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FW Exclusive: The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman Emails Us About Hating Computers

The Guardian‘s STUART JEFFRIES wondered last Wednesday what ROBERT BROWNING’s emails to ELIZABETH BARRETT would be like today; if they were living at a time when we’re more likely to poke our friends on Facebook than write them a letter, let alone one that, to quote Browning, we would “press to [our] heart and bow [our] head upon.”

One can’t help but recognize the irony in Jeffries contemplating the topic on his blog.

We recalled this when we read New Yorker editor BEN GREENMAN’s newest book, CORRESPONDENCES. The “book” consists of seven short stories, six written in the form of a letter. The aesthetics are unique, with each story printed on thick paper in its own distinctive font and folded into neat squares; two stories per bundle, presented in a box. The seventh story, “What He’s Poised to Do,” is embossed on the cover of the case, and not only communicates a story to the reader, but begs his/her participation via postcard.

When FLAVORWIRE had the opportunity to correspond, via email, with the author, we asked him a few questions to uncover the story behind this singular endeavor. Our favorite bits of the interview after the jump.

On whether he’s nostalgic for a time before the Internets
“It’s not really nostalgia so much as it’s a highly specific, highly angry form of Luddism. I use email. I love email. I depend upon it. I’m depending upon it right now. But I also feel that it’s ruining everything. It’s screwing up emotional biorhythms, gutting relationships, and hurting people at their hearts. It is making hearts soft and unprepared. Letters, on the other hand, work the emotional core, the same way that certain kinds of exercise target core muscles.

“Here’s something that will seem like a digression but isn’t: you know in old soul songs, when people talk about receiving letters? Well, that suggests a time-frame that no longer exists. Sam Cooke, in “Ain’t that Good News,” says (sings) “I got a letter just the other day / telling me that she was on her way.” There’s something so nice about the layers of experience and emotion in that lyric. When did he get the letter? How long has she been gone? When is she coming back? Where did this layering go? Down the tubes, largely. There are also wonderful things about email and texts that I will not, at the moment, admit.”

On writing letters to deal with what he’d rather avoid
“Maybe because I’m a man who sometimes thinks in an inappropriate manner. I think, too, that letters are supremely elegant ways of dealing with dirty business: dirty meaning unpleasant or sexual. They give recipients time to process the message. Oh, also, I think that technology creates the illusion of progress. We think we’ve figured things out because we have miniaturized jukeboxes into the iPod or because we ride around on Segways. But the basic problems of male-female relations aren’t really solved, and may never be.”

On the inspiration behind the interactive Postcard Project
“The Postcard Project grew out of these same tensions: the exclusivity of literature set against the universality of writing. Or, put another way, not everyone is an author, but everyone expresses himself or herself. Why? Who draws those lines? Are they fair? Obviously, I have ideas about the answers, because I’ve spent the last however many years fashioning a career as an author, but I wanted to put my ideas to the test. I had a story written that was kind of skeletal, and I liked it that way, but I also wanted flesh on the bones. One day, it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one capable of fleshing it out.

“It was (it is) a story about romantic betrayal, and most everyone has had some access to that, whether they’re male or female, eight or eighty. I wanted that particular story, “What He’s Poised To Do,” which is actually printed on the case of Correspondences, to be written by as many people as possible, assuming that only one of them was me.”

If you live in New York, join Greenman tonight for the launch party for Correspondences at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

– Angelina Venezia