When a friend recently took an interest in my stress- relieving/problem-solving
technique of complaint-writing and referred me to a book publisher,
I was quite flattered. I was even more flattered when that
publisher, Bruce Bortz of Bancroft Press, asked me to lunch.
He said he'd reviewed the letters I had accumulated over the
previous three years and considered a few of them to be hilarious,
including the one to Chrysler where I'd requested a job as
a human crash test dummy.
At first, I was puzzled by this comment. Then I became angry
and confused. What, I demanded to know, did he mean by hilarious?
Well, came his nervous reply, your letters are supposed to
be funny, aren't they?
In my younger days, I would have challenged Mr. Bortz to
a brawl, laughed out of context, or picketed the Bancroft
Press townhouse to protest the mocking of my efforts. Instead,
I raced home to my computer and composed a complaint letter.
Mr. Bortz soon called to apologize for the terrible mistake
he had made. My manuscript, he said, had gotten mixed up with
one he was looking over on presidential joke writers. But
I was unsatisfied with this explanation. I asked him point
blank: if he had truly made a mistake, why had he specifically
called my Chrysler letter hilarious? After a long pause, Mr.
Bortz explained: I thought you were proposing to do the crash
tests without a seat belt.
Only a fool would do a crash test that way, I responded,
after which we both enjoyed a healthy chuckle. Mr. Bortz promptly
proclaimed that the world would be a better place if all my
letters were published, and that he wanted to do so in a Bancroft
Press book. How could I not agree?
But the road ahead would still be a little bumpy. Over the
next three months, we exchanged about a dozen letters, and
finally agreed to the terms of a basic contract. After that,
we began a long series of negotiations mostly by e-mail about
the books contents. Sometimes it was hard to agree. He'd want
a letter in, and I wouldn't. He'd want a letter put in a certain
place. I'd want it elsewhere. He said my face shouldn't be
on the cover. I politely objected.
I suppose I wore him down because six months later our dickering
finally ended and Mr. Bortz, sounding quite exasperated, wrote
me to say, I give up, Wilber. I'll put in whatever letters
you want in whatever order you say and do whatever kind of
cover you think best. I guess that means that, if you don't
like any aspect of this book, you'd better complain directly
to me, not to Mr. Bortz's Bancroft Press.
Except for one thing. In light of the lengthy back-and-forth
I had with Mr. Bortz, you may think it strange that the book
is located in the humor section of your library or bookstore.
I do, too. I thought it should go on the Self-Help shelves,
or maybe those of Spirituality, New Age, or Inspiration. I
insisted to Mr. Bortz that I'd written my letters, first and
foremost, to help people like me the ones who are always taken
But, for once, he put his foot down. He maintained that shelving
the book in Humor was a good idea because, as he put it, most
people who browse in the humor section lead miserable lives,
and are desperately searching for something to enhance their
stress-filled existences. These book buyers and book readers,
Mr. Bortz concluded, are the ones who will benefit the most
from your wisdom, Wilber.
I could have objected to his reasoning and his shelving recommendation.
After all, by then I'd complained about everything else related
to the book. But, for once in my life, I was at the receiving
end of some flattery, and so, against my better judgment,
I let the shelving decision slide.
Let me explain, though, why I organized Wilber Winkle Has
A Complaint the way I did. I put my out-and-out complaints
in the first section. As you know by now, I often see the
absurdity of our commercial world, and when it looks like
its craziness will go uncounted, I'm the first to complain.
Please note that whenever I talked boycott in these letters,
I could always count on a direct response. The mere suggestion
of boycott got under every CSR's skin.
But, as you've also seen from my letters, I've not been reluctant
to serve up compliments, offer suggestions on how to improve
products or product marketing, or seek valuable clarification
about consumer goods and companies. I never got much in the
way of thanks from the companies I wrote this kind of letter
to, and sometimes, believe it or not, I ended up getting certified
letters from their lawyers. But so be it. The letters where
I tried to be a constructive critic are in the books second
In the third section, I put the letters where my mischievous,
even pranksterish side surfaced. For instance, I never really
intended to roll a gigantic bowling ball over my girlfriends
mother. But I must admit that just the fantasy of doing so
helped me get through some of her nagging barrages.
Unfortunately, if you knew nothing more about me than what's
in this last batch of letters, you might think I'm interested
only in creating havoc in other peoples lives. In fact, these
particular letters represent my own special way of peacefully
releasing excessive tension and frustration. And though I
remain ashamed of having lost control, of having gone a bit
too far on these occasions, I'm pleased to say they were isolated,
and there was no need, throughout those numerous days of book
preparation, to stray from my recommendation to Mr. Bortz
that the title of this book be Wilber Winkle Has A Complaint,
and not Wilber Winkle Goes Overboard.
Putting this book together hasn't been easy for me (or for
Mr. Bortz), but it definitely has changed my life for the
better. This is no longer a one-man crusade for me. I've gained
a greater sense of responsibility to my fellow consumers.
So, even if this book sells a million copies, I promise to
go right on complaining the Wilber Winkle way. I've finally
found my life's calling.
Very truly yours,