In defense of the open letter (except when Dan Snyder writes one)


Miley Cyrus performs at the MTV Video Music Awards, Aug. 25, 2013. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
December 29, 2013

Every few months, a submission will arrive in our inbox at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency titled “An Open Letter to Open Letters” or a variation thereof. In it, an assured writer will bemoan open letters, declaring them whiny, entitled and obsolete. The tone is more ironic than malevolent, but just the same, as an editor of a Web site’s “open letters” feature, someone who has championed them for close to seven years now, I can’t help but take these snarky open letters about open letters a little personally.

I’ll be the first to admit that not all open letters are particularly interesting or worthwhile. Read 30 to 40 a week and it’s hard not to view many open letters as nothing more than self-serving rants because, well, many are self-serving rants.

The moniker alone suggests self-
indulgence and false gravitas. Why pen a long-winded letter when 140 characters will do? Why not confront your target privately? Send an e-mail or put a note on a car windshield. Just leave the rest of us out of it.

This has been a banner year for high-profile open letters. Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder used the form to defend his team’s name. Singer Sinead O’Connor penned one to offer singer-actress Miley Cyrus career advice. A couple of weeks ago, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden wrote a lengthy open letter to “the people of Brazil.”

Snyder tried to pen a thoughtful argument for keeping the Redskins’ name, but to some, his defense read as limp, miscalculated sentiment.

O’Connor’s warning to Cyrus about the underhandedness of the entertainment industry toward young female artists made some cogent points. But Cyrus responded with a few less than appreciative tweets, causing O’Connor to write another letter to her. Then another. And another. O’Connor might have been more successful had she communicated the old-fashioned way: by having her people contact Cyrus’s people.

I will let others judge the merits of Snowden’s plea for political asylum in exchange for investigation of the NSA’s surveillance of Brazil’s government. I’ll only say my first thought upon learning he had chosen an open letter to convey his message was: “Not another one.”

Despite this overabundance of open letters, I will rise in their defense.

Some of the most important documents in history have come in the form of open letters: The New Testament is full of them; Émile Zola’s 1898 open letter “J’Accuse!” was an impassioned indictment of the French government’s corruption and anti-Semitism; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” helped set the framework for the civil rights movement. Open letters are still used to promote and spur social change.

The letters we publish on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency don’t have nearly as lofty goals. Most are just irreverent dispatches about daily occurrences. Letters such as “An Open Letter to the Guys Who Kicked the Soccer Ball Over the Fence and Asked Me to Toss It Back to Them, Thus Scarring Me For Life” and “An Open Letter to Pumpkin-Flavored Seasonal Treats.”

But every once in a while, we’ll receive an open letter that illustrates how powerful the medium can be. A couple of years ago, we posted “An Open Letter to My Sister Who Accepted My Friendship Request On Facebook Sixteen Months After She Died” by Jeannie Zusy. In it, Zusy explained how she still frequents her sister’s hacked Facebook page, and sometimes considers writing on her wall.

“Seems the only way to stop my what some might call unhealthy habit, would be to ‘unfriend’ you,” Zusy wrote, “but that’s just too sad. I can’t bring myself to unfriend you, I’ve tried, and I just can’t. And also, the truth is, I’m glad that when I look at my list of Facebook friends, you’re still here.”

Zusy pulled off a tricky feat of writing; she shared something personal in a public forum without coming off as self-righteous or cheesy. These sorts of open letters aren’t looking to change the world; they’re just honest, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant reflections about the world we live in. They show that not all open letters are riddled with self-aggrandizement and pettiness.

This wasn’t the best year for the form, it’s true. It was a little too full of celebrity-penned missives. Let’s take a break from those for a while. If you’re a prominent person looking to share your point of view, just leave “Open Letter” out of it. Come up with a more fitting name instead, like “Public Rant” or “Obvious Defense” or “Personal Revelation I Will Eventually Regret.” Those I would be fine with reading more of in 2014.

Monks is the managing editor of the humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle