Fending Off Angry Readers

Louis Menand recalls the most vehement reactions his essays have ever gotten—including one from a reader who didn’t realize Menand agreed with him.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What’s the most vehement reader reaction you’ve ever gotten?

Louis Menand: One of the oddities about responses that you get to what you write, if you get a fair number of them, is that people have very different ideas of what you said.  People tend to read with a preconceived idea of what the piece is about.  If there are nuances in the argument, they won’t pick them up.  Sometimes people won’t even finish a piece that you wrote, because they’ve already decided what it is that you want to say, and generally I, whatever I say in the first half of the piece, you should not assume I'm going to end up with, but they don’t finish reading them.   So, and people read fast and stuff.  So you do get odd responses, but a lot of that is just that, you know, that people are, just aren’t reading it quite the way that you wrote it.

I think the, I guess the oddest response recently that I got was I wrote an editorial about Fox News, a comment, as the sort of editorial, first piece in the magazine.  And this was a response to some statement from the Obama administration that they were going to not treat Fox News reporters as real reporters.  So I wrote a comment about it, and I think Fox News is fairly ridiculous—and certainly the opinionaters on Fox are ridiculous—and I’ve made some fun of them at the beginning of the piece, but I, at the end of the piece, which was only about 1,000 words, I said that I thought it was a bad idea for the state or the White House, whatever, to single out one news organization and say you’re not a real news organization.  I just think that’s a very chilling thing and the First Amendment is all about letting people, even people whose views your despise, have their say, because then at the end of the day, you can say, "You had your say and you lost."  If you silence them, you don’t get to say that.  So I said this in the piece.

So I got a very angry email from somebody who was a Fox News junkie, who said, “You Harvard professors are all the same, Fox News is great, you know, you’re full of it,” and so I wrote back and I said, “Did you finish reading the piece?”  And he said, “No, I didn’t bother, it was such drivel.”  So I was like, “But you bothered to write an email about it, isn’t that kind of weird?”  I mean, so you do get that.

Question: After you criticized the “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” author, did people start critiquing your grammar?

Louis Menand: If you write for the New Yorker, you always get people critiquing your grammar, you can count on it.  So, because a lot of New Yorker readers are kind of, you know, amateur grammarians and so you do get a lot of that.  So that, I’m used to that.

But I think, yeah, with that piece, so this was this book by Lynne Truss and it was a big, big bestseller in the US, and there were a lot of bad things about it.  One was that the style of punctuation that she was explaining in the book is British style of punctuation, which doesn’t work in the United States, I mean, they have different rules, so it didn’t make sense that people buy this book in the US and think they were going to learn how to punctuate from it.

And then the book itself was full of real, I mean, like howlers, I mean, really bad punctuation mistakes and some grammatical errors.  So I had to say this, I mean, you know, I just thought the world should, at least somebody should say that she doesn’t know how to punctuate.

So the great thing was that there was a fuss in England about it, apparently, and her editor was interviewed and he was asked about my review, and he called me a "wanker"—which I thought was, you know, not very classy, but all right—and then it turned out that the next book Lynne Truss was going to write was civility, how there’s no civility any more.  She should start with her editor.