How to Admire Writers

American novelist, sportsman, and critic, PHILIP WYLIE writes prose that cracks like a whip, as anyone knows who has read his Generation of Vipers. He left Princeton at the end of three years to work as a press agent and then as one of the editors of the New Yorker and as a film writer. Today, as a free lance. he does most of his writing in Florida, and between books he travels to New York or Europe to recharge his batteries.

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AND YOU WRITE ABOUT BROTHERLY LOVE EXCLAMATION POINT I SENT YOU A LETTER BUT NO REPLY STOP I TRIED TO PHONE WHEN IN MIAMI ONLY TO FIND YOUR NUMBER UNLISTED STOP SENT YOU A MS TO READ AND NO RESPONSE STOP FORWARDED ONE OF YOUR BOOKS FOR AUTOGRAPH MONTH AGO AND STILL NOTHING FROM YOU STOP HYPOCRITE EXCLAMATION POINT

THE above telegram came only Yesterday. It was signed by an angry gentleman whom we shall call Mr. Smith —a stranger to me. He lived in Portland, Oregon. Mr. Smith evidently had been an admirer of my essays, novels, and/or fishing stories. He had made an intense effort to reach me — without success. Now he was indignant. It seemed to Mr. Smith that my failure to answer his letter promptly, to be accessible on the phone, to read his manuscript, and to autograph and mail back the book he had sent to me, furnished proof that I was not, as he’d thought, a good Joe — but a heel.

That unhappy situation is common to many American authors. It is common to artists in other fields. Distinguished professional men are sometimes the victims of it. For the average American citizen has been conditioned to regard all so-called celebrities as identical. “Celebrities” in businesses and industries do have facilities and expense accounts for dealing wilh “fans” — movie stars in particular. But those who have attained some degree of note by individual effort generally lack the office machinery and personnel to cope with an enthusiastic public.

Here, therefore, is the letter I ought now to send Mr. Smith: —

MY DEAR SIR: —
Your wire, et al., received. During the period of your bombardments, have written two serials and part of a novel. I have been serving on half a dozen boards, committees, and directorates, in work of a public nature for which I receive no remuneration. I have also been building a new house and moving in. I have a family to take rare of. My wife, who acts as my secretary, has been seriously ill. At the moment we have no maid and I am cooking our meals. For some days I have been preparing back years of income tax reports for review, at the request of the Internal Revenue Bureau. These are a few samples of my many vicissitudes and occupations.
Please be advised, then, that I am nearly two years behind in answering my fan mail. Several thousand letters await acknowledgment. I have on hand more than three hundred manuscripts, unsolicited by me — along with scores of books sent for autograph. No return postage and no self-addressed envelope were enclosed with most of these. Not a single sender of a book for autograph, including you, has yet realized that a book, once signed, becomes First Class Mail according to postal regulations and must be returned at the rate of three cents per ounce.
It is a great inconvenience to me to have an “unlisted” telephone number. It runs against my grain; it annoys my friends. The device became necessary after my fishing stories grew popular in a national magazine. On one day when our number was listed in the Miami Directory my family and I took twenty-three phone calls from strangers. All but two of those callers sought data on where and when and with what guide to go fishing. So, to retain a listed number was not only to subject my family and myself to incessant harassment but to keep our incoming wire blocked by calls which should rightly have gone to the Chamber of Commerce.
I cannot afford at this time to hire additional secretaries to deal with my accumulated mail. To read the books, booklets, and manuscripts sent to me would take more time than there are hours in every day. To autograph and return the copy of my book which you forwarded would require a trip downtown for the purchase of a cardboard mailer, a search of my house for twine, glue, and wrapping paper, the autographing itself, and a second journey to the Post Office — where I would stand in line to mail the book. It would also take an outlay of about thirty cents for postage. And if I were able to interrupt all other necessary tasks, including my writing, to do that for you, I would feel obliged to do as much some hundreds of tunes over to satisfy similar “claims" laid upon me. That would require the entire balance of my working time in the year 1950.

