Back in the 20th century, when publishers had three-martini lunches and young women fresh out of Bryn Mawr became secretaries, not editors, it was often lamented that the telephone might put an end to literary biography. In lieu of letters, writers could just as easily gab on the phone, leaving no trace.
Today, a new challenge awaits literary biographers and cultural historians: e-mail. The problem isn't that writers and their editors are corresponding less, it's that they're corresponding infinitely more -- but not always saving their e-mail messages. Publishing houses, magazines and many writers freely admit they have no coherent system for saving e-mail, let alone saving it in a format that would be easily accessible to scholars. Biography, straight up or fictionalized, is arguably one of today's richest literary forms, but it relies on a kind of correspondence that's increasingly rare, or lost in cyberspace. This year alone Farrar, Straus & Giroux published ''The Letters of Robert Lowell'' and a biography of the critic Edmund Wilson that draws on his letters. But that doesn't necessarily mean the company is saving its own communication with writers. ''I try to save substantive correspondence about issues concerning books we're working on, or about our relations with authors, but I'm sure I don't always keep the good stuff -- particularly the personal interchanges, which is probably what biographers would relish,'' Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said (via e-mail, of course, like most of the editors and writers interviewed for this story). ''I don't think we've addressed in any systematic way what the long-term future of these communications is, but I think we ought to.''
Nor has Random House Inc., whose imprints include Alfred A. Knopf, Doubleday and Bantam Dell, set any guidelines. ''At present, Random House Inc. does not have in place a distinct corporate policy for archiving electronic author-publisher correspondence, and we have yet to establish a central electronic archive for housing publishing material,'' Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, noted. ''Each of our publishing divisions decides what author-publisher correspondence and materials they wish to retain.'' W. W. Norton doesn't have a policy for saving e-mail messages or letters, leaving it to the discretion of editors, and Harcourt's archiving policy doesn't yet govern e-mail communication.
Although David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said he considers the collected letters of Harold Ross, the magazine's founding editor, ''the best book I've ever read about The New Yorker,'' you won't see Remnick's collected letters -- or e-mail correspondence -- any time soon. ''Oh, God forbid,'' Remnick said. For one thing, The New Yorker routinely purges messages from its system. Deborah Treisman, who as The New Yorker's fiction editor is in communication with most major living writers, confessed she doesn't always save her messages. ''Unfortunately, since I haven't discovered any convenient way to electronically archive e-mail correspondence, I don't usually save it, and it gets erased from our server after a few months,'' Treisman said. ''If there's a particularly entertaining or illuminating back-and-forth with a writer over the editing process, though, I do sometimes print and file the e-mails.'' The fiction department files eventually go to the New York Public Library, she said, ''so conceivably someone could, in the distant future, dig all of this up.''
The impact on future scholarship is ''not something that I've spent much time thinking about,'' Remnick said. ''I'd say something a little bit radical: as much as I respect lots of scholarship in general, what matters most is the books and not 'book chat,' '' he said. ''Something's obviously been lost, even though I don't think it's the most important literary thing we could lose.''
Book chat or no, great letters are great literature. In Robert Lowell's letters, for instance, the mundane quickly opens up into whole worlds of feeling. ''I think our letters on the agency tax-money must have crossed,'' Lowell wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, his soon-to-be ex-wife, in 1971. ''Through long hours of revising, a leisurely bath and a quick dressing, I have been thinking about our long past,'' he continued. ''Not having you is like learning to walk.'' Some entire books don't convey as much raw emotion as those eight words do .
Designed for constant contact, e-mail messages inevitably have a different tone from postmarked missives that allow correspondents the time to ruminate and percolate, to apply a critical eye to their own lives. Often less nuanced, more prosaic, written in haste and subject to misunderstandings, e-mailed thoughts are microwaved, not braised. ''It often occurs to me that e-mail may render a certain kind of literary biography all but obsolete,'' Blake Bailey, the author of a biography of Richard Yates and a forthcoming one of John Cheever, said. The messages are ''too ephemeral: people write them in a rush without the sort of precision and feeling that went into the traditional (and now utterly defunct) letter.''
