As The Letters Page journal turns ten, chief editor Jon McGregor looks back at the beginnings of his journal and delves into how the evergreen tradition of letter writing weaves into the digital age as he sheds light on what makes the appeal of finding a letter in your postbox forever greater than a ping on a screen…
“Every time we sit down to read the letters, we never know what we are going to find.” Even ten years down the line, this is the same enthusiasm which Jon McGregor, the chief editor of The Letters Page, sits down with every time the team reads through the latest batch of letters sent to them. Run by the School of English at the University of Nottingham, this is a literary journal that publishes essays, stories, poetry, memoirs and criticism, all in the form of letters.
Marking a decade of The Letters Page, the university’s Lakeside Arts gallery is hosting an exhibition, ‘Living Letters: Correspondence Then and Now’, which celebrates the enduring importance of letters as deeply vulnerable artefacts that capture the personal and the professional in a way that only letters can. The collection ranged from letters written by Lord William Bentinck to those written by children who were learning cursive by drawing ruled lines before writing the letters. The oldest letter displayed is one written in Anglo-Norman French expressing support for the future King Edward I, which dates back to 1259.
Sipping coffee after looking through some of the most iconic handwritten letters seemed as good a time as any to have a conversation with Jon McGregor about The Letters Page, an idea he brought to life. Having been long-listed for the Booker Prize for his first novel in 2002, making him the youngest-ever contender, McGregor went on to earn a place in that list another two more times in 2006 and 2017. His writing has been described as quiet with a lyrical narrative, seeking out the beauty and mundane delights of the everyday. With such a background and literary style, it does not come as a surprise that the tradition of writing letters has always interested him.
“I was always fascinated by writing letters because that is how I learned to write. Later on, as a teenager, I had a lot of pen pals and soon realised that writing a letter was also about drawing another person into a conversation and if I wrote a letter well enough, people actually wrote back. In hindsight, all this was really useful in learning how to tell a story well,” he says.
“When I joined the university, I knew that I wanted to run a little journal with the students which was different from the generic periodical. After speaking with a couple of writers and students, I realised my interest in letters was shared by many. The nostalgia of letters not being part of our lives anymore and its appeal in the digital age also contributed to conceptualising this journal,” he explains.
From being a platform for students to learn about publishing to receiving letters from big names such as Kevin Barry, George Saunders, Naomi Alderman and many others, the journal has come a long way from where it started ten years ago. But what keeps its charm alive is its very format, where they only accept content as handwritten letters.
“When one sits down to write a letter, they don’t really feel self-conscious the way they might feel if they were to sit down to write a poem or a story. So you get people who don’t think of themselves as writers coming up with really powerful and evocative writing. For us, that’s what makes our content special,” McGregor says.
As he recalls some of the most memorable letters they have received over the years, he says, “Once, we received a letter stuffed inside a bottle and was posted to us which was very exciting. Another set of letters that always stood out to me was from a truck driver from Cambridgeshire. They were really simple letters, not trying to be flashy or poetic, but just capturing a slice of his life.”
At the end of the day, McGregor hopes that the biggest impact of the journal would be on all the students who worked with them over the years, some of whom have gone on to pursue publishing careers. “Other than that, we feel that our biggest asset are the readers who have stuck with us from day one with whom we have developed a relationship over the years,” he adds.
He also hopes that the journal will be able to do more live events such as the successful collaboration with Roddy Doyle. Another dream for The Letters Page in the coming years which he shared was to publish a collection of selected letters like an anthology.
On a lighter note, when asked about the possibility of him writing a letter for the journal, he suggested a cheeky plan for the journal to finally receive a letter from Antarctica, after which they would have received a letter from every continent in the world. ”I have been to Antarctica on a writing residency and they have their own post office on this tiny island. If I were to write a letter, I would probably write it as if I am writing from Antarctica and arrange for it to be sent to us from there,” he added with a laugh.
McGregor also has an upcoming talk on 22 November in connection to the exhibition where he will be looking back at ten years of The Letters Page, getting into the details about some of the most striking letters they have received over the years and why he feels people have responded so warmly to the project.
Sharing his thoughts on letter writing and its recent popularity, especially as an alternate form of communication as well as therapy and relaxation, he says, “I guess it would fall in the same territory as journaling, as writing a letter would allow you to momentarily step away, reflect and sit with your own thoughts. When you communicate digitally, there is no ambiguity about what you are doing at the moment. But with letters, it is common to describe where you are, what you are doing and the environment around you. This would probably add to the reflective and relaxing element of writing.
“Aspects like people describing the birdsong they hear or spilling their coffee while writing their letter would make it like packaging a part of their day and sending it off to someone, including the smell of their house or their coffee,” he adds.
Elaborating on the appeal of writing as a practice in the digital age, he explains how advancements like email and social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) have always got people worried about the death of writing and literacy while missing out that all these platforms were, at the end of the day, about writing.
“Social media has people expressing themselves in languages, grammars, tones and registers that keep evolving and I personally feel that the social media generation has done a lot more writing than my generation did at their age,” he says. Digital communication never eclipses the value and impact of written communication according to him.
He emphasises that The Letter Page has never been about bringing back letters as a means of communication. “I am not under any delusion that letters will make a comeback. I just hope we can continue to value and cherish the practice, like an occasional treat,” he adds. And as the journal celebrates its tenth birthday, it would be safe to say that this little project has led to a good handful of people across the world picking up a pen to start a conversation, seeing more than a screen and listening to more than a keyboard.
‘Living Letters: Correspondence Then and Now’ is exhibiting at Lakeside Arts’ Weston Gallery until Sunday 3 March
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