The above letter would not in any way satisfy Mr. Smith, however. Far from it! He would be outraged the more. Had not he taken the trouble, personally, to type a twelve-page (single-spaced) letter praising (and criticizing) my work? To forward his best and most precious (unpublished) literary attempt? To try to “look me up" when he visited my town? And had he not spent three dollars to buy a book for my autograph? Mr. Smith is very dear to Mr. Smith. The fact that “Mr. Smiths" pour into my life a dozen a day, or more, does not interest any particular Mr. Smith. He feels he has admired my work &emash; and done a lot to show it; hence the least I could do would be to react in kind.

I know this to be true because, some years ago, I prepared a polite version of the above missive and used it, as a “form” letter, for numerous such situations. Only about one “Mr. Smith” (or Miss, or Mrs.) in twenty wrote back with any understanding of my dilemma. The rest were sorer than ever. Some even threatened to sue on the grounds that I had “stolen" their copy of my book.

In the end — up to now, at least — I have always eventually caught up with my fan mail. Every year or so I have hired one or more extra secretaries and for a month or two devoled myself exclusively to the task. It has cost me many thousands of dollars. And it has brought me scant thanks from my correspondents. Perhaps they were burning with enthusiasm when they wrote; perhaps burning with rage; in either case, a reply so long delayed fell upon diminished sentiment. Indeed, many who received my replies wrote again to say they had completely forgotten their original missive.

If you send a letter to a movie star, the chances are a thousand to one the star will not answer you in person even though the answer seems to be a personal note. The chances are a hundred to one the star will never see your letter. You will get your “autographed photograph” pronto but it will be sent by the studio publicity department and the signature will be a forgery.

If you write to a businessman or a politician, you’ll be promptly answered; such persons have the facilities for mass correspondence, But if you write to an author — who else is there to receive your letter but the man himself? He will undoubtedly open it, undoubtedly read it if it is legible and no matter what it says. Then — he will undoubtedly toss it into a box, basket, carton, trunk, or drawer and go on with his work — promising himself to answer you presently, and growing dejected as the weeks pass and letters like yours pile up.

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MY experience with this phenomenon began shortly after the publication of a book called Generation of Vipers. A great many people liked the book. Overnight, the occasional fan letter I’d hitherto received turned into a deluge. “Celebrities” wrote me — and plain people. College presidents, bank presidents, professors, tycoons, great scientists, sent letters. No fewer than five movie stars wrote me fan letters! Farmers and garage mechanics and plumbers and carpenters came forward with thousands of epistles. And I undertook to answer every one. Before a year was out, I’d written, in my replies, three times as many words as there were in the book! With the same time and energy I could easily have done another.

At the end of that year, I was forced to stop answering my mail for a while in order to have an unoccupied period in which I could work. Ever since, I have lived sheepishly and helplessly behind moraines of waiting mail — as does every writer I know whose work has become “popular.”His public, for whom he writes and upon whom he depends, is also his nemesis.

Gradually it has dawned on me that something should be done. Some author should make an effort to explain. For we are ordinary, busy people, with private lives as demanding as your own. Most of us put every hour our nervous systems can stand into what we call our art, or profession, or — perhaps — racket. Little energy is left over for the busman’s holiday of correspondence. Friends and relatives of authors know this and do not expert lively, constant missives from them. Authors know it. of course, and when they write each other a word of acclaim or encouragement, they nearly always add, “For heaven’s sake, old man, don’t bother to reply!” Or words to that effect.

If you are greatly taken by a book remember that. Have no hesitation in saying so. Your written appreciation is the strongest tonic for the difficult and unsure life of a writer. I remember, once, flashing off a note, of enthusiasm for an essay in a magazine— appending, of course, the sentence about not needing a reply — only to get back, almost by return mail, a note from the author saving that he had been hopeless and disconsolate when my praise arrived. The note got his chin up again; it just happened to reach him at a crucial instant. So write and tell your favorite authors you like their work. And be sure to invite them to refrain from answering!

If that suggestion vaguely riles you in respect to any letter of your own, ask yourself a few questions. Is your letter to an author a genuine attempt to thank him and nothing else? Or is it, perhaps, also an effort to show off? To reveal that you beat him to his great thoughts? Or to show, by imitation, that you can employ his glittering style? Or is your letter an attempt to get aid for yourself — free criticism of your verse or prose, advice about dealing with editors, an introduction to a literary agent, a list of books to read? If it is any of these last, ask yourself whether or not you would write to a prominent doctor or lawyer for similar free professional services. An author is just as hard-pressed, and probably he has no full-time secretary — perhaps not even a part-time one!