Steven Kellman, the author of a new biography of Henry Roth, predicted the rise of e-mail correspondence would affect historians, not just biographers. ''Our understanding of the Constitution, for example, would be quite different if the thoughts about it exchanged by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had vanished into the electronic ether,'' he said.
Posterity may not care about a publisher's collected spam, or the personal messages employees routinely send from their work e-mail accounts -- which are, in any case, the property of the company, not the author. But the confusion at publishing houses over what and whether to save bodes ill for cultural historians. ''Memory is consummately, wackily unreliable, so that interviews can only serve up to a point; as per Rashomon, if I interview five different people about the same episode, I fully expect to hear five very different versions,'' Bailey said. ''Letters, however, give a more or less contemporaneous account with a lot of subjective nuance.''
Still, some think e-mail, in quantity if not necessarily quality, is good for biographers. ''I know plenty of writers who send long e-mails and probably send more correspondence because they don't have to deal with envelopes and stamps and printers,'' Carl Rollyson, a prolific biographer of Rebecca West, Marilyn Monroe and many others, said. ''E-mail, I suspect, will be a great boon to biographers, and perhaps people will finally stop whining about the end of the era of letter writing.''
A boon, perhaps, but only if writers save their e-mail. ''Unfortunately, I think that once writers become self-conscious about preserving archival material, the game is over,'' the author Jonathan Franzen said. ''At a minimum, you convict yourself of suffocating levels of self-importance. I also don't see how you resist the temptation to select material that suggests the most flattering possible narratives. And not just select but actively create! Unless you're really cash-starved and you're trying to woo those deep-pocketed collectors at the University of Texas, I can't imagine why you'd confess to archiving your own stuff,'' he said, referring to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which has bought the papers of many major American writers. Yet writers have always been hyper-aware their correspondence might have enduring literary merit. Hunter S. Thompson, for one, made carbon copies of many of his letters. Other writers destroyed their letters, to preserve their privacy or keep attention focused on their books, not their lives. Today, there's no guarantee anyone will save anything in the e-mail inbox.
Whether writers save their e-mail seems to depend on their technical proficiency more than on any deep philosophy of preservation. It's not that difficult to save messages to a desktop, zip drive or external hard drive, or even to print them out -- but the literary world may need a SWAT team of techies. ''I have a normal Yahoo account that saves e-mails instantly, but not to the hard drive. I've e-mailed Yahoo and asked how you can save all your own e-mails onto disk or whatever, but I get no reply,'' the novelist Zadie Smith said. She said she has kept 12,000 e-mail messages: ''The great majority of it is correspondence with other writers, my editor, my copy editor, etc. Some of them are amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss, etc.,'' Smith said. ''I guess it will all go the way of everything else I write on the computer -- oblivion. I don't have a single early draft of any novel or story. I just 'saved' over the originals until I reached the final version. All there is is the books themselves.''
Margaret Atwood is also an inconsistent saver. ''Margaret's British agent has thought about this and says, 'Save everything,' but in actuality we don't,'' Atwood's assistant, Lucia Cino, said. ''As Margaret says, 'We save things we may have to refer back to. I save some things for sentimental reasons.' '' Annie Proulx is in the same camp. ''I do save hard copies of some e-mail messages, mostly those related to the business of writing, travel details or e-mails from writer friends. Beyond that I haven't given it much thought,'' she said. The novelist T. C. Boyle said he sometimes printed out e-mail messages, ''not so much in the way of offering future scholars insight into my work, but rather as a practical measure when dealing with editors or my agents -- just so I can have a record of the correspondence.''
The issue recently arose for the author Rick Moody when he considered selling some of his papers, before deciding against it. ''When I was done with all of this, the dealer who had been through everything asked, 'Where's the e-mail? Are you saving it?' This sort of brought to mind that there was a policy, though it was a very unmethodical policy,'' Moody said. ''I save e-mails if they're interesting to me. I don't save every single e-mail that comes from Little, Brown about a book that's soon to be published. That stuff mostly seems kind of dull to me,'' he said. ''But I have the message from the day when they first wrote and said they LIKED the new book. Those are the criteria, pure and simple. Astonishment, joy, passion of any kind.''
