'I Can't Help Envying You': Famous Authors' Fan Letters to Other Authors
Nine letters of admiration sent between writers, and one scathing letter of scorn
An excellent letter of admiration from William Gaddis to Don DeLillo was recently published over at The Daily Beast. It's a reminder that writers are the biggest readers of all, and, by extension, probably even bigger fanboys and fangirls than anyone. To that end, here are a few wonderful fan letters (and one pointed anti-fan letter) from famous authors to their fellow famous authors, ranging from short and sweet to long and flowery.
From William Gaddis to Don DeLillo, 1988
Wainscott, New York 11975
19 July 1988
Dear Don DeLillo.
Why in the world have I waited till the day your Libra gets its nihil obstat from Christopher Lemondrop to send you a note. It showed up in galleys in New York 2 or 3 months ago when things were ghastly (health) about the time I saw you, I looked into it then & should certainly have written without waiting to read it through because my response was immediate, it is a terrific job. I don't know all your work & also hesitate to say to any writer whatever comparing one of his works to another but in this case must tell you I find it far beyond White Noise. Obviously if we take our work seriously we do not try to clone one novel to its predecessor so comparisons are indeed odious, & equally obviously the constantly shattered & reknit & fragmented again style of this new book appeals to me rather more than the linear narrative, when it's always 9 o'clock in the morning at 9 am & 3pm at 3 in the afternoon if you see what I mean; but the hard cover arrived here a couple of weeks ago & I've just read it & confirmed all my earlier impression, its marriage of style & content—that essential I used to bray about to 'students' in those grim days—is marvelously illustrated here I think & especially as it comes together at the end as we know it must, speaking of the 'nonfiction' novel if we must but why must we, except that concept does embrace the American writer's historic obsession getting the facts down clear (from "tells me more about whales than I really want to know" to Dreiser tapemeasuring Clyde's cell at Sing Sing, or Jack London's "Give me the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!") & again one marvels at what you've marshaled in this impressive piece of work. We'll be out of the country for August but may hope to see you in town in the fall, meanwhile high marks.
via [The Daily Beast]
From Norman Mailer to William Styron, 1953
February 26, 1953
You certainly deserve a fan letter. As a matter of fact I've been meaning to write ever since I read "Long March" about a month ago. I think it's just terrific, how good I'm almost embarrassed to say, but as a modest estimate it's certainly as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war, and really I think it's much more than that. You watch. It's going to last and last and last. And some day people will consider it as being close to the level of something as marvelous as The Heart of Darkness, which by the way, for no reason I know, it reminded me of.
Barbara mentioned that you're without a book at the moment. No solace I can offer, except that crap about waiting and patience which is all true, but no consolation at all.
I have only one humble criticism. I wonder if you realize how good you are. That tendency in you to invert your story and manner your prose just slightly, struck me—forgive the presumption—as coming possibly from a certain covert doubt of your strengths as a writer, and you're too good to doubt yourself. Which I suppose is like saying, "You, neurotic—stop being neurotic!"
Anyway, I did want to write you these few things.
My best to you, Bill,
[via The New York Review of Books]
From Ray Bradbury to Robert Heinlein, 1976
YOUR INFLUENCE ON US ALL, FROM 1939 ON, CANNOT BE MEASURED. I CAN ONLY SAY I REMEMBER, WARMLY, YOUR MANY KINDNESSES TO ME WHEN I WAS 19-20-21 YEARS OLD. THAT YOUNG MAN BASKED IN YOUR LIGHT AND WILL CONTINUE TO BE GRATEFUL FOR THE HELP YOU OFFERED WHEN I WAS SO POOR & NEEDFUL! YOURS IN THAT MEMORY — RAY BRADBURY
AUG - 1976
[via Letters of Note]
From Charles Dickens to George Eliot, 1858
TO GEORGE ELIOT
January 18, 1858, London
My Dear Sir
I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood [Eliot's publisher], that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.
In addressing these few words of thankfulness, to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.
You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me—not of mere curiosity. If it should ever suit your convenience and inclination, to shew me the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly, it will be a very memorable occasion to me. If otherwise, I shall always hold that impalpable personage in loving attachment and respect, and shall yield myself up to all future utterances from the same source, with a perfect confidence in their making me wiser and better.
Your obliged and faithful Servant, and admirer
[via The American Reader]
From Virginia Woolf to Olaf Stapledon, 1937
Dear Mr. Stapledon,
I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.
Many thanks for giving me a copy,
From W.H. Auden to James Agee (or rather, his editors), 1944
A Letter to the Editors of The Nation
October 16th, 1944
In the good old days before pseudo-science and feminism ruined her, it was considered rude to congratulate one's hostess on her meals, since praise would imply that they could have been bad, and by the same rule of courtesy it should be unnecessary to write grateful letters to editors.
