way something was written. A lot of writers, for instance Jean Rhys, are perfectionists, so all the editor has to do is spot typing mistakes. I would never have dreamed of suggesting alterations. If we took a book on it meant we liked it; it might in certain respects or details be improved, but if the author didn't want to change it we didn't mess around with their texts.

• Diana Athill is an author and former editor at André Deutsch.

Carmen Callil

Is there still enough good old-fashioned copy editing going on? Perhaps there isn't, because over the last decades, publishers have turned more attention to marketing and selling books properly. The old-fashioned editor has to a great extent disappeared, but I'm not too sure that's a great loss; and the improvement in sales, marketing and design effort, in my opinion, more than makes up for it.

Editorial work is often farmed out to freelance copy-editors, and not done in-house as it used to be. Have freelance editors got worse? I don't imagine so. Also, was "old-fashioned" editing as great as it is often claimed to be? Moaning about the good old days is as much a part of writing life as drinking too much and a partiality for parties and too much smoking. Authors perhaps miss the close relationship they had with an editor who went through every word of their books, but the money saved by not having such editorial bums on seats has been well used.

That said, perhaps publishers should pay their out-of-house copy-editors more? When you encounter a truly great copy-editor, they are worth their weight in gold. They were, and are, a rarity.

Carmen Callil is an author, founder of Virago and former publisher of Chatto & Windus.

Blake Morrison

I discovered what it means to be edited while a postgraduate at University College London, where I was supervised by Karl Miller, formerly editor of the Listener and later editor of the London Review of Books. Twice a term, we'd meet to discuss my latest draft, and I'd emerge from his office several hours later, badly shaken but determined to write better next time. Editing isn't just about putting in semicolons (though Karl was fierce about those), but about engaging with content and ideas; it means seeing the blindingly obvious flaws that the author – through vanity or laziness – has missed. Nabokov called editors "pompous avuncular brutes". But my own experience bears out Frank O'Connor, who compared his editor William Maxwell to "a good teacher who does not say, 'Imitate me' but, 'This is what I think you are trying to say'." To Bill Buford at Granta I owe the title of my memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? (it hadn't been my first choice) and the placing of the opening chapter (which I'd put second). The editors of my subsequent books, Frances Coady, Ian Jack and Alison Samuel, were less interventionist but equally helpful.

There are still some brilliant editors in publishing today. But it's harder for them to have the autonomy that, say, Maxwell Perkins enjoyed when taking on Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, let alone to spend the acres of time he did improving typescripts. The rise of marketing departments is often blamed for this. But publishers need to sell books, and many an author has been helped by smart promotion. What has changed is that editors are no longer the people expected to identify and nurture a young talent. That role has passed to agents and, before them, to the creative writing tutors through whose MA programmes and residential courses the majority of today's new writers emerge.

• Blake Morrison is a novelist and a former literary editor of the Observer and Independent on Sunday.

Craig Raine

In 1986, the late John Bodley telephoned me about the typescript of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Ezra Pound. I was on a year's unpaid leave from Fabers to get on with some writing. But I agreed to read Humphrey's first draft. I could see why Bodley was worried and I came in to the Faber offices to confer with Matthew Evans, the then chairman. He sat there with a clear desk, a clean blotter and his Mont Blanc rollerball. "You don't think it's much good. Is that right?" I nodded. "What do we do then? Do we publish it or do we turn it down?" "No," I replied, "we edit it." My letter to Humphrey began: "Brace yourself." Every morning for the next three weeks or so, Humphrey came to my house in Oxford and we went through his biography page by page. I am thanked by him in his acknowledgments. But I also have a postcard saying, "Thanks for all your help. I expect you still hate it."

It is tempting to identify two publishing trends here – one in the ascendant, the other in decline: the idea that the editor's job is effectively over when the contract for a book is signed; and the idea that an editor should edit when the book arrives. But it's 20 years since I was at Fabers, and I suspect that there have always been lazy editors and obsessive-compulsive editors – and always will be.

Being edited by Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker is protracted, diagnostically painful, and gratifying. At Atlantic Books, my editor is Margaret Stead, who is brilliant. My copy-editor of choice is Donna Poppy, whose clients include Claire Tomalin, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith and Roy Foster. My novel Heartbreak has an epigraph from Ulysses: "the man in the mackintosh loves a lady who is dead". Donna corrected this: "the man in the brown mackintosh loves a lady who is dead". Typical – of my carelessness and her unerring diligence. I'm a lucky man.

