Letters to the Editor 


An Unappreciated Artform 
By Anne Hemmett Stern 


Every literary genre — be it as general as fiction or as specific as the sonnet — has prompted its own library of appreciation and scholarly analysis. Not so the humble letter to the editor. Its politics, art and even economics have yet to be thoroughly examined. Most publications in America have letters pages. Surveys (especially for journals of opinion such as The New Republic but also for gossip sheets such as Talk) show that readers turn to the letters page first.

Here, in the first ever readers’ guide to letters to the editor, is a sampling of letter prototypes and their relationships to their magazines. Space limitations in The New York Review of Magazines allow for discussion of only a few of the more fundamental classifications: The Captious Corrector, The Hectoring Historian, The You’re-So-Greaters, The Splenetic Subject, The Observant Specialist and The Injured Author/Book Promoter.

The Captious Corrector almost always gets a response from either the editor of the magazine or the writer of the article in question. In the June 12, 2000 issue of The Nation, a letter with the heading "Sic, Sic, Sic" repeatedly misspells the name of an author whose book on Arthur Koestler was given a poor review in the magazine. Each time he spells "Cesarani" as "Cesarini," the Corrector gets a "(sic)." Then the Corrector points out that The Nation’s reviewer, John Leonard, spelled Italian journalist Nicola Chiaromonte’s surname "Chiaramonte." "What could be Leonard’s excuse?" the Corrector closes.

"Mea culpa, inexcusably," Leonard replies. "But at least I didn’t misspell ‘Cesarani’ three times in my letter to the editor." Take that! Here, the magazine pokes fun at the letter writer, by leaving in his own mistake.

Over a dozen letters editors surveyed for this article, including The Nation’s Judy Long, said they closely edit readers’ letters. Some magazines (Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly) do so to conform to the editorial standard of the magazine. Talk, Tigerbeat, Rolling Stone and Time Out, while correcting punctuation and grammar and cutting letters drastically, say they don’t reach for any particular editorial standard. Had the Captious Corrector quoted above been a friend of The Nation, perhaps Long would have saved him some embarrassment and corrected his spelling mistake. Instead, the "Cesarini" misspelling allowed both the magazine and the critic John Leonard to stand corrected without losing face.

Kate Fraunfelder, a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly, says writers are counseled to "take the higher ground" in their responses to readers’ letters. "We try to steer them away from snotty responses," she said.

"I am embarrassed. I stand corrected," writes a decidedly non-snotty James McPherson in the February 8, 2001 issue of The New York Review of Books. It seems Canada did hold an election during World War I, as the Canadian Corrector points out. When Thomas Flanagan stood corrected by the daughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first biographer, whom Flanagan had identified as Fitzgerald’s second biographer, what could Flanagan say in his own defense besides, "Ignorance madame, pure ignorance"? As we’ll see later, writers for The New York Review of Books often defend their writing more fervidly.

But on to the Hectoring Historian, a Captious Corrector permutation who aims to set the record straight on the past. In the May 2000 issue of Vanity Fair, a historian takes on writer James Fox. "As a Cambridge history graduate, I must protest the travesty that purported to be a biography of Lady Astor. There was absolutely no mention of the fact that the thing she is most notorious for is organizing regular pre-war gatherings of Nazi supporters, who became known as ‘the Cliveden Set.’" Accompanying the letter is a picture of the lady in question, parked on a "pedal motorcycle" in front of her Cliveden estate, and a heading that reads "Cliveden Set, Match. Readers and James Fox square off on ‘the Cliveden Set.’" The epistolary argument is clearly an attraction.

In response, James Fox’s opening salvo reads, "The reason I did not mention ‘regular pre-war gatherings of British Nazi supporters,’ including ‘top German Nazis’ at Lady Astor’s Cliveden was that they never occurred. The travesty is [Hectoring Historian] Mr. Hore’s recycling of the old myth of the Cliveden Set, long discredited by serious historians." In Lady Astor’s defense, Fox goes on to say that the only Nazi that Nancy Astor entertained (and only twice) was Ambassador Ribbentrop, "as did many other hostesses." In any case, Ribbentrop never went to Cliveden, Fox says, and he never again visited the Astors at any of their other estates after Nancy Astor "mocked the humorless former champagne salesman, telling him that no one could take Hitler seriously with his silly Charlie Chaplin mustache."

In magazines such as Tigerbeat, whose readers are feverishly excited teenage girls, the You’re-So-Great letter is common. "I Love Your Magazine!" runs a bold, red headline over a letter commending Tigerbeat for its excellent coverage of up-and-coming artists. "Gosh, Stacy, we’re blushing! Thanks for the compliments," gushes the editor’s response. Rolling Stone also prints many a You’re-So-Greater. "Thanks to Rolling Stone and J-Lo for one of the greatest covers/photo shoots ever," reads one among several love letters to Jennifer Lopez and her "billion dollar booty." Writers never respond, said letters editor Kerry Smith, because "the page is reserved for our readers." She also said she gets many letters from people in prison, lots of 8 x 11 envelopes covered with scribbles and drawings.

