Oh those readers and their letters!

I am not alone.

I’ve been hearing from a number of writers about the strange, alarming, or infuriating letters they get from readers.  Most of these writers are wise enough to ignore the missives and never comment publicly about them.  But they were happy to tell me about them, and it seems I’m in very good company.  The letters seem to run along similar themes:

 YOU WRITE FILTHY BOOKS

Here’s a gem of a letter received by a bestselling thriller author:

“I picked up this book to kill a little time on a long flight. I found it to be vile, disgusting, and have to question a mind that can conjure up this type of literary pornography. I suggest you seek mental help. Also, the covers should come with a warning.”

Another writer got this one:

“I have never heard so much poor, pitiful, dirty language… that is not the way the people I know talk, and I find it annoying.”

J.A. Konrath wrote: “There was a lady who said Rusty Nail was irredeemable and disgusting, and that my publishers were worse than OJ and should be ashamed for printing such filth.”

And another writer shares this one:

“I got a letter from a woman who objected to her 14 year old daughter reading one of my paranormals and who then went on to say that my publisher must surely have forced me to write certain scenes, including, she said, the one on page 272 which she felt was pornographic. I, of course, am not responsible for her daughter’s reading material, but I couldn’t help wondering whether this woman just got lucky and opened a random page to 272, or whether she read the whole book.”

(I suspect she probably went hunting just for those naughty and irresistable sex scenes.)

YOU ARE VILE FOR KILLING OFF THE DOG/CAT/BELOVED CHARACTER

Joe Konrath writes: “there was a reader who complained about a satirical short story I wrote, because the ending implied a dog would be euthanized. She called me an animal hater.”

Elaine Cunningham told me about a writer friend who “actually fielded death threats when he killed off a much-loved character. Unfortunately, his young daughter saw one of these letters and was understandably shaken.”

And yes, these sorts of letters are so common that every writer knows that if you kill the cat/dog/kid in the story, you’d better be prepared for the nasty letters that will surely follow.

 

YOU INSULTED MY PROFESSION/MY FAMILY/ MY ETHNICITY/ MY RELIGION/ MY POLITICS/ MY BLAH BLAH BLAH)

Yep, we’ve all gotten those.  I’ve been scolded by organ bank officials, by hunters, by the parents of foreign adoptees, by liberals, by conservatives.  And they all say I’ve insulted them.  I’ve received letters from laboratory technicians furious that one of my fictional killers was a lab tech.  Just a stray turn of a phrase can set someone off.  Witness what this writer experienced:

“I had a sentence that was in the lines of “and he/she spoke to me like I was retarded.” I have received two emails from people saying that I was being rude and unfair to retarded people. One woman told me she had a brother who was retarded and he was a wonderful person and I had insulted him. This was all based on one half a sentence.”

She goes on to say:

“I have decided not to get into a pissing contest with pissed off readers. It’s not worth it, especially since 99% of all reader emails I receive are positive. BUT are we just supposed to take it from upset readers and acquantainces and friends? I have had friends (now ex friends) tell me a few days after my book comes out why they hate the book. I mean it’s like coming to your house and looking at your newborn baby and saying “your baby is ugly.”

Ouch, that hurts when your own friends and family insult you.

Finally, there’s my favorite category of all:

THE JUST PLAIN CREEPY/SEXUAL LETTERS

All women writers seem to have a story or two about these:

“I was at a signing with some other writers once and a man handed the writer next to me a photograph of his penis and said he’d really like to get together with her.”

“An editor once told me of an author who frequently gets invited to three-somes and more-somes when she attends conventions. Her books include such things, so some readers make assumptions.”

And finally, there’s the author who kept getting fan letters from a man who signed himself “Leaky Meat.”  Years later, she actually met the fellow at a convention, and he turned out to be a delightfully normal married guy.  Who called himself “leaky meat.”

I guess you just never know.