• Craig Raine is a poet, novelist and editor of Areté.

Jeanette Winterson

Editors have become linear and timid. They worry about how things follow and Emma Bovary's eyes both change colour unexpectedly, and no one minds. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "all my facts about lighthouses are wrong". So there is wrong that is right, and that is better than rigid rightness that is wrong. I find, too, that many younger editors simply don't have the cultural resources to recognise a reference or playfulness therein. But life is getting so much worse everywhere that we must not be too gloomy about books . . . Books remain a pocket of air in an upturned boat. I cannot think in a linear way and I do not care. I can only say what I mean and often that raises editorial queries of the "translate from the Japanese, please" kind. Copy-editing is not the skill it once was. There are computer programs to do that for you because we no longer believe we need human beings. I would like to see zest for difficulty making a comeback. Must we always be transparent? Remember when TS Eliot was asked what he meant by "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree", he said: "I meant, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'." I have no idea what that means, but I am glad it didn't get edited into "Mrs, there's three wild animals under that shrub". We should edit with good sense, of course, but with a sense that sense is not everything. This is obvious enough in fiction, but wonderfully eccentric stylists such as, say, Jan Morris or Harold Bloom don't need their magnificent non-fiction to be turned into Google Notes. Editing only looks micro. It is about the whole as well as the parts.

• Jeanette Winterson is a novelist.

• This article was amended on 12 February 2011 to remove an erroneous line and letter.

Our first letter was from Magnus Mills. It came in a plain brown envelope, and was handwritten on a plain sheet of white A4. “Dear J,” it began. “Thanks for asking and I’m really very flattered, but I don’t think I’ll be able to supply a handwritten letter.” It went on to explain the ways his time was taken up with work or with thinking about work. It was thoughtful and well-written, and concluded with: “Therefore, I’m sorry but there’ll be no letter.” Uncertain whether the irony was deliberate (but assuming, coming from the author of the deadpan The Restraint Of Beasts, that it probably was), we went ahead and published his letter-that-wasn’t-a-letter anyway.

The starting point for the Letters Page was a simple one. I was taking up a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham, and I wanted to encourage the students to think about writing in ways that didn’t involve blank sheets of paper or screens. I wanted them to think about other people’s writing before they started to think about their own, and decided that a good way of doing this would be to set up a literary journal and have the students produce it; reading the submissions, making selections, putting each issue together.

But I wanted it to be a literary journal that could find an underhand way of being literary; to take the self-consciousness out of being literary. I’ve always been interested in the kinds of writing people do when they don’t think they’re being asked To Write, and I’d been thinking about letters as a form; wondering about the differences between letters-on-paper and emails, reflecting on my own letter-writing history, noticing the democracy of correspondence as a literary practice. So the idea was born.

Tell us about the letter or conversation that changed your life

I asked people to send us letters; real letters, written by hand and sent through the post. I sat in the office with my student assistants and waited for the letters to arrive. There was something exciting about sorting through the pile, letters from Canada and the US, from Spain and Germany and France, from Donegal and Dublin and Brighton and Tring. We set to work with the letter knives and started to read. I was hoping that they would, while still being framed as letters, take the form of stories, essays, poems, memoir, criticism. What actually happened was that almost everyone wrote about the nostalgic and rare pleasure of sitting down to write a letter at all.

I grew up writing letters. They were a big part of making me the writer I am today, I think. As a child there were thank you letters, of course, ruining the long weeks after Christmases and birthdays. And postcards. Letters to the Beano, and Blue Peter, and – now tainted – letters to Jim’ll Fix It. (I wanted to drive a combine harvester, thanks for asking.)

As I grew older, I seemed to accumulate penpals the way other people collected football stickers, and by my late teens I was sending and receiving two or three letters a day. Much of what I wrote then would have been standard teenage diary stuff, about how terrible my life was and how brilliant the Smiths were; but over time, much more of what I wrote became about storytelling.

