Lenny Letter is doing something exceptional — but also exceptionally old-fashioned.
The feminist arts newsletter, created by “Girls” star Lena Dunham and her writing partner Jenni Konner, isn’t just sharing links and photos and gifs, as a million popular personal newsletters have before. Instead, it has in-depth interviews with the likes of Chenai Okammor, a dear friend of Sandra Bland; original fiction by writer Jenny Zhang and Dunham herself; and even an activist call to action: “Why You Should #AskYourMother About Life Before Roe.”
Tuesday’s official launch letter is a whopping 7,300 words long: It includes a lengthy interview with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a piece on the writer and architect June Jordan, and an essay on the quote-unquote “denim explosion.”
All are original pieces of content, and all are shared exclusively in the once-archaic e-mail newsletter format.
Almost like a Web site — but also (very deliberately) not.
“When it is read in the e-mail newsletter format, it’s so much cleaner, and the images and the words — it’s almost a throwback to reading magazines,” said Jessica Grose, the editor at Lenny Letter. “We want that kind of experience. We want the individual experience.”
A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on
Newsletters have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately. Velvet-voiced podcasters drop endorsements for TinyLetter; MailChimp’s podcast ad has become its own meme; and artists, writers and musicians have signed up for their own newsletters in droves.
Where the first generation of personal newsletters might’ve been big on curation and self-promotion, projects like Dunham’s are beginning to stretch the genre in new directions, suggesting the lowly newsletter can be an upstart news platform, an open diary — even a form of art.
There’s Laura Olin’s Everything Changes, which literally changes formats with each edition; Pep Talk, which consists of a single GIF; the experimental Hello Prompt, which invites subscribers to send in short pieces of writing, making it less a broadcast than a communal writing project. Charlotte Shane’s “Prostitute Laundry” has chronicled, diary-like, her feelings on her relationships and her sex life. (Shane, understandably, is a pseudonym.) A recent issue includes 3,000-plus words ruminating on a trip to California, a conversation with an ex and a quote from French writer Hélène Cixous.
There has, of course, always been something slightly subversive about the personal newsletter — at least in its current wave. Interviewed by the Guardian in March, the culture writer Durga Chew-Bose argued that newsletters are often a fundamentally feminist project, a way for women to avoid “public appraisal” and return “to a culture of correspondence,” prefaced on community.
Ann Friedman, a freelance writer who has penned a popular newsletter for the past two years, wouldn’t say her letter took it that far. (“I really wish I was the kind of person who was like, ‘Let’s revamp this entire medium!’” she said. “It was much more selfish than that.”) But even the Ann Friedman Weekly — relatively conventional, by Lenny Letter standards — is voice-y and personal and unusually communal, frequently promoting the work of other writers and creators.
That’s a quality that has carried over to “Everything Changes,” perhaps the premiere newsletter of the new experimental set. Its content shifts every week, from GIF stories to charts to interesting archive photos from the New York Times. Olin, who famously ran social media for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says her original vision was “more of a participatory e-mail than just a broadcast message.”
In a recent edition, she hosted something she called the “Monster Advice Exchange” — an open, crowd-sourced Google doc where readers could submit personal questions anonymously and receive responses from their peers.
“Does anyone have any ideas on how to stop a cat from urinating on beds and couches?” one query began.
“I’m broke and have no ‘real job’ hopes bc I’m a writer,” read another. “LOL.”
This, alas, is a problem that independent newsletter producers face, as well — not cat pee, that is, but just paying the bills. Sponsorships are an option for some high-profile writers. (Olin partnered with the Awl earlier this year.) Advertising is also a possibility, but many independent producers don’t have the resources to contract it; and even if they did, newsletters — much like podcasts — tend to make traditional advertisers skittish.
What will keep the lights on at Lenny? It’s a little too soon to say. The newsletter has signed on a full-time staff of three, so it will have to figure that out eventually. Dunham has hinted at some kind of e-commerce aspect, collaborating with “independent female artists and designers.” Grose is also hopeful that, as time goes on, the letter’s subscriber counts will grow enough to persuade advertisers to jump on board. It should help that it’s helmed by a name like Dunham — and can snag interviewees like Clinton.
“We have been lucky, as creators and as women, to have had our voices heard,” the inaugural issue reads. “We wanted to create a space where new voices were safe to speak loudly.”
When you think about it, that’s kind of a radical idea: an e-mail, of all possible things, leveraged as a platform for empowerment and community.
More newsletters to follow:
- Handwritten Newsletter, by Mathias Jackobsen
- Intermittent Theories, by Lucy Morris
- Pep Talk, by Sami Main
- Gif Your Life, by Meghann Farnsworth and Masuma Ahuja
- Uptalk, by Leila Cohan-Miccio
Liked that? Try these:
- Lena Dunham announces ‘Goop meets Grantland’ millennial newsletter
- Is the Internet hurting proper English? lol no.
- Lena Dunham and the challenges of memoir
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Laura Olin ran social media for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The story has since been updated to say she ran social media for Obama’s 2012 campaign.