One writer who systematically saves his e-mail is Nicholson Baker, whose book ''Double Fold'' was a cri de coeur about what is lost when libraries convert newspapers and other rare materials to microfilm. ''I regret deleting things afterward, even sometimes spam,'' Baker said. ''I've saved almost everything, incoming and outgoing, since 1993, except for a thousand or so messages that went away after a shipping company dropped my computer. That amounts to over two gigabytes of correspondence -- I know because my old version of Outlook froze when I passed the two gigabyte barrier. When software changes, I convert the old mail into the new format. It's the only functioning filing system I have.''
Salman Rushdie is also a saver. ''Yes, I have saved my e-mails, written and received since the mid-90's when I started using computers regularly, and yes, I suppose any archive deal would include these (pretty extensive) e-mail files,'' Rushdie said. ''I e-mail a lot, so there's all sorts of stuff there, but don't ask me to remember what it is. Private correspondence, texts, business mail, jokes, everything.'' Rushdie said he had backed up a lot of his correspondence on an external hard drive, where he had also transferred messages from old computers.
This must be music to the ears of Rushdie's agent, Andrew Wylie, who hopes to broker the sale of the papers of writers in his star-studded roster. E-mail messages are ''a very, very valuable resource,'' Wylie said. ''I foresee volumes of e-mail correspondence that are frankly far more interesting than the traditional selection of written letters.'' He continued: ''Correspondence is such a slow form. It's like travel before airplanes,'' while e-mail ''heats up around issues and then quiets down,'' so scholars could potentially home in on particular themes or dates. A writer's papers would be ''considerably'' more valuable if they included e-mail, Wylie said. The question for an acquiring agency or library is how to prevent ''extrapolated diminishment of value,'' he added. ''I could certainly see Dave Eggers's collected e-mail correspondence appearing in 10 volumes in the course of the next 40 years, and I think it would be absolutely riveting,'' Wylie said of another client. (He said there were no immediate plans to sell Rushdie's or Eggers's e-mail correspondence.)
The Ransom Center -- the ''deep-pocketed collectors'' to which Franzen referred -- is beginning to acquire e-mail correspondence along with writers' papers. Its vast collection includes some papers of Hemingway and Allen Ginsberg, as well as the working archives of the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company, an arrangement that suffered after Bertelsmann, the German publishing conglomerate, acquired Random House in 1998. Since then, Knopf has not sent anything besides first editions to the Ransom Center and instead saved material for a centralized Random House archive under construction in Connecticut, spokesmen for Knopf and Random House said. For his part, Thomas F. Staley, the director of the Ransom Center, lamented the change would ''prove costly and inhibit scholarly research.'' In the future, Knopf hopes to send material both to the Ransom Center and the Random House archive, but the details haven't been worked out, a Knopf spokesman said.
Yet even if scholars were able to conduct research in the planned Random House archive -- which, unlike the Ransom Center, will not be open to the public -- there's no guarantee they'd be able to examine the company's e-mail correspondence, even if Random House kept it. Making e-mail available in a secure and accessible format is ''kind of a headache,'' Kris Kiesling, the Ransom Center's associate director for technical and digital services, said. ''When we first started acquiring authors' papers with e-mails in them, if it wasn't too voluminous, we'd attempt to print things out,'' he said. ''If we allow people to use them online, they run the risk of erasing something or changing something, either advertently or inadvertently.''
Libraries are looking to the National Archives for guidance. In the coming weeks, the archives expect to award a contract to a company to develop a system that would preserve e-mail correspondence and other electronic records ''free from dependency on any specific hardware or software, potentially forever,'' Kenneth Thibodeau, the director of the Electronic Records Archives program at the National Archives and Records Administration, said. Writers' correspondence may be at risk, but it's nothing compared to what the federal government is up against. The National Archives still have to sift through 32 million e-mail messages from the Clinton White House alone. Not even Salman Rushdie is that prolific, at least not that we're aware of. Only he -- and Andrew Wylie -- would know for sure.