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Yesterday,  I did something I almost never do.  I answered a negative e-mail from a reader, and I answered it in a way that left no doubt whatsoever about what I thought about it.

Normally,  I don’t answer negative reader mail of any kind, even the ones that tell me that they really love my books but have to point out the 307 typos they came across in the paperback.   The really negative reader mail, the kind that tells me what a piece of scum I am and why they’ll never read anything of mine again, I normally won’t touch with a ten foot pole.  I’m too tempted to write the kind of response I did yesterday.

First, here’s the e-mail:

>>> When I read a book especially a mystery ( and I can relate to this book  I happen to teach at a similar private school) I want to forget the my troubles and read stress free. So why ….; why do you have to throw in insulting political references especially that are not true? Everyone knows that headmasters and the majority of faculty are democrats . Why insinuate that the despicable people at this school are republicans? And nothing against Wa-l mart but I live in a lovely community on Staten Island NY that does not have one Wal-mart on the whole island! As I try to ignore these references that ruin the story I have to stop and write you about your pompous and ignorant assumption that Catholics are to dumb ( P. 254). Well I cannot finish reading this book because to me literary license doesn’t include your right to attack what you don’t understand. And once again these references are only made to make a fellow liberal snicker and reveal that it is the liberals that are mean spirited and not the republicans. I  whole heartily respect others view points and as a fellow ( hope to publish soon my own novel) author I am very considerate and respectful of a my audience and my story line and would never put in any insulting references concerning political or religious beliefs, among other things. Well I have zero desire to finish this book so back to Barnes and Noble it goes for a full dissatisfied refund. I am assuming your other novels are the same so that is that . My favorite [pastime in the world is reading and I will not subject myself to this type of trash again. I guess it is true what they say liberalism is a mental disorder.<<<<<<<<

Even those of you–and I know there are a few–who don’t read my novels must have picked up a few of our recent themes in that, and I want to get to that–that paranoia that the “liberals” are all laughing at “us,” for instance–but let me outline some of the more basic problems.

The book this e-mail concerns in The Heademaster’s Wife, which takes place at an upscale, heavily left-wing co-educational boarding school in Massachusetts. 

There are no “Republicans” at this school that I remember.  The intellectual range goes from very, very, very lunatic left to left-leaning liberal.  The only student we learn anything about is the son of a liberal Democrat writer and television pundit. 

The whole point of this book is to show up the people I call “tourists at the revolution,” upper middle and upper class people–usually female–who attached themselves to “revolutionary movements” in order to…well, I don’t know in order to be what.  There’s that thing by Eliot again, about the most trouble in the world being caused by people trying to be important, so there’s definitely that.

But I’m not the only writer to have come upon this phenomenon and sort of stopped dead in front of it.   There’s V.S. Naipaul, who’s made a career out of chronicling the stupidities of these people.  And, of course, there’s Henry Janes, whose The Princess Casamassima was probably the first novel ever to focus on such a character.   The Princess may be the first such character.

The Headmaster’s Wife was my attempt to do in modern dress in a mystery novel what James did in The Princess Casamassima.  And, okay, I failed.  Henry James was a genius, and I am not.  But I didn’t fail utterly.  Enough liberals got the point to get angry at me about it, and enough non-liberals (not necessarily conservatives) got the point to have a good time with it.

That this writer did not is the result of exactly one thing:  she’s unable to understand what “third person multiple viewpoint” is.  When she reads a passage from Alice’s point of view, she doesn’t understand that it’s Alice’s point of view, not mine.   When Peter misunderstands Catholicism, she thinks it’s me  misunderstanding Catholicism, not Peter.

Now, what we’re dealing with here is not an esoteric literary device.  Practically everybody who writes in third person these days uses it.  Certainly any decent high school course in literature–or even in composition–would deal with “point of view” and how to read and write it.  

And it’s difficult to see in what sense we could say this writer is actually able to read if she cannot understand this, because it’s not only in fiction that people use it.   Nonfiction writers frequently present the ideas of their opponents as passages written in the opponents’ point of view.  

Not to be able to distinguish when this is happening is to be continually misunderstanding what you read–to be continually not simply getting things wrong, but getting them backwards.   And I’ve seen people do this.  One of my favorite books of all time is  Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, in which he argues vigorously against what he calls the “sociological model” of human nature–that is, against the idea of man as a “blank slate” whose nature is formed entirely by his environment.

In the middle of an early chapter of the book, Pinker presents the sociological model in a long passage from that point of view, and a poster to an e-mail discussion list I was on at the time furiously and stubbornly insisted that this passage was Pinker supporting that proposition.  See?  Pinker says right here that it’s all environment!

I don’t know who the writer of my e-mail was, but the poster to that discussion board was not an idiot in the way we’d usually use the word.   He was a lawyer, which means he had to have had a certain amount of education, although he was old enough so that he got his law degree without having to get a bachelor’s degree first.

Still, those high schools we all think were so wonderful back when our fathers and grandfathers were alive had failed to teach him something utterly basic about reading and writing. 

I stopped short in my answer to the e-mail and didn’t actually tell the woman that I’d really prefer if she never read another word of mine again, but I was tempted.  I get tired beyond belief at having to deal with this sort of thing, and something more than tired at the knowledge that these days it’s impossible to produce a ‘best seller” on any serious scale without making sure you aim your prose at a level these people can understand.

That’s part of the reason that I don’t think popularity should be the standard of literary value–one of the others is the fact that, if that is our standard, then all the greatest works of fiction in English will be pornography–but it’s also part of the reason that this writer is so paranoid.

Liberals are making fun of her!  They’re snickering!

But I was doing nothing of the sort.  What was happening here was what the less intelligent of my cousins do–here is a woman aware that something is going on that is over her head, and the knee-jerk reaction is to go paranoid and scream that you’re being made fun of. 

And yes,  I do know that there are some “liberals” who do indeed make fun of people like this, but I wasn’t doing it, there is nothing in the book that would make anybody think I was doing it, and  I venture to suggest that the writer’s paranoia here stems from the gut feeling that somebody ought to be making fun of her.

I don’t think she thinks liberals think she’s stupid.  I think she herself thinks she’s stupid.  That’s why the panic reaction.

Look, I fully agree that the goal of study in high school should be different–very different–from the goal of study in colleges and universities. 

It just seems to me that learning to read is more complicated than just being taught to sound out words phonetically, and the least a good high school could do would be to introduce and explain basic literary devices and how they work.

That way, this woman could read her way through a mystery novel without imagining the writer is poking fun at–that absolute opposite point of view the writer is actually poking fun at.

Okay, my head hurts.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Fan Mail'

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  1. robert_piepenbrink

    9 Nov 08 at 12:20 pm

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