The person who gets your letter will seldom be the one who wronged you. At least to start with, they have no skin in the game and may even be sympathetic. That evaporates when you start slinging around insults. It makes you feel good to bluster and rage: but it’s how the recipient of the letter feels that will matter. As ever, go to where your audience is.
Picture how your letter will go over when Dave in Customer Relations reads it out to Jane at the next desk. Dave almost certainly doesn’t give a monkey’s. The more blood-curdling the letter, the more likely they’ll have a good giggle and start thinking up ways to make you angrier. Start from the assumption that you are entertainment; and then work to countermand that. Ideally, Dave reads your letter to Jane and she goes: “You have to admit that person has a point …”
Make irresistibly plain how you’ve been inconvenienced, then propose what’ll seem to your correspondent a reasonable and proportionate redress – and one within their power to make. So be forensically clear: what are you complaining about, and what do you want to happen? When you’re proposing redress, “I demand” is – oddly – a lot easier to ignore than, for instance, “It seems reasonable to expect …” Remember Hotspur and Glendower in Henry IV, Part One? “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Glendower brags. “Why, so can I, or so can any man,” laughs Hotspur. “But will they come when you do call for them?”
Take your correspondent gently but firmly by the elbow, rather than bashing heads. Once an exchange gets oppositional or abusive, it will stay that way. I’ve been let off parking tickets by writing politely and apologetically to the council to explain the circumstances. I’ve never got anywhere by calling someone a jobsworth.
Letters to friends
One of the saddest things for me as a literary journalist is the realisation that the Collected Letters, as a genre of published book, is almost certainly dying out. But if you read the great epistolary friendships – Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, say, or Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin – you will see what we have lost. In our letters we are doing what Hazlitt called “writing to the moment”: the quick of life is in them, and all its absurdity.
That sense of a lifelong conversation comes poignantly through in the last letter from Larkin to Amis. Dictating from his deathbed, Larkin ended his last letter to his friend: “You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction, Yours ever, Philip.” Every letter that he’d sent Amis for decades had ended in the word “bum”. But out of consideration for the sensibilities of the woman who’d be transcribing his tape, Larkin omitted it. Eleven days later he was dead.
Always remember that your job, writing to a friend, is to entertain. That can mean revelling in the odd pratfall. In >London Fields, Martin Amis offered the best postcard-writing advice I’ve ever read: “The letter with the foreign postmark that tells of good weather, pleasant food and comfortable accommodation,” he warned, “isn’t nearly as much fun to read, or to write, as the letter that tells of rotting chalets, dysentery and drizzle. Who else but Tolstoy has made happiness really swing on the page?”