You would not dream, I am sure, of doing anything that would make a nationally known corporation executive leave his desk, drive several miles to town, and spend some of his own money to provide you with an object to treasure. But when you send a book to an author for an autograph, without a self-addressed mailer on which is adequate first class postage, that is what you do to him.

Before me as I write are four such books forwarded to me by one woman for autograph. No paper, string, label, or stamps. On top of them is her first angry letter written when I failed to obey her command instanter. Also the second letter — when I dropped her a card asking for the necessary stamps. In this, she assured me that if I “padded out” the books and sent them parcel post nobody would ever realize I had broken the postal laws. But she sent no stamps even for that crime. I await her third letter with interest.

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SO FAR, I have spoken largely of praise. Various authors react variously to criticism. Some criticism is valuable but most, in my experience, falls into two categories: (a) criticism by people who have failed or refused to give due scrutiny to the work they question; and (b) niggling.

Under (a) I can report the reception of dozens of furious letters from people who have never read a line of mine! “ I hear,” these bigots write, “that you stand for so-and-so. I’m agin it —ergo, you are a fool, a swine, and un-American.” Others write, “I picked up a copy of your book in a friend’s House and read a few lines. You are completely wrong.” In the United States there are shoals of such flashtempered monomaniacs — legions of popguns set to go off half-cocked. If you are one, remember that every writer is fairly astute about human nature. It’s his business to be; so your letter may give him a laugh but it will land in his wastebasket. Before you jump to conclusions, read all an author says, not a few lines out of context.

The nigglers — and the droves of these are vaster still — take great pride in their discovery of a trifling error and go to immense lengths to point it out. The effort must be compensation for a deep sense of frustration; or perhaps it is a subconscious effort to appear cleverer than the author. Usually, ihe fault involved is not the writer’s but the printer’s. For nigglers most often pick on typographical errors — sneering as if authors set the type for their own books and for magazines, besides! It is all right to tell an author there is a typographical error in his book; he may take the trouble to have it corrected in the next edition. But it is far more sophisticated to tell the publisher!

It is all right to tell an author about a grammatical error. That is his mistake—and the grammar of American writers needs massive correction. However, I once endeavored to find out how far a correspondent would carry such criticism. A gentleman wrote me indignantly that I had not used the subjunctive in a contrary-to-fact condition. I replied that the condition was not contrary to fact. He then wrote several pages of complaint, citing authorities. I had a leading grammarian answer him, in my defense. He rebutted; and the thing would still be going on if I had not tossed his last, six letters in my basket, unopened.

Student-professor heckling of American writers is a large specialty deserving of its own essay. It is a good week when I do not receive a batch of such letters as the following, written, as a rule, in the sloppy hand of the contemporary high school pupil: —

DEAR MR. WYLIE : —
Our class is studying modern American writers and this week we were assigned to do a theme on one. You are my pick. So will you please write immediately telling all about your life, how you became a writer, books published, favorite hobbies, and so forth? Would like also a few lines on your philosophy. Interesting facts of your early years, education, dramatic personal anecdotes, favorite books and why you like them, and any other material that would help.
Sincerely yours,
DOROTHEA DOTTLE

P.S. Please use air mail as my theme is due next week.

I submit that a man who is concerned with the integrity of his work — who is often driven by his efforts near to the edge of distraction —and who is liable to be involved in day-and-night sessions at his desk — has the right to be somewhat vexed when children are encouraged thus to invade his privacy. Teachers do not urge their pupils to request engineers to stop the locomotives of express trains and tell them all about machinery! Yet the very fact that the request comes from a youngster gives it special force. Nobody likes to make a kid think he’s been slighted. Because of that, hundreds of American authors have halted the course of creative activity, some of them hundreds of times, to help school children with their lessons.