 

 

 

 

21 replies
  1. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    The one thing I truly don’t understand is why people feel the need to tell authors what they think. Have musicians been on the radio and received calls from people saying their music stinks? Maybe. But I have the impression the reader-writer relationship is somewhat unique in terms of readers actively lecturing authors.

    We seem to take our reading personally. Perhaps it’s because we spend a few hours of our time entering the author’s world voluntarily. Possibly because we’ve had an active role in picking up the book and buying it or signing it out of the library, we feel more engaged and less able to put it down when it offends. With TV, people just change the channel, but these people read the book and then express their moral outrage.

    Personally, I think I’m in favour of warning labels on books. What better way to entice an audience than to get an ‘R’ rating? If more crime fiction had warnings for graphic sex and violence, teen reader numbers would go through the roof. Seriously, the publishers are really missing the mark.

    I wonder if these moralists realize that the Bible is filled with rapes, murders, wars and slaughters of children. I guess the lack of profanity makes it okay.

  2. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Actually Sandra, it has happened there is a famous incident on UK childrens television where someone rang up and insulted a group live on air, needless to say this then instigated a whole review into the phone in questions.

    Likewise musicians are also not that helpful, a certain ex Guns & Roses Guitarist went on to talk live on air, on a childrens show about the oral sex he had had the night before.

    As to why people verbally attack authors, I can only think its thier only way, the reason why authors take it to heart is the fact that its done in thier medium in words. Whilst a number of us dont tend to look too deeply into things, when words are your life, each one is like a tiny dagger thrust at you, enough of them and its the death of a thousand cuts.

    The other problem is that I think theres shortly going to be a review about age ranges on books in much the same way there are for games, DVD’s (or Video’s if your still buying them, lol) etc. That should also help control a number of abusive letters, however there will always be one or two who seek to keep the 1950’s code of morality flying.

    The world moves on but some people dont.

    I think what Im saying is the whole thing summed up by a slight reworking of an Abraham Lincoln quote :
    You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.

    After all if we tried to do that, fiction would not only be a very boring place but in order to get around offending someone you’d expend hundred of words just to get around using an offensive word. The wheel of political correctness trundles on and it seems the only people you can fairly critise without having something hurled at you are white heterosexual males. Other than that your in for a lawsuit or two. LOL

    Anyway, all the best,

    Gareth

  3. WJS
    WJS says:

    Tess,

    That is just plain sad realty, after all. Those people who send letters of their own personal opinions that tends to be hateful, inflicting, or negative. They all seem to have a lack of an open mind or general understanding. It is interesting to see only certain number of the readers would pick up a pen and paper to shoot their negativity to you or other writers. Also, I have noticed that those negative readers who write has to get down to the words, to your own levels where you find your writing at your own heart. By allowing themselves at that level, they can inflict emotion disturbance and upsets to your own’s.

    I find your website to be a place of intelligent discussion and daily pep from another perspective. I also find it refreshing and help me find motivation and strength to keep that brain churning out with information.

    Another great and interesting input! I value your insights, Tess.

    Yours,
    Josh Simpson

  4. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    Gareth, interesting examples, and you may have a point about the fact that words are the medium.

    I think free choice is a wonderful thing, and everyone has the free choice to decide a book doesn’t suit their taste and not read it. Perhaps it’s doubly annoying with books. Unlike the radio, where you have no control over what song will be played next, books do not jump up and tape open your eyelids and make you read them. Perhaps it’s the complete stupidity of choosing to spend hours reading something only to lash out at the author over it. Complain to me about a technical error, complain that the plot didn’t hold together, you felt let down by the ending – fine. But when it was clear in the first chapter there were swear words don’t read the whole book and complain I subjected you to it. That’s not my problem, the reader made a choice. I haven’t had the need to abandon books often, but one I started felt so gratuitous in the mutilation of the woman’s body I abandoned it after chapter 1.

