Scarcely any species of composition deserves more to be cultivated than the epistolary style—Samuel Johnson, 1751
Such [letters] as are written from wise men are of all the words of men the best
—Francis Bacon, 1597
When people try to define what distinguishes letters from other forms of writing, they usually focus on the physical—the movements of the wrist as you write, the ribbon of ink unfurling across the page, an envelope plopping onto a doormat, plump with promise, unfolding a crisp sheet of paper. We’ve lost touch with the genre because we’ve largely abandoned the old material forms of pen, paper and post. Yet the value of letters is not dependent on the physical form they take.
The one-on-one letter exchange—even in a public, digital format—is ideal for forming, expressing and presenting ideas, can heal rifts and promote mutual understanding and enrich the wider discourse. The genre itself encourages an approach to knowledge and relationships that is uniquely valuable.
Flexing the Writing Muscle
Samuel Johnson points out that “letters are written on all subjects, in all states of mind” and therefore denies that there can be any such thing as a proper epistolary style: “a letter has no peculiarity but its form.” But, even as he denies that there is anything specific about the medium, Johnson highlights the letter’s most salient feature—its subject and style are generally tailored to a specific recipient: “Letters are written to the great and to the mean, to the learned and the ignorant … Nothing can be more improper than ease and laxity of expression, when the importance of the subject impresses solicitude, or the dignity of the person exacts reverence.”
Being able to express yourself well in writing is one of the most useful life skills, in every situation from texting a friend to filling out a job application—and it’s something most people struggle with. A letter exchange is an ideal way to hone that ability because good writing is fundamentally about communication.
Writing can easily become boring, obscure or mannered when writers, lost in their own thoughts, forget who they are writing for and either patronise the reader by stating the obvious—it’s common to underestimate your reader’s intelligence and overvalue your own—or attempt to impress her with jargon and waffle. As Johnson puts it,
Every man speaks and writes with intent to be understood … [but] when once he begins to contrive how his sentiments may be received, not with most ease to his reader, but with most advantage to himself, he then transfers his consideration from words to sounds … and, as he grows more elegant, becomes less intelligible.
Some, on the other, simply let the contents of their heads spill out across the page, as if emptying a sack of donated bric à brac onto a jumble sale table. I empathise. Writing can be terrifying, lonely work: it is really hard to imagine how it would feel to read what you have written. The audience is an abstract concept. Letter writing replaces that abstraction with a concrete person and, when he replies, you get real-time feedback on how your words are received. As I sit here writing this, right now, I am effectively talking to myself. I don’t know if anyone out there will read this: I have to take a leap of faith. Knowing that a correspondent is waiting to read and reply changes the game, inspires you and focuses your message. As Virginia Woolf puts it, “all good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the page and obey it.”
Since at least Socrates, we’ve known that dialogue is an ideal means of stress-testing ideas. As Richard Feynman says, “if you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand.” When you’re forced to present your ideas to another person—especially someone with ideas of her own—you quickly realise which parts of your argument are obscure, even to yourself.
When two experts correspond on an important issue within their field, it is of special value. We laypeople are rarely privy to discussions of this kind, which generally take place at academic conferences and seminars and in email conversations and it can therefore be difficult for us to evaluate the ideas we encounter in the course of our own reading. This is one of the major challenges facing the autodidact: well-written books and articles can be very persuasive—when we are unaware of the counterarguments.
This correspondence between evolutionary theorists Massimo Pigliucci and David Sloan Wilson, on human cultural evolution, demonstrates how effective a polite but insistent interlocutor can be at pointing out the potential problems and limitations of an impressive sounding hypothesis. (“Sorry to disappoint your expectations, but just because we are both proponents of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis it does not follow that we are going to see eye-to-eye on all issues,” Pigliucci warns Sloan Wilson tartly.) Compare this with this intellectual sparring between philosophers Ben Burgis and Jon Rosen on the concept of free will. At its best, this type of correspondence is not rude or aggressive—the focus is on the subject matter, not on personal grudges or dislikes—but it doesn’t pussyfoot around. A smidgeon of scholarly curmudgeonliness is detectable at times.
