Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book review: The Letters Page Vol.2

Hey you. 

I don't know about where you are, but from where I sit it's raining, it's chilly, and there's more than a subtle imposition of Autumn nudging up against by bare ankles today. 

So, it's probably about the time of year I start settling-in with a blanket, a pair of socks long enough to cover my chilly bits, and a good read - such as Volume 2 of the literary journal The Letters Page

Full disclosure: I was sent this copy in exchange for an honest, independent, review (I know! And there's me always going on about how I never get anything for free ...). 

I should probably also say that I have submitted a piece of work for consideration in Volume 3 but this review is not linked in any way to that submission process. If anything though, the fact that I've submitted something is merely evidence of my genuine interest in the publication, because why would I have submitted to it in the first place?! Now, let's move on to the journal itself ... 

But hang on though, because I simply can not talk about the book's contents until I've squealed over shown you the packaging! 

This how Vol 2 arrives: in style, dressed in its own perfectly form-fitting box-envelope (not a roll of brown, impossible-to-find-the-end-of, parcel tape in sight):

Show me any lover of stationery or mail art who wouldn't swoon when a handsome, sturdy, printed kraft card envelope like that presented itself on their doormat. I certainly did. (Except when I came into the hallway mine was still partly dangling from the letterbox which, understandably, didn't want to part with it too soon. And so it was tantalising from the very start!) 

And from then on its design continued to delight.
The Letters Page is published by the School of English at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Book Ex Machina, a specialist in special edition, small runs, of art books; so the high level of design and detail in this journal comes as no surprise.  They refer to its design as a 'celebration of the printed object' ... and it is certainly that.

As someone who agonised over the details of my own niche book ... I can really appreciate all the extra touches that go into making something feel special.  The embossed front cover even folds out to reveal this beautiful stamp-inspired end-paper design:
If you're anything like me you'll already be a little bit smitten with The Letters Page Vol 2 even before you've begun to look at its contents. But  before we look inside, what I haven't explained yet is that:

  • it's called The Letters Page - as each submission is sent in via the old-school, snail-mail, post. And the majority of the articles begin n the style of a letter, giving them a particularly intimate feel - like they've been sent directly to us, for our eyes only.   
  • it's published  and edited by writer Jon McGregor - who I first discovered through his short story collection This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. And it was through link hopping from his website, to read more about that book, that I first heard about The Letters Page

 Right then, how about we start turning some of those pages?

So, exactly what kind of publication is The Letters Page?

The Letters Page is a literary journal - which, I suppose, you could describe as a collection of essays and musings that are satisfyingly more substantial and esoteric that the other kinds of articles you find yourself clicking-on via social media day-in day-out! They're a mixture of the sort of piece you might find in a thought-provoking magazine, some you'd read for academic purposes (complete with footnotes!) and some that feel like ... well ... like letters

None of which is any kind of a bad thing. In fact I really embraced this collection and felt smarter after reading it. It reminded me of just how absorbing it can be to research and read around a particular subject - something I adored doing at university, and which I'm re-indulging in while researching for my novel.  Which brings us to the idea of  'theme' ...

The theme of Vol 2 is 'Influence, copies and plagiarism'

And really - to someone who has produced an entire book made from snippets of other books, and who once co-hosted a blog called The Copy & Paste Project  - this couldn't have been a better topic to dive into! 

Curated in this volume are ten stylistically very different articles from contributors, plus letters from the publisher and editor which bookend the other pieces.

And they really do offer a wide variety of both interpretations of the theme, and genres/styles through which to explore it. For example ...

  • Kit Caless's feature, 'Who Knows the Origin of Anything?', consists of a series of letters to someone who set up an Instagram account which 'borrowed' his idea of documenting the carpets inside Wetherspoon's pubs via Tumblr. In the letters, Caless considers the nature of copyright in an age of multi-platforms: can you expect to have the same name, the same idea, and carry it across each social media platform? Can you claim any idea as yours and yours alone? 
  • There's a letter from poet Andrew McMillan exploring the idea of being a 'copy' when you're following in your father's poetic footsteps. 
  • Joe Dunthorne's contribution is a short story 'Delete These Exact Letters', in which only uses one single vowel - 'e'. The footnotes explain that the piece is influenced by the idea of 'univocalism', a structural exercise he acknowledges was directly influenced by the Oulipo group and Georges Perec.  
  • And Rowena Macdonald creates an entire backstory inspired by the people she 'meets' when she finds their lost correspondence tucked inside a secondhand book. (Anyone keeping up with my hashtag #thewhitbypapers on Instagram will know that both I, and my IG community, are a little obsessed right now over all the possible stories behind the letters in the hoard of vintage papers I recently found!) 

But perhaps the piece that has stayed with my longest is 'Thou Shalt Not Steal' Darren Chetty's discussion of how rewarding it can be - rather than starting from scratch each time - to produce something which "combines existing work into something new and coherent". Chetty's focus is on how sampling in hip-hop can be read as a creative act, a kind of folk-art, that borrows from existing music and creates a new collage style of its own.

Needless to say - even though his is a perspective drawing from music, Chetty's approach chimed so, so much with my own way of working on Snipped Tales ... especially as his piece begins with him planning to compose his own letter about plagiarism from snippets of other peoples' letters, before he gives it up as too tricky. It really couldn't have been any more appropriate for me if it tried, and I have a feeling I'll be delving further into his work at some point.

TL;DR / in summary ...
  • I thoroughly enjoyed my review copy of The Letters Page Vol 2.
  • I digested it over breakfast, at a leisurely pace, for several days, and I've dipped back in once or twice since. 
  • It's is a substantial read, but it's also accessible, refreshing and beautifully curated
  • Yes in parts it's slightly highbrow, and asks careful reading and concentration from you  ... but - equally - there's also a discussion of a colour chart for urine so ... it all evens out in the end. (The tone of the book I mean, not the colour of the urine ...).
The Letters Page:Vol 2 is for *you* if ...
  • ... if you're interested in Austen Kleon's 'Steal Like an Artist' manifesto - there's some similar ground covered here but from interesting new angles. 
  • ... if you love short, manageable, articles, perhaps online or in magazines, but ... you occasionally feel like reading something a bit more thought provoking than the regular 'hot takes' or click bait.
  • ... if you enjoy accessible literary and academic articles. 
  • ... if you like to see an issue tackled from a wide variety of viewpoints.
  • ... if you want an introduction to an inclusively broad variety of writers.
  • ... if you love the feel, smell and design of physical books! 
  • ... if you like feeling smart, clever and a little bit pleased with yourself for taking time to read and absorb something new! 
  • ... if you want to treat yourself to something that will feed your mind as well as satisfying your design cravings.

Where to find The Letters Page ...
So what do you think? 
  • Is it your kind of thing? Something you might turn to? Something you'd like to see gracing your doormat?
  • Are you going to hop over to their social media and maybe have a closer look at what they're up to?
  • Any other fresh, creative, intelligent publications you'd like to recommend?
Do get in touch, here, or via any of my other online homes. Although, I guess by letter would be the most appropriate way ... 



  1. Thank-you for this interesting and thoughtful review, Julie - I love 'short forms' and it sounds right up my street. I also have a DD with a birthday fast approaching :).

  2. PS I have just ordered a copy :).


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