I was commuting 30 miles a day to college, and spent the time writing about the people I saw on those journeys; and what I didn’t know, I made up. Without really thinking about it, I was experimenting with ways of telling a story, ways of holding a reader’s attention, playing with voice and form and technique; and the friends writing back were doing the same. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred, but in truth we were only asking about each other’s lives. Through these letters, I was learning about the small corners of the world my friends inhabited: in towns in Dorset and Devon, in south Wales, in north London, in the West Midlands, in Kent. These letters were making physical journeys from places I’d never been, bringing news from elsewhere.

I kept writing letters throughout my time at university. The first time someone gave me their email address, I looked at it as though it had no more relevance to my life than someone’s CB radio handle. But, of course, email crept gradually into my life, initially as a sort of proto-text-messaging, for occasions when quick and simple communication was required. And there was a long period of overlap where I would email someone to let them know I was writing a letter and would soon be posting it. But at some point the balance tilted, and letter-writing became something that happened by choice rather than by default; something a little self-conscious or mannered, something that started to feel like a duty or a task, and so was never quite done; until I moved house a few years later and realised there was no one I needed to tell. My email address wasn’t changing, and my physical address no longer counted. My letter-writing days were over.

They were often remarkably self-conscious about sitting down to write. There were many apologies for poor handwriting

It’s been boom time for nostalgia about letter-writing lately. You can always tell that a cultural form is dying when people start making a point of celebrating it. (See also: typewriters, Polaroid photographs, vinyl records.) There have been the excellent Letters Of Note books edited by Shaun Usher, with its accompanying Letters Live stage shows; the Letters In The Mail subscription service run by rumpus.net, where you get a letter from an interesting writer every two weeks; and a whole series of books and articles either celebrating letters, or decrying email, or both.

The letters that started arriving in Nottingham were, on the whole, addressing themselves to this idea of the loss of letter-writing. They were often remarkably self-conscious about the process of sitting down to write. There were many apologies for poor handwriting, and sometimes these were justified. There were references, towards the end of letters, to aching hands. There was some confusion about the cost of stamps. And there was a lot of talk about the letters people had written in the past – about penpals, and relationships maintained across distances, about letters written from the army or from prison or from school – and a lot of talk about when exactly the habit had fallen away.

The Irish novelist Colum McCann wrote fondly to us of his own letter-writing history, and of the letters he has received. “I don’t stack them away in neat little piles,” he wrote, “but sometimes I do leave them lying around my office, so that I can open them and let them surprise me.” He referred also, as many people did, to collections of letters as personal archive material, mentioning a crate of letters his father kept in a shed. “He has told me that I can read the letters at any time. I have told him that I will wait until he is gone. And he tells me that in that crate, those letters, he will never be gone.”

It feels just a little warmer believing there’s somebody out there, somewhere, who knows you’re still alive

McCann’s letter took a little deciphering, because, while the handwriting itself was immaculate, there were all manner of sidenotes and endnotes tucked into the margins and arrowed between paragraphs. This was quite a theme in many of the letters we received; just how disorderly a handwritten text can be, compared with the linearity of a document on a screen. There were crossings out and rewritings, marginalia, diagrams and doodles, cover notes and Post-it notes and extra scraps tucked into the envelopes. There were pressed flowers, and bookmarks, and even a lock of hair. At least two letters arrived stuffed into plastic bottles, the stamps held on with sellotape and hope. Selma Dabbagh wrote us an abandoned love letter, retrieved from a hotel waste basket and sent as a scrumpled ball. Ruth Gilligan wrote a letter to God, folded into a tightly wedged note as though ready to be pushed into a crack in the Western Wall. Some of the letters were scented, and not always deliberately. Some were torn, and stained, and all of them bore the traces of the journey they had made from the place where they were written. They were physical objects, with all the tactility and uniqueness and marks of time which that implies, and it became more apparent than ever that these marks of time are what distinguish letters from emails and other forms of digital correspondence.

The wonderful thing about email is its immediacy. A conversation can be had – a decision made, a plan refined – in a matter of minutes, no matter where in the world the two parties happen to be. A letter, by contrast, always arrives from the past. There is a waiting – a forced patience – built into the mechanics. You wait for a letter to arrive. You wait for a reply. In the time it takes for the letter to reach its destination, anything can happen: minds be changed, lives lost, loves discovered.

This sense of duration was also borne out by how many of the letters we read wanted to give a sense of where they were, in both space and time: I am sitting at the kitchen table; I am in the garden, under the apple tree; I can hear the children in the bath upstairs and will soon have to fetch them. In that sense, a letter is more “composed” than an email.

