Wikipedia and a bunch of nonscholarly places claim that epistolary novels don’t have to be made up of letters: “The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” (I have not yet, in a quick search, found a scholarly source to confirm that this understanding is shared by the critical community.) On basically etymological grounds, though, I’ve always reserved the term for novels that are made of epistles, and I unvented the term “documentary novel” to cover the ones that insert other kinds of “preexisting” documents. (“Unvented” comes from knitting doyenne Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s Almanac, coined as a way of acknowledging that surely someone, somewhere had already invented the thing she just did—but she had never seen it before.)
Thinking about it, though, I have some dim, more theoretically defensible reasons for that distinction, and they come down to questions of the intended audience. A letter is (almost) always from one person to another person. In my other book group, for example, we just read and discussed Les Liaisons dangereuses, and one of the big factors in that novel’s spectacular effectiveness is that quality of intimacy. A specific reader is addressed in a letter, by a specific writer, and therefore the totality of that letter’s meaning encompasses both the personalities of both parties and the relationship between them.
That’s not the case with those other kinds of documents. Take Parable of the Sower, which is formatted as diary entries. (Or actually, as a mix of diary entries and Earthseed scriptures.) Diary entries are great for giving a sense of the diarist as an observer and an analyst. (Bearing in mind that the cultural presumption of more unguarded honesty in a diary is rebuttable on sufficient demonstration.) But they’re essentially one-person shows. The only mind we see in action is the diarist’s, and the only interactions we see them having are the ones they reconstruct in their “private” writing.
(There is a whole other question—which some epistolary novels confront and some duck, and which documentary novels seem more likely to have to deal with—of how this manuscript came into the reader’s hands. We know how we got Lauren’s/Olamina’s journals: she saved them for the posterity of Earthseed, even going so far as to produce copies that could be safeguarded separately. They’re practically a midrash, and are essentially written to everyone/anyone. In Gene Wolfe’s work, these mechanics of transmission are often foregrounded, probably influenced by his engineering training; in the dramatis personae at the beginning of his On Blue’s Waters is a delightfully enigmatic pair of listings: Horn, “the protagonist,” and on the next page, the Rajan of Gaon, “the narrator.”)
Now in Parable of the Talents we’re getting a further complication of that documentary structure, as Daryl wrestles with. It’s a sufficiently significant break in narrative approach that it makes Paul ask whether Butler was revising her original concept. What I think it’s doing is introducing evidentiality to the “record” of Earthseed. That’s one of the things that disparate documents bring to a text, right? (If you were reading me back during the original Infinite Summer, you may recognize that this is a recurring interest for me.) By bringing in voices and documents and texts that aren’t Olamina’s, this book is giving us a more stereoscopic view, requiring us to do precisely the work Daryl describes of judging each piece of evidence ourselves in relation to the others. (It doesn’t look like we’re getting such a thing here, but I note that a common kind of interpolated document is a newspaper article, which will unavoidably activate questions of objectivity and truth and factuality.) With Olamina’s daughter assembling this text for us now, juxtaposing her mother’s journals with writings by her father and uncle and especially superseding each chapter’s material with her own commentary on the people and ideas it contains, we’re getting a very opinionated context for Olamina’s beliefs and actions. It’s not an unalloyed first-person view anymore.
On its own, I appreciate that as a narrative complexification and as a whole extra layer of nuance. But I also think there’s another thing going on that’s particularly intriguing. A couple weeks ago I mentioned one of the Earthseed scriptural passages as evidence of the community-building of the early “church” of Earthseed. I take the analogy here from studies of the early Christian church, and the kinds of documentary evidence that scholars use to reconstruct the lived practices of the people and communities who were converting the words of their prophet into a way of existence. That growth of faith communities starts with the doctrine, the words of the founder. But then the faith grows beyond the range of its founder; converts join and merge their own ideas with the doctrine they adopt, and offshoots spring up in other places and inevitably evolve their own slightly different variations. I think that’s what Butler’s giving us in this book. The first book was ultimately about Lauren’s distillation of her philosophy, and about that philosophy itself. Now here in the second book what we’re seeing is that philosophy being grown out into a religion instead, which means adherents and practices, no longer just ideas. It means other people. Olamina’s daughter, writing to us from some unspecified (right?) period far enough in the future that Olamina is dead in her past, may well be the first church historian of Earthseed. This is her critical record of how her mother’s ideas became a religion in the world around it.