I hope that you are reading, furious writers of the open letter, because I want to thank you.
In today's crass, tweet-fueled world, there is something exquisite about this throwback to communication of yesteryear. The letter is a literary form that has been nearly extinct in favor of dashing off a quick email or a transient text. You, epistolary artisans, are resurrecting a high art.
Who is your inspiration? Is it Georgia O'Keefe, whose impassioned addresses to Alfred Steiglitz made your peony blush? Is it the young Ernest Hemingway, who inspires the bloodthirsty misogynist in you? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald (do you also write blind drunk)?
None of you named a writer of the modern "open letter," did you? You know, the author of one published in the annals of the New York Post online or even the Hollywood Reporter? Of course you didn't. "Open letters," in their current incarnation, barely resemble letters written from one human being to another, conveying something with discretion and cleverness. Not all open letters are made equal, of course (this is the part where I address my naysayers, to silence any one who might topple my soapbox), and there are brilliant historical precedents like Emile Zola's "J'accuse." Unfortunately, these exceptions are largely in the rear view mirror.
You see, this is actually a critique of the trend of the open letter, in all of its asinine inescapability. #Sorrynotsorry, dear reader -- it's the nature of the open letter to trick you into reading it.
If you feel like your attention is being abused, relax, this is a convention of the open letter. Remember Dylan Farrow implicating her readers by asking us what our favorite Woody Allen movie was before revealing a truly harrowing story of child abuse at the director's hands? Or Mackenzie Dawson's 'A Working Mother's Open Letter to Gwyneth Paltrow,' which began by sardonically telling the titular actress "I really enjoyed your recent comments to E! about how easy an office job is for parents, compared to the grueling circumstances of being on a movie set." Spoiler alert: the rest of the letter was markedly less fawning.
"Hey," you may say (but of course, I can't hear you, because an open letter isn't really "open" to your input, reader), "how dare you attack writers with concerns as serious as abuse or child rearing in a pithy format such as this?" And I say: "Precisely." It is an entirely inappropriate forum for issues of such gravity, which would be much better addressed in an op-ed, a blog, the front page of the Times (aim high), or even a letter to Dear Prudence, genuinely seeking counsel. It isn't that these open letter writers should be ashamed of their plights, but they have chosen an inherently disingenuous form that jeopardizes the content.
Is the announced object of the open letter ever the true intended audience? You see, the open letter is a slippery vehicle -- it's rarely what it seems. They may appear to be direct addresses, but they are often vehicles for "regular" citizens -- such as myself -- to access (or accuse) people of some celebrity.
Christina McDowell addresses her "Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself," detailing an excruciating family ordeal at the hands of her corrupt banker father, to the "Kings of Hollywood." I applaud McDowell's content if not her form. Dawson's letter, however, a narrative of relentless commutes and unaffordable child care, is all too familiar to many women, but her frustrations play second fiddle to her purported goal: vilifying Paltrow.
Perhaps the lowest form of the open letter is that typified by a lover of Dwayne Wade's addressing Gabrielle Union, his then fiancé, detailing their sex life and featuring especially repugnant gems like "he makes me feel so comfortable on your side of the bed." Ouch. Double-ouch that it was probably read by Union's grandmother, co-workers, and dry cleaners.
The pain of these letter writers is real, and it is sloppily spilled over the Internet for all of our gawking pleasure.
Now that I've got your attention: I'd like to thank Daniel Jones for all of my painstakingly crafted "Modern Love" submissions that have gone unpublished; I'd like to give a shout out to Kendrick Lamar for writing my ex's favorite soundtrack by which to bang other women; I'd like to advise Beyonce to get fat or old already, because for God's sake, you have been fueling my physical insecurities for at least ten years. Cormac McCarthy: stop making me a terrible writer by proxy! Kanye and Kim: stop making my checking account ever-inadequate! And finally, to my late grandpa: resurrect yourself and acknowledge that I have exceeded your expectations and become a functional adult.
See, dear reader? Wasn't that pleasant? What are very real, legitimate, human problems worth exploring become at best passive aggressive salves for our own pain and at worst hysterical caricatures contributing to the internet epidemic of "dumbing down" complex social problems. Open letters offer the false promise of a dialogue that could better be had in a town hall meeting or even a Reddit open source. But responses are usually from anonymous commenters that have great potential to further the writer's injury. And responses from the "intended," like Woody Allen's comeback to his estranged daughter, create a conversation with all of the grace and privacy of Jerry Springer's stage (with a tasteful jazz soundtrack).
Open letters should be short, so I will close. But there must be a plea, a boycott, a call to arms for the invisible audience that I assume is left asking: "What now, Sarah?" If you must rectify a wrong, I ask you to do something revolutionary, and write the intended reader an actual, physical letter. Put your words -- which deserve a far better home -- on the page, and mail it to the intended. If your grievances demand a larger audience, then elect not to hide behind this popular form that whiffs of self-aggrandization. Instead, I propose a new form, the Angry Yawp, ideally available in audio form, in the grand tradition of the town crier: "Hear Ye, Hear Ye, this is important, and every single last one of you better listen."
As my grandpa used to say, "Just don't piss on me and tell me it's raining."
Follow Sarah Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SarahTTennessee