These letter exchanges differ from debates because there is no live audience and therefore far less temptation to pander to listeners, try to own your opponent or score cheap points. Correspondence is a courtship, not a lek. It’s much more equal and two-sided than a talk or an article. Strawmanning or misrepresenting someone’s ideas is far less tempting, when you are writing directly to him. Letter exchanges productively harness our deep-seated human instinct towards reciprocation. If you want your own ideas to be taken seriously, you have to persuade your correspondent that you have fully understood and considered hers.
In too many public interactions, we can—and do—avoid being directly confronted by our intellectual and political opponents. People with large Twitter followers can quote-tweet out-of-context sound bites in order to discredit their adversaries, allowing a deluge of admiring remarks from followers to drown out any objections and muting or blocking inconvenient detractors. Writers for partisan papers can misrepresent statistics and cherry-pick experts to present a slanted version of events. We can spot this happening when we know the subject at hand well, but tend to forget when we’re unfamiliar with the topic—a phenomenon Michael Crichton has dubbed the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia effect. It’s rare for people to contemplate their disagreements head on—in the way Sam Harris and Ezra Klein do here. Whenever we can, we slither away, we attack obliquely, we seal ourselves into echo chambers, we barricade our opinions against attack. But knowledge can only advance when we’re willing to face the painful realisation that we might be wrong. Or, worse, that we might be stupid.
Letters make this difficult feat easier for two reasons: they humanise our adversaries and ourselves; and they therefore encourage introspection and mutual exploration over dogmatism.
You can, of course, still write a hostile, petty, ill-informed, disingenuous, conceited or hectoring letter to someone (examples abound). If you’re determined to behave like a wankstain, you can always find a way. And, sometimes, people need to be told harsh truths about their pernicious views or damaging behaviour. But if you’re apt to be overly defensive and dismiss different opinions too quickly, the letter format nudges you in a better direction, ups the volume a bit when the better angel on your shoulder is speaking.
The Humanizing Effect
Virginia Woolf describes letter-writing as “the humane art which owes its origin to the love of friends.” In an article on Woolf, Maria Popova comments,
what more humane an act is there than correspondence itself—the art of mutual response—especially amid a culture of knee-jerk reactions that is the hallmark of most communication today? Letters, by their very nature, make us pause to reflect on what the other person is saying and on what we’d like to say to them in response. Only when we step out of the reactive ego, out of the anxious immediacy that text-messaging and email have instilled in us, and contemplate what is being communicated—only then do we stand a chance of being civil to one another, and maybe even kind.
Popova’s description highlights the pace of letter exchanges. Composing a letter takes less time than writing an article—articles demand too much time investment for most—but it’s slower than the drive-by shooting pace encouraged by most social media. The extra time involved allows many of us to override our first, rapid-fire impulses, driven by anger, hurt or anxiety. “When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate … however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself,” counsels Lewis Carroll—advice that is hard to take on Facebook or Twitter, but much easier within a correspondence.
The letter form forces us to address a person with a human face and name. It encourages us to personalise. This can have negative impacts. As Samuel Johnson warns, you may be tempted to flatter or cajole, rather than express your honest opinions because,
in writing to the world there is less constraint; the author is not confronted with the reader, and takes his chance of approbation among the different dispositions of mankind; but a letter is addressed to a single mind, of which the prejudices and partialities are known.
But, for the same reasons, letter writing can help you learn diplomacy. Hate mail is usually read and deleted. If you want a correspondence to be on-going, you have to convince your addressee that you write in good faith. As Carroll puts it, “Excellence in letter-writing requires … above all, tact.”
Unlike an article, in which all your ideas must be carefully marshalled and arranged before you begin, in a letter you can ruminate freely. You don’t have to include all your arguments at once—you can always clarify things in a follow-up letter. You have permission to work things out as you go, as Peter Boghossian remarks in this exchange on the nature of belief:
I’m going to take this in the spirit of writing a letter to an old friend. I’m not going to formally cite anything, or edit it beyond a quick read. (In fact, I’m writing this on my iPhone while I’m in-flight.) Rather, I want to pen a casual letter about something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now … I’m hoping we can clarify each other’s thoughts.