It is always, furthermore, a kind of assistance the author deplores. For these myriads of inquiring students actually want their homework done for them. Education ought to teach them how to find facts without assistance. A little research in the library, beginning with Who’s Who, along with a little perusal of the works of the queried writer, would invariably supply the information they request. But the teachers seem to favor the lazier method; it is easier to bother a man than to consult books. I have taken to sending the kids postcards giving suitable reference works.

And they are not all kids. College students busy themselves with such inquiry. So do professors. From many of these I have received letters asking me to address their classes, to prepare a thesis to be read to their classes, or to send an autographed photograph to be framed and hung in their classrooms or their dens. The collecting of autographed photographs, those of close friends excepted, has always seemed adolescent to me. So I have made it a rule not to encourage it. I want people to read what I write; how I look and how I sign my name seem to me extraneous to that purpose.

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THE number of people who are curious about how I look is, however, apparently to be reckoned in hundreds of thousands. They are also curious about the looks of my wife, my daughter, and my house. Indeed, some years ago when I built a house on the Miami Beach bay front, it was regularly pointed out by the barkers on sight-seeing boats. The boats passed by several times daily and if I happened to be sitting on my lawn I, too, was pointed out. Innumerable times I heard the megaphoned voice float over the murky waters of Biscayne Bay: “There is Mr. Wylie now, in person, folks!” The sensation of being thus displayed beggars description — particularly if one happens to be in one’s undershirt.

Our prying public has no more respect for personal privacy than for freedom from assault through the mails. At any time of day or night a carful of jolly folks, taut lion-hunters, or human beagles may crackle up our driveway. Men, women, and children then descend — as if my grounds and gardens were a park. Their next move is optional. Some come right up and ring my doorbell. They ask for me, and if they are told that I am working they wait. Sometimes I work for six or seven hours without stopping. But I do not work easily if the maid has informed me that four fans are rambling around my yard, bailing my dog and picking my orchids.

Others, still bolder, and imbued with the notion that a writer and all he possesses lie in the public domain, don’t bother to ring. They simply fan out around the place and start peering in windows. It is distressing— till one gets used to it, at any rate—to be working on a typewriter, or helping to dry the dishes, and suddenly to see unknown faces staring through a window.

Such intrusions in part caused us to abandon our waterfront residence in Miami Bench and to move far inland to what is called “the country.” Here, at the end of an inconspicuous lane, behind a tangle of live oak and tropical jungle, we built a new house, hoping for reasonable seclusion. But, innocently, we built a very modern Florida-style home. Immediately, owing to its architectural novelty, every real-estate agent, builder, architect, and all the many neighboring chambers of commerce, learned the location of the place. So nowadays not only the admirers (and detractors) of my work but also the hordes of housing-bulls drive out our way and invade our property. We have been wakened in the early hours of morning more than once by loud, rude, moronic squeals, such as, “Ye gods! They call that a house! It’s a cross between a chicken shed and a jute mill!”

We think the house is rather handsome and so do most knowledgeable people. Such comments are inclined to hurt our feelings. They are inclined, in fact, to make us wish the law were not so stern toward householders who fend off trespassers with buckshot. Posting the place, furthermore, only increases the problem. People unbashful enough to yell cracks about your house under your bedroom windows at 7 A.M. will turn into any driveway that says “Private — Do Not Enter.”

A subclassification of such yahoos is the camera fiend, and the worst type is the candid-shot variety. I like gardening and particularly the rough part — digging, rock-moving, and caning into the underlying limestone. For this, I wear only shoes and shorts, as Miami is usually warm. And I get dirty — very dirty. It is therefore something of an annoyance to find, as I toil in the earth, that a gent with a miniature camera on a tripod has secreted it and himself behind a near palmetto and is snapping pictures of me without my consent. I am a polite person and I like my fellow man; I am not a camera-smasher; I try to be as decent to all who track me down as I am able. But every man has his breaking point. And some day mine might come. Some day an invidious oaf who has climbed one of my trees with a telephoto lens and is snapping my wife while she hangs out clothes may be grievously attacked by an author whose patience has worn through.