But these differences between letters and emails are just that: differences. One is not better or worse than the other. In many ways, the differences hold in microcosm the wider cultural shift away from reading in print to reading on screen. For some people, there will always be something more transient about the latter. There is an astonishing wealth of information on the devices we carry around with us – a wealth that should be celebrated – but it can be difficult to concentrate on one piece of information at a time; to read a single article or book with the kind of deep, measured concentration that seems to come more naturally with print. A printed book stays on your shelf, and can be bookmarked, annotated, flicked through, shared. I know, I know: these things are all possible with digital devices, and they may come naturally to some people. This might just be me. But you don’t have to be an ink-sniffing stationery fetishist to think that perhaps the technology of the printed book is more durable and user-friendly than some people have started to give it credit for.

If I write: 'first kiss'... and you feel something... suddenly we are in direct connection, mind to mind

Because here’s something I’ve noticed: people really do like having something to hold. I should have mentioned that, despite setting out to celebrate the physicality of the handwritten letter, until this month we published only online, relying on our readers either to print out and savour each issue, or to read it on a screen of their choice. And it’s become clear that, even as the number of our subscribers continues to grow, there has been less engagement with each issue; fewer downloads, fewer responses. It seems as though the format is too ephemeral, too transient; the very opposite of the letters that continue to arrive through our letterbox.

Which is why, because I am an actual ink-sniffing stationery fetishist, we’ve now published them in print. There are letters from the novelists Naomi Alderman, Andrey Kurkov, Joanna Walsh, Kevin Barry and others. But the closing letter, fittingly, is from a retired postal worker in Alberta, Canada – Ken Sears. He writes about the letters he sorted during his career, and how he learned to spot the ones from prison, from lovers, from the person with hypergraphia, or people behaviourally compelled to write; and about how now, in retirement, despite a lifetime of seeing most of the mail he sorted as just so much landfill, he continues to write letters, “Because it’s a big, cold universe, and it feels just a little warmer believing there’s somebody out there, somewhere, who knows you’re still alive. I’ll keep on writing them, and the brothers and sisters down at the local PO will keep shoving them along. They make a few bucks. I draw my pension. I learn a few things and everybody’s happy.”

A letter from George Saunders, author of Pastoralia and Tenth Of December

September 30, 2013
Oneonta, NY, USA

Dear Reader,

Interesting to think that words on a page can create a disturbance in a brain thousands of miles or hundreds of years away. How does that work? If I write: “first kiss; please pause to remember the taste/smell phenomenon associated with that event, especially the pleasant ones that still have the power to make you happy,” and you do pause & remember – why does that work? Or maybe I say: “fresh-cut grass on a summer day.” If you feel something, then it is my brain activity (over here, in the US) that caused it. Suddenly we are in direct connection, mind to mind. We have just established, by implication, that both of us (you, there, in England, say) & me here in my writing shed in Oneonta, New York (door open, dog at my feet, on a clear fall day on which the quality of light is so clean that it has all day been landing on the autumnal woods in a way that makes a person just want to stand there & stare), have each, at one time, experienced a first kiss. And that the effects of those two experiences were not so very different. And that my experience (which occurred in 1974!, in a 1969 Camaro, parked at the edge of a golf course in Midlothian, Illinois, USA) was similar enough to yours (and how about yours, by the way?) to evoke what us New Agers might call a “shared emotional space”. No matter how old you are, or how old I was at the time of writing (54, & thanks for asking), or how alive you are, or how dead I am, and even if that phrase re the kiss or the grass had to be translated before you could read it – there we were just now, lovingly regarding the same human experience, our brains encouraged, by words, to jump through roughly the same hoop. And we were somehow expanded by that. You now believe more fully in my existence and I in yours. We think more highly of one another. And we think better of everyone else, too. It seems more likely to us now that other people actually exist. We have experienced a brief elimination of what we might call the “I/Other” boundary. Soon enough (yes, yes) that boundary springs back into place, and we are merely ourselves again, believing ourselves separate from everything else. But for that brief moment, our understanding of our relation to the greater world was correct.

All the best,

George Saunders

Jon McGregor is the author of If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things; his new novel, Reservoir 13, will be published next April by Fourth Estate. The Letters Page, Volume 1 is published (as a letter-filled box) by Book Ex Machina at £25.75.


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