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An Open Letter to Writers of Open Letters

To those who feel compelled to address the world from Facebook, Twitter, and email chains, here is a message: No one is listening, least of all Luther Vandross.

Visible Markers, 1997, Allan McCollum
Courtesy the artist and Brooke Alexander, Inc.

We need to have a talk, under the illusion of its taking place in private but actually for anyone to read. Also, the talk will be unilateral and you will never respond to it. Ready? It doesn’t matter, because I’m not listening to you!

The practice of writing open letters must stop. Sure, it was a creative epistolary form back in the days of the Bible, and was used effectively throughout history by such figures as Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and Luther Vandross.

But now every Tom, Dick, and Luther with internet access can write an open letter for potentially everyone to read, and most of our discourse is already public (I actually originated that last phrase in 1996, which is no. 8 on my list of 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me, just after no. 7—“I murdered a man in Laos on 6/19/2002 and have never been apprehended!”). Writers of open letters, it’s time, for the following reasons, to retire the form, one as hackneyed as the enumeration of arguments through bullet points:

  • First, there’s the arrogance of presuming that your letter will really be read by the public, not to mention the greater hubris of signing the letter with your location and date, as if the act of writing it is a historic event whose place and time we must note for the ages. Chances are, few others care enough about the issue to read it, so people end up shamelessly larding their letters with search-engine-friendly phrases like, oh, I don’t know, “Justin Bieber haircut” and “Angelina Jolie nude” and “Did Luther Vandross ever really write an open letter? He didn’t, right? It was just a joke, like I thought at first?”
  • Intervention by letter is an emotionally unhealthy way to address something. If you’re upset about something, therapists often do recommend writing a letter to the person who has upset you—but not sending it. You reap all the benefits of self-expression without the interpersonal conflict. Is it really worth expressing your frustration over Apple’s takeover of digital media to have an awkward encounter the next time you run into Steve Jobs at the supermarket?
  • If you’re writing an open letter and not an editorial or essay, you probably lack any real opinion-making power. When’s the last time Barack Obama wrote an open letter? Answer: 1966, “An Open Letter to the State of Hawaii Concerning the Difficulties of Procuring Long-Form Birth Certificates, from Barry Obama, Age Five Years and Two Months.”
  • Speaking of Obama, a few people or entities to whom there should be an immediate moratorium on writing open letters: presidents; the Supreme Court; billionaires. They are too busy and important to ever read it, except for Bill Clinton, because he’s so insecure he has a Google alert set up for his name.

If you absolutely must write an open letter, at least conform to a few tropes of real letter-writing, such as mixing in breezy updates about your own life. For example, in an open letter to Mike Huckabee, you might write, “In conclusion, sir, I, for one, am extremely grateful you have dropped out of the running for president, as I find morally reprehensible your position that abortion should never be an option, including in cases of rape or incest. P.S. By the way, last night, Sheila and I watched I ? Huckabees. We both thought of you! P.P.S. I sincerely hope your own daughter is never raped and impregnated by one of your backwoods cousins.”

I would also call for a ban on the short semi-open letter that’s taken root on Facebook and Twitter, such as “Tuesday afternoons, why are you so interminable?” or “Oh, 30 Rock, how I love you,” or “Dear Luther Vandross, I wonder what music you’d be making now if you hadn’t died in 2005.”

Writers of open letters, since you’ve read to the end of this letter and haven’t rebutted me, I assume you’re in agreement and, therefore, the matter can be considered officially closed.

Yours in meta-openness,

Teddy Wayne
New York City
May 2011

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press) and Kapitoil (Harper Perennial). The winner of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award, his work frequently appears in the New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. More by Teddy Wayne