It’s quite rare to encounter people thinking aloud: public discourse is full of posturing, politicking, personal branding, virtue signalling and intellectual peacockery. But when we rush in like fools and stumble around in a thought landscape, we can make some very valuable serendipitous discoveries together. It’s liberating not to have the worry that you’ll be misinterpreted constantly uppermost in your mind. As a nineteenth-century letter writing primer explains,
In other productions there is the restraint induced by the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer’s shoulder and scrutinizing every word; while letters are written while the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers—free, natural, active, perfectly at home.
One helpful side effect of the interpersonal aspect of letters is that it prompts you to be more autobiographical: to trace the genesis of your ideas in your personality, situation and history. Letters often read like epistemological memoirs. Frequently, correspondents don’t just say here’s what I believe, but here’s how I came to believe this; not this is how I do things but here are all the different ways I’ve tried; here’s what I’ve settled on. This approach makes us less judgemental, more willing to see the views of others in the context of who they are as complete human beings. This exchange between two movement teachers provides a good example of an exploratory conversation of this type. This kind of introspection can lead to the recognition of some very surprising parallels, as in this extraordinary exchange, in which two people from opposite poles of the political spectrum analyse their motivations.
Intimacies Both Real and Imagined
Clyde Rathbone describes the letter exchange as “a podcast in written form.” While some read like carefully structured essays (see, for example, this correspondence on moral values), in general the genre elicits a style close to that of the spoken word. As Jane Austen tells her sister Cassandra archly, “the true art of letter-writing … we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth.” This creates a sense of proximity. Of the prolific letter writer Mme de Sévigné, Virginia Woolf writes,
We are very little conscious of a disturbing medium between us … she is living, after all, by means of written words. But now and then, with the sound of her voice in our ears and its rhythm rising and falling within us, we become aware … that we are, of course, being addressed by one of the great mistresses of the art of speech.
Like a spoken conversation, letter correspondence can seem unplanned, unforced, spontaneous. As Sam Shepard writes to his lifelong correspondent John Dark:
You can just sit down any old morning & have a conversation whether the person’s there or not. You can talk about anything & you don’t have to wait politely for the other person to finish the train of thought … And the great difference to all other forms of writing is that it is dependent to a large extent on the other person … You’re writing in response to or in relationship to someone else—over time.
Reading such an exchange can feel like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation one table over at a café. It’s this titillating sense of overheard confidences that made the epistolary novel so popular in the eighteenth century. Its most famous proponent, Samuel Richardson, began his foray into the form with a collection of fictional missives, designed as writing models, “Directing not only the requisite style and forms to be observed in writing familiar letters; but how to think and act justly and prudently, in the common concerns of human life,” as its subtitle announces. Richardson’s sample letters are mostly stilted and formulaic. But, in a few of the exchanges, we can detect the germ of a story—as in the series of letters, “which passed between an Aunt and her Niece, in relation to her Conduct in the Addresses made her by two Gentlemen; one a gay fluttering military Coxcomb, the other a Man of Sense and Honour.”
At the age of fifty, Richardson published his first novel, Pamela, in which he ventriloquizes the letters of a fifteen-year-old maidservant, who is attempting to avoid her employer’s sexual advances. Pamela exploits the illusion of immediacy that letters offer through a technique its author called writing to the moment. Richardson’s graphomaniac characters document events in real time, constantly blurring the boundaries between epistle and writer. “I can hardly write; yet, as I can do nothing else, I know not how to forbear!,” Pamela exclaims in one letter, “Yet I cannot hold my pen—How crooked and trembling the lines!” The letter medium allowed Richardson to fully inhabit the minds of his characters. His second novel, Clarissa, features the most extensive, profound, obsessive, claustrophobically intense exploration of the human psyche in the English language.
I think it’s time we revived this genre. As Andrew Curren has suggested, why not turn the epistolary novel into an e-pistolary novel for the internet age?
The atmosphere of intimacy that letters can create can encourage a candour that is rare in public discourse. This is the kind of honesty Denis Diderot is describing in this letter of 1762, to Sophie Volland, cited here:
One would perhaps accuse oneself more easily of planning a major crime than of some slight obscure feeling that was vile and base. It would be perhaps less painful to write in one’s account-book: I have desired the throne at the expense of its present occupant’s life, than to write, one day while I was at the bath with a large number of young men, I noticed one of surprising beauty and was not able to keep myself from approaching him.