Astonishing excellence, however, is the exception, and Mr James Agee's film column seems to this reader, and to many others he has spoken with, just that.
I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation, but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again.
In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism to-day. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible — to me, rather unimportant — subject, that his articles belong in that very select class — the music criques of Berlioz and Shaw are the other members I know — of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.
One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis.
W. H. Auden
From Carson McCullers to Henry Miller, ca. 1942
In response to a letter from a Henry Miller requesting copies of her books:
"...I first came across your work years ago, when I was a youngster banging around N.Y., and I shall never forget that experience. Later, I was able to borrow more of your work from a friend. Then, when I had some money, I tried to buy both these books in N.Y., but for some reason I was unable to get hold of them. I want to own them, so if you are my Henry Miller, will you tell me where I can order them, or ask the publishers to send them to me with a bill?
The wine down here has a flavor of dead cockroaches and God knows how they make it. But I wanted something, for your letter excited me. If you are the Henry Miller I know it is a great thing for me to know how you feel about my work... If, however, I have made a mistake, please forgive me — and thank you again for your letter."
(It was not a mistake)
[via Glenn Horowitz Bookseller]
From James Joyce to Henrik Ibsen, 1901
I write to you to give you greeting on your seventy-third birthday and to join my voice to those of your well-wishers in all lands. You may remember that shortly after the publication of your latest play 'When We Dead Awaken', an appreciation of it appeared in one of the English reviews — The Fortnightly Review — over my name. I know that you have seen it because some short time afterwards Mr. William Archer wrote to me and told me that in a letter he had from you some days before, you had written, 'I have read or rather spelled out a review in the Fortnightly Review by Mr. James Joyce which is very benevolent and for which I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language.' (My own knowledge of your language is not, as you see, great but I trust you will be able to decipher my meaning.) I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held so high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling. One thing only I regret, namely, that an immature and hasty article should have met your eye, rather than something better and worthier of your praise. There may not have been any wilful stupidity in it, but truly I can say no more. It may annoy you to have your work at the mercy of striplings but I am sure you would prefer even hotheadedness to nerveless and 'cultured' paradoxes.
What shall I say more? I have sounded your name defiantly through a college where it was either unknown or known faintly and darkly. I have claimed for you your rightful place in the history of the drama. [Ed: Ha! What an ego! 18 years old!] I have shown what, as it seemed to me, was your highest excellence — your lofty impersonal power. You rminor claims — your satire, your technique and orchestral harmony — these, too, I advanced. Do not think me a hero-worshipper. I am not so. And when I spoke of you, in debating-societies, and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.
But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead — how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart, and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.
Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing drak for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it — to the end of 'John Gabriel Borkman' and its spiritual truth — for your last play stands, I take it, apart. But I am sure that higher and holier enlighenment lies — onward.
As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting.
James A. Joyce
[via Sheila O'Malley]
From a 16-year-old George R.R. Martin to Stan Lee, 1964
Dear Stan and Don,
After receiving and reading my subscription copies of FF #32 and AVENGERS #9, I have finally come to the decision to have both mounted in bronze and set on a pedestal in the center of my living room. Although the F.F. is "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine", I must admit that on this occasion AVENGERS #9 was slightly the better of the two. This is not to say that F.F wasn't up to par, but rather that the Avengers was—er—breathtaking, shall we say? What a story! It was beyond words; the fast-paced action, solid characterization, and that terrific ending all gave it that extra oomph and catapulted into the greatclass. Stan, old boy, you can put another notch in your pen for this masterpiece....
George R.R. Martin, 36 E. First St.
Bayonne, N.J. 07002
And just for good measure, an anti-fan letter from William S. Burroughs to Truman Capote, 1970
July 23, 1970
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote
This is not a fan letter in the usual sense — unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather call this a letter from "the reader" — vital statistics are not in capital letters — a selection from marginal notes on material submitted as all "writing" is submitted to this department. I have followed your literary development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your own recent investigations in the sun flower state. I have interviewed all your characters beginning with Miriam — in her case withholding sugar over a period of several days proved sufficient inducement to render her quite communicative — I prefer to have all the facts at my disposal before taking action. Needless to say, I have read the recent exchange of genialities between Mr Kenneth Tynan and yourself. I feel that he was much too lenient. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention. In effect you were speaking in approval of standard police procedure: obtaining statements through brutality and duress, whereas an intelligent police force would rely on evidence rather than enforced confessions. You further cheapened yourself by reiterating the banal argument that echoes through letters to the editor whenever the issue of capital punishment is raised: "Why all this sympathy for the murderer and none for his innocent victims?" I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising — I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker — (an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.
[via Letters of Note]
This post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.