My first book, Writing to the World: Letters and the Origins of Modern Print Genres, is now forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press (Spring 2018). Writing to the World recovers the foundational role that letters played in facilitating the rise of print between 1665 and 1840. I introduce the concept of the “bridge genre” to explain how epistolary writing mediated manuscript and print cultures, thereby initiating new readers and writers into the practices of print publication. A bridge genre enables change by transferring existing textual conventions to emerging modes of composition and circulation. I argue that the letter was the preeminent bridge genre of the long eighteenth century, as many of our most recognizably modern forms—from the newspaper and novel to the biography, scientific journal, and book review—developed through a reliance on letters for content and format. In the 1660s, the first British and American newspapers transposed manuscript newsletters, establishing journalistic norms. By the early 1700s, authors including Daniel Defoe and Richard Steele created standards for periodical publication by requesting reader feedback in the form of letters, simultaneously generating new ideas about authorship and the categories of public and private. Novelists, from Richardson through Austen, responded to these developments by positioning the novel as a commentary on epistolary practices and partitioning the concepts of fiction and nonfiction.
My book thus offers a model for the process of genre formation in literary history: new genres arise when new media become accessible and intelligible to a mass readership. The bridge genre allowed people to see themselves as connected by networks of communication—as members of what they called “the world” of writing. This phrase, which became ubiquitous as authors analyzed their literary marketplace, implied both global scope and what we would now term a “media environment.” In order to recuperate its eighteenth-century meaning, I combine techniques of genre theory with those of material textual studies and the digital humanities. The multiple “rises” that scholars have documented in this period—of print, the public sphere, the novel, and the newspaper—converged on a pervasive, but overlooked, strategy: the use of the letter to collect, present, and distribute information.