We can find this same openness in Marc Maron’s interview with Louis CK (especially the final ten minutes), a no-holds-barred exploration of a friendship marred by self-destructive impulses on the one hand and envy on the other. This kind of radical honesty is moving because we all harbour the same kinds of petty impulses, the same unspoken desires. The most deeply personal feelings are also the most widely shared. So, paradoxically, someone courageous enough to bare her soul will often find herself speaking for all of us. As Alain de Botton observes, a good writer can speak with “an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows,” and, in revealing his own mental world, “give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution.”
Some of the public conversations on Letter already evince the kind of frank self-examination that can be profoundly revealing for both writer and readers. This exchange, for example, illuminates some of the ways in which difficult conversations can both hurt and heal. The correspondents discuss how sometimes we need to be provoked to anger and tears in order to fully comprehend the gravity of a cause—“I needed you to imagine the unthinkable. I want you to remember that rage and indignation. Never forget it.” And they muse on how some emotional responses, however irrational, are worth treasuring: “I own my sensitivity—it’s a sore spot I’m not really willing to allow to grow calloused.”
In any conversation, a balance must be sought between narcissism and reserve. To treat the other person as an unpaid therapist is self-indulgent. But vulnerability can also be a gift. The most vivid description of this phenomenon I’ve heard is in an interview with singer Amanda Palmer. Palmer describes meeting a breast cancer survivor, who would skinny dip in German lakes and who confessed that she enjoyed the reactions of other nude bathers when she emerged from the water to reveal a deeply scarred, flat chest. Palmer comments:
There is something delicious about … showing your scars and it doesn’t feel narcissistic … if you do it right … it actually feels like a generous act, because you act as a reminder to the other human beings, when you’re getting out of that lake, that any shame they may be feeling is unwarranted, unnecessary, and if they’re feeling discomfort and you’re not made uncomfortable by their discomfort, you can offer them a gift.
We should foster this kind of fearless commitment to the truth in both the private and the political realms. We must, as Salil Tripathi urges, “reflect on the silences, the pauses and the parts that we ignore because it might make us uncomfortable.” One of the things that will give us the courage to emerge, dripping yet unabashed, from our personal lakes, is the knowledge that we are heard, that we are part of a conversation.
Towards a New Republic of Letters
In her review of Horace Walpole’s letters, Virginia Woolf speculates that “the growth of writing as a paid profession” and the demands of the “great gluttonous public” led people to turn away from correspondence in the late nineteenth century. Now, we are living in the post-professional era. Writing has been democratised: anyone can start a blog, make a public viral post on social media, send out a newsletter, even launch an online magazine like the one you are reading now. Many YouTubers also provide essay content, read out to the camera.
But, in our vibrantly multivocal culture, there is a constant danger of talking past, not to, each other. While Woolf’s gloomy prediction that “instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks … in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself” has not come true—more people than ever before are reaching a public audience—there is a felt lack of dialogue, which has surely exacerbated our bitterly entrenched culture wars and political polarisation. The popularity of podcasts and live debates shows that we have a hunger for more conversation. Samuel Johnson’s words that “this is an age of authors and every man must be content to be his own reader” have never seemed more apt. There is a glut of people expressing their opinions individually, each in isolation. What we lack is the modern day equivalent of the coffee-house or the salon: a venue where people directly converse. And this time it need not be restricted to bewigged aristocrats or to scholars.
The truth, writes Adrienne Rich, “is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity.” It is something we weave together, and “when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.” We are blind men, each grasping one part of the elephant, the Ganesh who can remove our obstacles—now we just need to compare notes. If we are to become more enlightened, humane and well-informed and better equipped to face the complex challenges of the future, we need to communicate with each other in ways that keep us constantly aware of our shared humanity.
The letter medium can provide a framework for that. That’s why I am proud to be part of our venture at Letter. Join us.
Find out more about our Impossible Conversations competition.
Letter is a digital platform for one-on-one correspondence. It combines the intimacy of letter writing with the convenience of an online format and the added value that conversations can be publicly read and shared. Our subeditor, Iona Italia, works with Dayne and Clyde Rathbone to make this possible. To find out more, go to www.letter.wiki or contact email@example.com.