to the Editor
By Anne Hemmett Stern
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
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.