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Crackpot Letters to the Editor in the Penny Press!

By (March 6, 2014) No Comment


I ordinarily have very little patience with the various species of brontosaurus who decry all the electronic suburbs of the Republic of Letters. I’ve worn out my ‘they’re entitled to their beliefs’ credit-balance when it comes to people who sniff at online-only publication – nowadays I just clamp my mouth shut instead of belligerently pointing out that I myself write a huge amount of book-talk online only, and I’d happily stack my bookishness against the bookishness of anybody else on Earth. I’ve lost all forbearance with people who stupidly, reflexively say e-books aren’t real books – I refrain from pointing out that I read e-books all week long and am not hallucinating the fact that they have beginnings, middles, ends, characters, and plots.

But I confess, I might agree with the brontosaurus view when it comes to letters to the editor, that venerable instrument of crackpots and cranks from time immemorial. The modernist literati view would be that the letter to the editor survives and is greatly enhanced in the online form of comments fields. I love comments fields, mind you, and I’ve been known to contribute to one or two of them. But their very defining characteristic – their open-ended mutability, the way they mimic dialogue – is by its very nature fundamentally different from the traditional letter to the editor. Those traditional letters to the editor were performances – long-considered, well-rounded, delivered in crystal-clear dudgeon, finished in a way that dashed-off comments in an online comments field virtually never are. It’s possible that some element of that dotty old tradition will be lost when all of the Penny Press at last migrates onto the Internet.

But one way or the other, before that day comes, we get to enjoy the species in something very close to its native environment: the mighty TLS, the tls coverworld’s greatest literary journal. In last week’s number, for instance, there was one hum-dinger after another  – like this one about the hilarious article on how obsessed Germans are with the idea of weariness:

I enjoyed Anna Katharina Schaffner’s article examining Germans’ preoccupation with exhaustion.

Can I suggest that she include in her researches the wonderful song “I’m tired”, performed by Madeline Kahn as Lili Von Shtupp, in the 1974 film Blazing Saddles? Ms Kahn was imitating Marlene Dietrich, who was born in Berlin.

And there’s always pure spirited response, as you’d expect in a journal dedicated to books and reading. This one is choice (and struck me also because I happen to agree with it):

Natasha Lehrer in her review of & Sons by David Gilbert refers to “some strange and infelicitous verbal pyrotechnics that end up no more than frustratingly unexploded squibs”. But aren’t squibs of this sort to be expected from a narrator who is himself a failed writer (one who describes a sunset as “dyslexic” no less!)? Part of what makes the novel so satisfying is that Gilbert manages to sustain this conceit without sacrificing the reader’s enjoyment.

And where would the institution of the letter to the editor be without anger? The whole lugubrious sub-culture of the thing is all but synonymous with simmering outrage, and it’s always delicious fun to watch the fur fly, as in this pitch-perfect response to a piece by insanely incompetent pseudo-historian A. N. Wilson:

A. N. Wilson praises three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, and regards another as “enjoyable”. He says of the rest that they “have amateur charm, but they read like novellas written by an old lady for other old ladies”. Perhaps Mr Wilson means that latter sentence to sound contemptuous. Old ladies reading his words will perhaps quake with shame, recognizing that they can never be old masters. Those old ladies wise enough to abandon the “domestic trivia” Mr Wilson deplores elsewhere in his review, and not too busy themselves writing for the TLS, may enjoy finding that Penelope Fitzgerald’s elegantly condensed novels range over subjects as diverse and ageless as science, espionage and revolutionary politics and the comedy ensuing when one sex tries to patronize another.

It’s always a pleasure to encounter these fired-off missives, especially since I’ve fired off more than my fare share of them myself. I know the particular joys of shaping one of these crackpot letters until it’s just right – and these are all just right.