by Leonard Bishop
I can understand why people who write newspaper columns get tired of their usual readers and hope to gain others. Persistent readers take the columnist too seriously. They begin to believe they know the writer and thus have acquired the privilege of being irritated or offended by what he writes. Some of the people who read this column regularly have slotted me into that status.
They write angry, riled, and disgruntled letters to me. They inform me that I not only have a stunted mind but that I am also a lousy writer. They dislike my subject matter and what subject matter they understand, they disagree with. They do not send the letters to the newspaper, which has my permission to open them and publish them in “letters to the editor.” They send them to me.
They know I live in Herington, Kansas and all they need to do is address the letter to “The Writer” or “The Nasty Writer” or “The (unmentionable) Writer.” Then it will be put into my mailbox. If there is a signature, it is usually illegible or just one name and that one is phony.
There is no return address on the envelopes. The letters are usually handwritten in crude, painstakingly formed words–as though a therapist was standing beside the writer, patiently dictating the content. It is not hate mail. They are letters that reveal an obsessive, fanatic pride about being in Kansas or how they hate people who are obsessive or fanatic about not living in Kansas.
One reader complained that my vocabulary and syntax was not grounded in the traditions of conventional grammar. She was willing to bet money that I wrote so poorly because I had never studied a foreign language. I cannot disagree with her. I can only claim,”La critique est aisee, et l’art est difficile.” Criticizing is easy, but art is difficult.
The letter that troubled me came from a reader who whined, “I’m fed up with reading about your diets. Change the record or I’ll tune you out.” There was a smudge of chocolate syrup under the date and the writing paper smelled of spaghetti sauce.
I spend hours working on columns I hope will reach clever readers who will understand that I am a compulsive personality writing to other compulsive personalities. I am also safeguarding my career as a columnist. When I am fat, I write badly. When I am lean, I am brilliant.
Most of the readers are poor readers. They are also leaving what they read to get to the refrigerator to eat. They forget what they were reading and must begin again. They therefore never finish what they began. They become sleepy and think, “Ahw, the heck with that. What was I reading? I’ll read it later after I watch some TV.”
Readers are not subtle. Their minds inch over the surface like crippled worms. They’re not sensitive to the artistically fashioned phrase, the galaxy of symbolic meaning in an image
I do not save these unsigned letters that are sent to my home. I read them, consider the contribution to my character and career, then dump them. They are written with horrid misspellings, abominable grammar, and are about as organized as a bucket of spilled Lego. The writers are so obviously ill educated that I suspect my columns are read to them.
A reader calls me a fascist communist and unpatriotic because I refuse to buy what is advertised on television. Since most consumer goods I purchase are manufactured in another country, I cannot accept the stigma of being un-American.
The columnist does not object to such letters. They gratify his inclination towards conceit. The columns causing the trouble may have been written a month before it was published. By that time the columnist has forgotten it because he is concerned about the current column he is writing. When an irate reader complains, he has to research his files.
He re-reads the column and thinks, “It is a superb column. Truly inspiring. That reader is sick in his head.” I sigh with satisfaction and self-esteem and think, “I do hope I get some more nasty letters which will drive me to reading my own column so I can get some pleasure from my day.”
©2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published November 15, 1987 the Manhattan Mercury)