The Splenetic Subject is out to clear his/her name after feeling maligned by a magazine. The July 2000 issue of Talk offers a prime example. "I am writing to set the record straight regarding the three most serious factual errors and unsubstantiated innuendos about me in your recent profile of Jerry Weintraub," writes Weintraub’s lawyer, Gerald Parsky. The letter’s heading, "Parsing with Parsky," takes a swipe at the letter writer, letting readers know that he is not to be let off easily. Michael Shnayerson, who wrote the profile, snaps back, "Good lawyer that he is, Mr. Parsky makes some lawyerly points in a general exercise of hairsplitting." Shnayerson goes on to support his assertions that Parsky was inappropriately involved in the dubious bankruptcy of Weintraub’s entertainment company.

This type of exchange allows Nobody Readers to be party to conflicts between Important People. Talk likes to make readers feel part of the important group, giving its letters section an ever-changing listing in the table of contents: "Readers Get Published, Too," "Readers Write Too, You Know," "Everybody’s a Critic," and so on.

Observant Specialists want to share expertise in a particular subject and can often be somewhat dour. But they can also be sardonic, as in a letter in the June 2000 issue of Talk: "I enjoyed your photo spread of the presidential candidates ["Hands Up!" April]. As a dermatologist, I would like to add a few comments." According to this Observant Specialist, Gore’s hand indicates allergies, Bush’s is bland and unremarkable, Bradley’s is quite red, possibly because of liver, blood or gland problems, "McCain’s scaling is typical of the one-hand, two-foot type of skin fungus (hint — shake only his right hand)." He assumes Pat Buchanan was not included "because you only showed left hands, and Buchanan doesn’t go to the left."

The Injured Author/Book Promoter usually makes reference, at the top, to a positive aspect of the offending reviewer’s piece. A few examples of opening lines: "I enjoyed Carlin Romano’s review of my book, What Are Journalists For? One thing struck me as curious, however." (Jay Rosen in The Nation) "I don’t want to carp at Michael Ignatieff’s generous review of my Reflections on a Ravaged Century." (Robert Conquest in The New York Review of Books) "Edmund Morgan’s thoughtful review of my book Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench requires elucidation of my position." (Vincent Crapanzano in The New York Review of Books)

Interchanges between famous intellectuals, or people associated with famous intellectuals, are common in The New York Review of Books. In the November 30, 2000 issue, Splenetic Subject By Association Yvonne Cloetta slams David Lodge’s review of Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri. Cloetta, deceased author Graham Greene’s last companion, writes, from Juan-les-Pins, France, "[I]n this cold little book, she doesn’t show any psychological intuition and is thus completely mistaken in her observations about Greene." Cloetta lists several points on which she feels Hazzard is in error and says, "It is a pity that David Lodge, for whom Graham Greene had a great esteem, was taken in by all the wicked lies hidden behind the beautiful prose of Shirley Hazzard."

"It seems to me that the appropriate person to respond to this letter would be Shirley Hazzard herself," writes Lodge. In her letter, Cloetta refers to Hazzard either by her surname, both names, or as Ms. Hazzard. Writing from Naples, Italy, Hazzard makes clear her disdain for Cloetta.

"In her eagerness for indignation," Hazzard writes, "Yvonne garbles my explicit words." Hazzard later refers to Cloetta as Greene’s "mistress" and points out that Greene wrote of "a lack of stimulus" in his relationship with Cloetta. "It has never occurred to Yvonne that one had sought to spare her," Hazzard writes. Juicy fights such as this one are fun to be in on, even when the people having them are unknowns. But between the likes of Hazzard, Lodge, Cloetta, and Greene — alas, in absentia — they’re even better. Cloaked in ideas, they don’t make readers feel they have to hose off after eavesdropping. The New York Review of Books offers ample opportunity for reading over the shoulders of erudite squabblers, making the letters section perhaps the most-read part of the magazine.

Clearly, as a category of creative endeavor, the letter to the editor goes beyond mere self-expression to promote the agendas of both the writer and the magazine. But the genre also provides different perspectives. It initiates a dialogue between members of a magazine’s readership, and between readers and the magazine itself. Letter writers often aim to set the record straight, and often they do. When they don’t, the magazine may try to do so through a response. The record may ultimately remain unclear, but readers gain information in the process. More importantly, the carping argument and high blown praise that appear on the pages of letters sections can be more fun to read than the articles that inspired them.

Readers’ opinions on this subject are welcomed, at The New York Review of Magazines, c/o The Delacorte Magazine Center, 2950 Broadway, New York, New York 10027.



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