Call for Papers:
Epistolary Forms in Film, Media and Visual Culture
Edited by Catherine Fowler and Teri Higgins
"We are living in a great epistolary age, even if no one much acknowledges it. Our phones, by obviating phoning, have reestablished the omnipresence of text. Think of the sheer profusion of messages … that we now send. "(Sally Rooney, 2019)
As Irish novelist Sally Rooney observes, despite the frequent assumption that technological advances provide constantly new forms of communication, these new forms: the email, the blog, the text message, the tweet, the update are actually haunted by old ‘epistolary’ forms: the letter and the diary. Both the letter and the diary have strong historical relationships to privacy, secrecy and intimacy, as well as to anonymity masquerade and deception, all notions that are both prevalent and highly contested in our current age. By focusing on the connection between a wide-range of media and these epistolary forms our aim is to consider their continuing significance for the mediation of self-expression and the building of relationships.
On the one hand, in mainstream cinema epistolary forms appear to produce storytelling that focuses on emotion rather than action, as such, they challenge the superficiality of post-feminist narratives centered on consumption and continue the melodramatic tradition, specifically the protagonist's “desire to express all… [and] give voice to their deepest feelings” (Brooks, 1991) (See You’ve Got Mail , Bridget Jones’s Diary , Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants , The Lake House  P.S I Love You , The Young Victoria , Julie and Julia , and most recently, I Love Dick , Love, Simon , and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before ). Several films also ask us to consider emotional masculinity; specifically the relationship between men, vulnerability, and letter writing ([Dear, John (2010], and Love, Simon 2018], and Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower 2012]). On the other hand, we find masquerade and deceit as the counter to intimacy and emotional expression. These themes are increasingly prevalent as epistolary forms move online (A Cinderella Story [ 2004] as a digital take on a classic, Sierra Burgess Is a Big Loser, , as the most recent re-telling of Cyrano de Bergerac, and in the omniscient narration of Gossip Girl [2007-2012]).
In less mainstream film and media letters, diaries, emails, and blogs have provided ways to play with the space of the personal and auto-biographical, providing intersections with the Essay Film genre. In this space epistolary forms offer genres of self-expression that adopt intimate, emotional, confessional tones; in contrast to the essayistic they are often characterised by a lack of reflection, as writers are too close to experiences, unable to make sense of them, writing them in the moment and/or caught up in the quotidian detail. Hamid Naficy finds epistolary forms particularly prevalent for expressions of exile ‘driven by distance, separation, absence and loss’ (Naficy, 1992: 101), (for example, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance  and Fernando Solanos Tangos: Exile of Gardel ). Naficy’s words fit Indigenous collectives: the Chiapas media project (for Zapista communities in Mexico) who have created politicised videos that use ‘letters, interviews and testimonials’ (Davis et al, 2015: 54) and independents from Chantal Akerman and Jonas Mekas to Abbas Kiarostami (with Victor Erice).
Beyond cinema, in the art world and on other media, it is the themes of intimacy, privacy self-expression and masquerade raised by letters and diaries that we find most frequently addressed. Artist Hito Steyerl, writing about online scamming letters, has gone so far as to argue that: ‘[t]he strongest affective address of the digital happens in the epistolary mode. As a brush with words divorced from actual bodies.’(58) Meanwhile visual artists including Sophie Calle and Miranda July have created subversive melodramas from their use of letters and diaries.
The goal of this proposed collection is to embark on a deep engagement with epistolary forms and their presence in culture and on screen. We look forward to hearing from contributors working on all aspects of film, media and visual studies who share an interest in the many connections between the audio-visual and epistolary forms. Contributors may choose to focus on a specific film or media text or pursue an analysis that draws from a range of examples. As ‘epistolary forms’ we include letters, diaries, emails, blogs, texts, tweets and online social media.
Proposals may consider (but should not be limited to) the following themes and issues:
- Histories of epistolary forms in film and media
- Re-defining self-expression on screen
- Implications for contemporary representations of intimacy
- Relationships with gender & sexuality, especially masculinity
- Intersectionality and epistolary forms
- Centrality to cultures of confession,
- Re-inventions of emotionality
- Extending notions of masquerade
- Relationships with genres (melodrama, romantic comedy, exile cinema, essay film)
- World Cinema/race, ethnicity, the inter-cultural
- Relation to other media forms (television; video games; social media)
- The letter in the digital age (social media; scams)
- Instagram and other social media platforms as diaristic forms
Proposals of up to 350 words, along with a short bio should be sent to the editors: Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by January 10th 2020. Final chapters will be due January 2021. Details regarding publication (publisher and timeline) will be sent when proposals are accepted.
Brooks, Peter. "The Melodramatic Imagination." Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and
Television Melodrama. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
Davis, Glyn, Kay Dickinson, Lisa Patti and Amy Villarejo. Film Studies - A Global Introduction. London and New York: Routledge,
Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2001.
Steyerl, Hito. “Epistolary Affect and Romance Scams: Letter from an Unknown Woman.”
October, Vol. 138, (Fall 2011), pp. 57-69.
Associate Professor Catherine Fowler, University of Otago and Dr Teri Higgins, Independent Researcher, Montreal.