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PARTLY as a result of their working conditions, nobody ever quite realizes that what authors do demands as much privacy and continuum of effort as any other professional occupation. In addition — far more than the surgeon, lawyer, bookkeeper, or pilot — the author is obliged to pause for thought. Thought involves staring into space, walking around a room, smoking in apparent idleness. The resultant combination of availability with periods of seeming idleness is irresistible. A businessman works from nine to five. A writer may work at night, or he may run into a streak of weeks when his ideas come at dawn and he finds himself doing his day’s stint between 5 and 11 A.M. He may have periods of infertility when he merely roams about trying to assemble the moods, ideas, and plot for his next undertaking. As a result, an author may be seen around town when other men are in their business places. Again, having worked for fifteen hours a day for three solid months, he may take a few weeks off— and appear here and there while he is recovering from stress.

His friends, knowing he never goes to an office and seeing him unoccupied in daylight hours, get the impression that an author really doesn’t do anything whatever. He is, therefore, the first person they think of when they line up a committee for a charity drive, a bazaar, a welfare program, a benefit, a dance, a church supper, or the like. And because most authors are amiable people, most of them try to oblige. Inspiration, however, is variable. Authors consequently make poor committeemen. For the day of the meeting may well fall upon the first day the writer has been in the groove for a month. If he attends his meeting he may lose the thread. So he should cut the meeting.

Yet if he fails to attend he is open to universal criticism on the grounds that he could just as well have “given the morning to the Red Cross and done his work in the afternoon.” But that isn’t how it goes — even though his friends and his family will never quite understand how it does go. The truth is simple: an author, as much as a businessman, needs the recognized right to say at any time that his work is so pressing he must attend to it —even if his work at the moment consists of lying in a hammock looking at the sky, or wandering down Main Street with an absent expression.

Here are some other widespread fallacies from which authors suffer: —

Because a man or woman writes ably it cannot logically be assumed that he or she speaks well. And the fact that an author’s books carry a “message” is not evidence that the author wishes to deliver the message from a platform. Public speaking and writing are separate accomplishments, like skiing and playing a guitar. A few authors — a very few — are good speakers. Most authors, however, are introverts who detest public appearance. That psychological orientation is one of the reasons they are authors. I’m a sample. I would rather write a serial than make one speech. I am jittery for weeks before the date arrives; I detest every instant I spend on my feet; and I am shaken afterward for several days. But I am asked to make speeches, by friends and by strangers, on the average of five times a week. And when I refuse, which I invariably do, the act is taken as an affront.

Sending manuscripts to authors for criticism is ill-advised. I have already explained that most authors fall behind even in returning them. A great many carefully send back all of them unopened, owing to the fact that several writers have been sued for plagiarism by amateurs who had sent them stories for criticism and, later on, fancied some portion of the author’s printed work resembled their own.

Authors, furthermore, are not necessarily good judges of the writing of others. Magazines started and edited by writers usually fail! And the best teachers of writing are not, as a rule, themselves good writers. A man with immense creative powers seldom has equal critical faculties. Most writers, furthermore, work in a particular field with a special style; other fields, other styles, are foreign to them and they cannot make valuable discernments concerning work greatly different from their own. Those writers who are literary critics or who do teach composition are paid for such work; to ask them to perform gratis is to impose on them.

If you honestly want criticism, try the magazines — not writers. If you keep getting rejection slips, probably you should quit trying to write. For if you are near the mark, you will get criticism: a personal letter — professional, editorial suggestions — the best possible help. That’s how we who are writers started out. You might bear in mind, also, that upwards of five hundred thousand Americans are trying to write for publication, but only about five thousand Americans support themselves entirely by free-lance writing! It is, beyond doubt, the most difficult and also the most competitive profession in the land.

I forbear at this point. You may begin to appreciate, however, that an author is a busy human being, occupied in an unusual way, and subject to harassment, like all persons. If your interest concerning him is so intense that you feel you must see him, write a letter to him, first. Tell him why you want to make his acquaintance and ask for an appointment. If you get no answer — well — how would you like to live like a goldfish?

No fooling! We’re just people — most of us, rather poor people. Even if we write a best-seller it doesn’t mean we can afford to devote our time and energy and money to your whims. For our government does not look upon the works created by an artist as capital—just as income. Most of us are poor all our lives; when most of us do make a sudden profit, taxes take most of that.

So have a heart!

We love you — but don’t smother us with affection. We can’t afford the luxury.