The cry of the stung author can be read in the letters section of almost any journal of criticism. It constitutes a separate art form, one that Miss Manners has long followed with interest.
So alike are these epistles in tone and form that one would think they had been copied from a Letter Writers' Guide, of the sort that used to be published to illustrate the proper forms for correspondence. This one remaining modern example of the art of conventional letter writing is most often produced by writers of books, but dramatists, filmmakers and their loyalists have also made notable contributions.
"I don't know what book Mr. Fitzwater has read, but it certainly wasn't mine," the letter opens. "Of course, he is entitled to his opinion. But I think your readers have the right to know some of the facts."
The facts are as follows:
Mr. Fitzwater is known to be constitutionally ill natured. It is widely recognized that he takes a disgruntled view of the arts in general, and in particular of the genre this work represents. Only slightly less certain is the fact that he obviously had a quarrel with his wife and an indigestible dinner immediately before approaching the work he was to review.
Mr. Fitzwater was totally unqualified to evaluate something he knows nothing whatever about. It is also a blatant conflict of interest, as Mr. Fitzwater has produced his own work on the same subject, and is known to have odd prejudices and personal disappointments within the field.
The petty errors that Mr. Fitzwater caught with unwarranted nastiness are isolated details unrelated to the important point being made, which Mr. Fitzwater seems to have missed altogether.
After a few phrases such as "totally incapable of understanding," "unbelievably shallow," "completely out of context," "one shudders to think how he would have reviewed 'Hamlet,' " and "never in my career have I been subjected to," the letter-writer concludes with the selfless hope that, in the future, the journal will give others the benefit of more intelligent and disinterested reviews.
Miss Manners' attention to this is not based merely on the enjoyment she gets from perusing volumes of examples of Letter Explaining an Apparent Slight: "Believe me, my attentions to Miss -- -- were never intended for anything more than common courtesy." Or Inquiry for Baggage: "Sir -- I left New York on the 1st inst., on the 4:20 p.m. train via C.B. & Q.R.R., and arrived in this city at 6 a.m. yesterday. As customary, I gave my baggage check, No. 852, to the Express Agent on the train, taking his receipt for same. He now returns it to me, saying my baggage has not arrived ... "
That amusement was always mixed with an acknowledgment of the practicality of learning proper and set ways of expressing common matters in writing so as to avoid awkwardness and misunderstandings. Failure to know how to write a conventional letter of sympathy or of congratulation, in times when every expression is supposed to be improvised and original, has led many people into unintended slights, the use of printed greeting cards, or simply omitting such serious and basic courtesies entirely.
However, the new form letter is not a good one. Miss Manners is sorry to have to point out that it merely serves to repeat the fact of the original offense for readers who may have missed it, to alert everyone that the criticism made its mark, and to identify the author as a spoilsport who can dish it out but not take it.
That is not to say that Miss Manners disapproves of the impulse to write such a letter. She has not flinched from taking on powerful opponents. Let it be understood that Miss Manners only disapproves of actually sending such a letter.
It seems to her that the etiquette obligation in such cases is on the friends and supporters of the wounded author. There are times when one's loved ones have an obligation to threaten to hold one's head under water in the bathtub until an irresistible urge that must be resisted has passed.
In their further obligations, study of the form letter itself will be of great use. In times of public criticism, it is always proper for one's immediate circle to assure one that any attacker is stupid, uninformed, prejudiced, disgruntled and totally alienated from the tastes and judgments of the vast majority of intelligent people.
I want to use sealing wax on some of my letters. Is it appropriate to use it on both business and personal letters? The various colors of wax have different meanings, which I have forgotten. Can you remind me? And lastly, what type of design is acceptable to press into the wax?
Miss Manners gathers that you are thinking of something along the lines of the code for flowers or positions in which a fan is held (e.g., the foxglove meaning "insincerity," and the fan carried in the right hand meaning "You are too willing"). No one has ever been able to memorize all of these, so people who attempt to use such complicated codes are unfortunately left talking to themselves.
Anyway, among purists, only dark red sealing wax will do, except that black is, of course, used during mourning.
A crest, cipher, initials or motto may be used. There was once quite a vogue for noble ladies to use personal mottoes -- the Comtesse de Mortal's "Et puis apres?" ("And what then?") was one of Miss Manners' favorites. Perhaps you could use this space instead of your automobile bumper.
Miss Manners does not advise you to frighten businesses with such seals. Your friends will be quite startled enough. Besides, there is no wax color that means "Your computer is in error."
1988, United Feature Syndicate Inc.