    As to book ratings, in part I jest. It would be impossible to have uniform agreement on books and where they fall. In my secular high school we studied Catcher in the Rye, The Bible, Stone Angel, amongst other books that included violence, sex and swear words. But when it’s Salinger or Fitzgerald it’s literature, so I guess that makes it okay.

  5. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, here’s my problem. My wife and I are Australian Shepherd Rescue for central Oklahoma. We rescue dogs from pounds and from abusive situations or sadly, dogs who were just dumped on the highway and get them their shots and try to find them homes. We have seen some really bad cases of abuse–ribs sticking dangerously far, rear flanks loaded with buckshot, etc. etc. I simply cannot abide cruelty to animals in books. We live it. Now there’s a huge difference between the humane treatment of euthanasia and torture. What I find acceptable but sad is putting down the family pet because, for example, it’s in the last stages of cancer. What isn’t acceptable and this actually happened in one book–some hired hit men drove up to a ranch house where the intended victim was on the front porch with two hounds. First they blew the heads off the dogs and then got their target. I simply can’t take stuff like that. So what do I do? I don’t bad mouth the author because of first amendment rights and I don’t send hate mail. But I do keep a journal and give a letter grade to books of first and second time authors. This particular book got an F for excessive cruelty and I will never read that author again. I’ll only mention the book if someone asks me specifically about that book. That’s as far as I’m willing to go. You don’t like a book move on for God’s sake. Life’s too short.

  6. struggler
    struggler says:

    I’ve never felt the need to address any negative feelings I might have directly with an author, but I HAVE been rather annoyed at reviewers whose judgement I trusted and whose opinions turned out to differ wildly from my own. But that’s the way it goes.

    I might as well take this opportunity however, Tess, to tell you how I felt after you killed off one of the characters in THE MEPHISTO CLUB – I won’t mention the name for fear of spoiling someone else’s, erm, ‘enjoyment’ but to be perfectly honest, my feeling was a mixture of satisfaction and relief, ghoulish though that might sound. I’m sure many of you guys know who I’m talking about. It was nothing to do with the occupation, colour or religious background of the victim. It was because you had (clearly very deliberately) drawn her out to be a most dislikeable character and I was just pleased to see her out of the way!

    Sandra, you beat me to it – as soon as I read Tess’ blog the thought of ‘R’ ratings applied to books containing adult material crossed my mind, but as you say it would be next to impossible to apply it. But in this ever-steepening slide towards political correctness, I can see the day when publishers might be obliged to include words along the lines of “Contains strong to very strong language” on the back cover or DJ. Maybe this is the case already in some countries, I don’t know.

  7. Craig
    Craig says:

    I would like to address this issue as well. I see no reason to “rate” anything. Books dealing with “adult topics” whatever that means are kept in the adult section of the bookstore, not in the “young adult” or “children”. If you want to know what you’re getting into, sit down and read the first 25 pages or so; that almost always gives me what I need to know about a book.

  8. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-let’s discuss the great issues over steaming plates of boiled cabbage(to avoid plagiarism charges i must credit robert crumb for the idea):)

  9. clare
    clare says:

    I find it hard to rate books and compare wildly different stories to each other. The most I do is say keep/ok/not-for-me

    If I find some content too disturbing then I skim read a few pages and depending on the rest of the book and relevance I’ll decide whether to read more by that author.

    As for characters dying, in real life people die all the time and we have no control over that. It’s realism.
    Always makes me laugh when the dog makes it!

    Writing to authors always seems cheeky to me. I get all excited when I get any reply to something. I’d never dream of writing something negative just decide that author wasn’t to my tastes and be relieved we’re all different!

  10. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Reading this post, I can’t help but think of Stephen King’s book, “Misery.”

    Crazy people seem so much less inhibted than the rest of us. I guess that’s why we call them crazy.

  11. IServeTheCats
    IServeTheCats says:

    To be perfectly honest, there are a couple of your books that don’t really grab me. However, I know that it is a matter of personal taste, so I don’t write to you about those. I don’t see what can be gained by anyone by doing so.

