Another Dispatch from Your Religion Correspondent

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.

6 thoughts on “Another Dispatch from Your Religion Correspondent

  1. Paul Debraski April 20, 2021 / 5:32 pm

    As I was reading what you posted here, it made me think about the way Olamina (more so than Lauren, I think, but maybe not) was writing and it made me think back to who she was writing FOR.

    Was she writing these entries as a means of documenting the history of Earthseed? In the beginning she says shew as writing more or less to keep herself sane. And yet, there are many instances (I have none at hand though) in which she throws in little asides and comments that make it sound like she assumes a reader. Whether future students of Earthseed or maybe even herself.

    The way she wrote that line about the condoms for herself. The way she has been throwing in things like, “interesting” at the end of a particularly noteworthy comment. Now, in fairness, I write things like that to myself too, but it feels like she intends people to read this.


    I love adding the stereoscopic effect of new narrators. It is really great for fleshing out a story. I like when an author writes the same story from two perspectives–same novel or sequel. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done like this though, with one narrator for book one and then multiple narrators, including the first one, for book two which are furthering the story along.

    If there were to be more books, (again, who knows), you could imagine there being a dozen narrators–the children of Earthseed.


    I also don’t know that I’ve read anything like a narrator who is an estranged daughter of a (for lack of better term) cult leader doing a kind of historical assessment of her parent. I’s an unusual series of layers of removal.

    I may be coming around to thinking this book is more complex than I realized. At least structurally.


    Oh and unvented is awesome/

    • Jeff Anderson April 24, 2021 / 4:12 pm

      Do you know the podcast Within the Wires? It’s a Night Vale Presents show that fits in that expansive definition of “epistolary”—each season is told in a different found-audio format. (Season 1 is “relaxation tapes” in some kind of cross between a hospital and a prison; the chilling term “security nurse” comes up pretty early. Season 2 is museum audio guides. Etc.) The fourth season is almost precisely the estranged-daughter-and-cult-leader thing. It’s all from the mother’s point of view, but half of each episode is a sermon the cult leader is giving to her followers, and the other half is a private audio letter to her daughter. To be honest, it’s my least favorite of the seasons (season 2 is so good), but it’s by far the most relevant here.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 26, 2021 / 10:47 pm

      I wonder if Lauren Groff’s Arcadia doesn’t nearly fit the daughter of a cult leader pattern. I’ve forgotten some of the specifics of the book (including precisely who its narrator is), but it cane to mind as I reflected a bit more on the topic. Groff is very well worth a read in any case; she is about as consistently good as any author I can recall reading.

      • Jeff Anderson May 1, 2021 / 5:37 pm

        Well there’s some funny serendipity: I just looked up Groff on this recommendation, and the title of her novel Fates and Furies sounded so familiar—because, it turns out, I have a still-unread ARC on my bookshelf! Guess I know what’s going to the top of the pile!

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston April 20, 2021 / 10:07 pm

    I love unvented, not the least of all because I recognize Zimmerman’s name from my wife’s occasional avidity for knitting. She’s a fan of Zimmerman.

    What you’ve said here put me in mind of the Gnostic Gospels. I don’t know much about them except that they’re regarded by many as heresies and offer different accounts of the Jesus stories than the ones more widely known and accepted. Makes me wonder whether to regard Larkin’s account here as a heresy or as a more reliable account.

    • Jeff Anderson April 24, 2021 / 4:19 pm

      So funny that you brought up the Gnostic Gospels—earlier this year, I copyedited a book on the Logia (sayings) of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, which is sort of the preeminent Gnostic Gospel. It was exactly what I had in mind when I was writing in this post about that reconstructive scholarship.

      I don’t think Larkin’s giving us any purported eyewitness stuff; she’s been pretty up-front about not having known her mother personally. So I think as far as heresy goes, the worst honest accusation that could be leveled against her would be that she’s giving us a hatchet job on her mother, presenting the evidence (particularly Olamina’s journals) in a biased, negative light on her mother as a person. I don’t happen to think that’s what she’s doing, but I can see adherents of Earthseed latching on to some of her commentary as unobjective or ungenerous. They’d have to ignore some of the rest (“she would have been a wholly admirable person”), but I could see it.

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