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Farewell to the Letter: Hello OMG!@e-speak

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In the history of literature, the genre of the letter has been a very important element. Epistolary exchange has shed light on the lives of most of the important artists and historical figures -- and some less important figures that happened to have written well -- in the history of the world.

This light has revealed profound emotional difficulty and expressions of love... savored love, questioned love and destroyed love. Letters often exposed the foibles of family disputes to high comedy. The horrors of war were made memorable in letters from the front, while the onerous effects of preposterous government or ponderous church intrusion on the sensuous spirit were brought into the open. The letter, as a form, shed clear light on just about everything.

Now we have email. When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I was heartened. With the birth of the telephone and, much later, the television, good personal writing had abruptly disappeared. It was easier to pick up the phone and call. It was more fulfilling to watch a game show than to write to your lover. So, most people gave up writing letters, and an entire literary genre almost ceased to exist.

Email held out the possibility for a resurgence of the letter-form through use of the Internet. Perhaps now people would write to one another again, a consummation devoutly to be wished. The letter is so important to the history of human affairs that its disappearance was like the withering away of a human organ, one that spirits the blood and makes it flow. Email would restore that organ, I hoped.

It has become apparent, though, that email has not risen to the challenge.

Letters hold together. Emails often have nothing to grab on to. Letters call for contemplation and soulful enjoyment. Emails call for very little. Letters contain cries for understanding, personal descriptions of terrible events or recoveries of soul. Emails tap-tap-tap across a depthless surface, asking only that they not be ignored, which they so often are. Letters contain a beginning, a middle and an end. Emails are dull wisps of nothing, written in as few characters as possible. It is this kind of artless dodging of any importance that is the norm in email and in its little brother, texting. And texting's little brother, the tweet, is now the perfect email.

So my wish for the return of real writing has not been fulfilled. This is due to something I had not foreseen at all, which is that although the usual emailer may want exchange of some kind (perhaps a revised bill of lading, a recipe for goulash or the website address of Justin Bieber), an email generally is not exchange. It almost never cares for good writing. The email is a depthless, short, ungrammatical demand. There are slightly meaningful emails, to be sure, like those that talk about one's cat or how to screw in a light bulb. But even emails like these are random momentary conversations that go nowhere, or at least not far.

And now, horror of horrors, we have the Twitter novel, which somehow I feel is not destined -- at least yet -- to deny Dickens and all those others their insurmountable place in the pantheon. But it might. We will have seen the end of human transcendence on this planet when a chapter like number 42 in Moby Dick, on the whiteness of the whale, which is surely one of the most lyric and strange pieces of writing in the English language, is replaced by a chapter of 140 characters that have little to do with each other, as is the case with most tweets.

So, for the vast majority of this new language I propose the term "@e-speak." The word could be an adjective, a kind of descriptive term that refers simply to the nature of the email/tweet itself. For example, you read a short little tweet, of a few impenetrable words and signs, with no capital letters and no punctuation, something about nothing written in illiterate language. It rattles with @e-speak inconsequence. That's an adjective.

My use of the term would also make it into a noun. @e-speak is the language that, in another context, would be called gibberish. OMG!

Terence Clarke's new novel, The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, will be published next year.