Review of Four Letter Word by Knelman and Porter: Top Writers Explore the Modern Love Letter

What is the modern love letter? According to Victor Hugo in the nineteenth century, such communication was a “kiss in the post.” Classic historical examples are celebrated for their drama and emotional openness.

The collection Love Letters of Great Men, of Sex and the City fame, has many eloquent examples of men prepared to put their hearts in their beloved’s hands. To make such romantic declarations in our more cynical, scientific age, however, would seem at best insincere, at worst psychotic. What makes a good love letter today?

Technology and the Modern Love Letter in Four Letter Word

Four Letter Word is a selection of fictional love letters by celebrated writers, including Jeanette Winterson and Douglas Coupland. There are many references to modern technology such as texting and Facebook, but only one is actually written in the style of an email.

Lionel Shriver’s contribution is a series of increasingly desperate communications from Alisha to Seymour, a man she had a one-night stand with. The emotional, romantic style is totally inappropriate in this modern form and shows the suspicion given to overt declarations of love in our era. Indeed, Shriver seems to be satirizing the convoluted style of previous centuries. We are invited to laugh at the melodramatic Alisha.

Neil Gaiman in Four Letter Word

Neil Gaiman’s creeping, obsessive letter tells a darker story. The narrator has been watching his object of desire and has found out information about her through Facebook. This is a common fear – many fear being stalked, and many perfectly sane people do not openly state their adoration for fear of being seen as overly intense. The possible reasons for this cynicism are complex. Is it the news, which can bring the horrors of the world into our lives twenty-four hours a day? Perhaps many people are struggling to cope in our technically more detached modern era.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Four Letter Word

Tellingly, one of the most positive contributions is also the most down-to-earth. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s calm, the rational letter ends with a casual, “So yes, I suppose we should begin to talk of the possibility of getting married soon.” The absence of histrionics makes it all the more believable. Chioma’s refusal to directly declare her love for Emeka ironically shows how much she does love him. Understatement seems more appropriate now.

Rosalind Porter comments on the ‘mountain of grief’ in her introduction, and certainly love is a dark subject in this engaging collection. The traditional format of most of the letters shows that, when dealing with personal feelings, technological innovations can seem too distant. Indeed, in one anonymous contribution, the narrator writes to the people she loves after ignoring their emails and phone calls. It seems the physical act of putting pen to paper is still the most meaningful in the twenty-first century.

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