    On the other hand, I love a few of your books so much that they are getting worn spines. Those are the books worth e-mailing the author about, imo.

    I know how hard it is to write a novel, because I have tried. Where I have tried, you have succeeded. I imagine the people who write these sorts of mails are frustrated more by their own short-comings than any possible affront they perceive the authors to have made.

    Can’t wait for the next book! Keep them coming, Tess! You know we (your multitude of fans) love you. 🙂

    P.S. If Struggler is talking about the character I think s/he is talking about, I agree. >.>

  12. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Hey Tess, seems to me that all those readers are just hoping to be able to sue the writers for a quick buck…good thing your writing is copyrighted 😉 makes it harder for someone to claim something or the other…but I was wondering, does the FCC control what can and cannot be in a novel? Always the curious one here in the south! Can’t wait for your book!

  13. Diane Chamberlain
    Diane Chamberlain says:

    Tess, I share many of your feelings about these types of letters and emails. On the other hand, I try to divide them into the ones I can and should ignore (from people who sound a little dangerous. . . ) and those I want to pay attention to (from people who sound sane but upset). I will say that those letters, uncomfortable though they may be for me to read, have sometimes influenced my writing. Here are some of the changes I’ve made over time: I use four letter words more judiciously. I only kill animals when there is no other choice (and I’ve only done that once, because doing so takes too great a toll on me). I don’t stereotype people with a lot of tattoos. And thanks to one gentle reader, I think I’ve FINALLY gotten clear about the proper use of the subjunctive case. Being the recipient of criticism of any sort truly sucks , but I like learning from my readers — as long as I don’t feel as though I’m censoring what I really truly want to write.

  14. JohnNewland
    JohnNewland says:

    Letters to Santa Claus.

    People who write abusive letters usually have some pre-existing gripe or fear and use the triggering event of your book to express thier feelings. This reveals more about the person writing the letter then the person it is sent to. In many ways such letter writing is cathartic and temporary release for pent up anger. These missives should be treated like letters to Santa Claus fun to send but no one needs to read them. If only there was a way to automatically send them to the dead letter office.

  15. tiptop
    tiptop says:

    I agree with JohnNewland. I think in cases where the readers is over-the-top offended, there is more to the story than them simply disliking the book. So if you keep that in mind, the letters aren’t nearly as hurtful as they may initally seem.

  16. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Those are hilarious! I believe the response should always be:

    “Thanks for your interest in my book. I deposited your money, and my account was not offended.”

  17. Maxien
    Maxien says:

    WOW…i simply cannot believe that there are people out there that find your books unnatural, dirty, rude or anything other than perfect, fantastic and un-put-downable.

    I have read all but 1 of your books and i for one can say that i have not and dont think i ever will be disappointed.

    If people dont like what they ahve read it is either because you have raised some issues in themselves that they would rather not read about or they simply lead a sheltered life.

    I live in the UK so i doubt your new book “The Bone Garden” will be available to by here yet, but i can very much assure you that i will be buying it when it is available.

    I know i will probably sound like a psychotic, freaky, obsessed fan but i would like to thank you for giving me many many hours of fantastic reading. I just wish i could stop reading you books at night, i find myself staying up way into the early hours of the morning because i am gripped, then find that i cannot get up for work. Thanks

  18. snookums
    snookums says:

    You should said to the woman with the mentally retarded brother, “if your brother is mentally retarded, I seriously doubt he is reading my novels enough to be insulted by them.”

    I have to say this in regard to readers writing the author to complain about the novel. If it is a solo novel, I can’t see myself getting very worked up about it. That’s because I don’t have any expectations of quality when I pick up a solo novel, even if I’ve read the author before. With a series I could see myself getting upset if the author pushes out a bad novel. It’s like a brand. Still I wouldn’t rant and rave at the author. I’d probably just avoid them in the future. That’s what I’ve been doing with Stephen King since he finished his Dark Tower series the way he did.

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