Fending Off Angry Readers

Question: What’s the most\r\nvehement reader reaction you’ve ever gotten?

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Louis Menand: One\r\nof the oddities about responses that you get to what you write, if you \r\nget a\r\nfair number of them, is that people have very different ideas of what \r\nyou\r\nsaid.  People tend to read with a\r\npreconceived idea of what the piece is about.  If \r\nthere are nuances in the argument, they won’t pick them\r\nup.  Sometimes people won’t even\r\nfinish a piece that you wrote, because they’ve already decided what it \r\nis that\r\nyou want to say, and generally I, whatever I say in the first half of \r\nthe\r\npiece, you should not assume I'm going to end up with, but they don’t \r\nfinish reading\r\nthem.   So, and people read\r\nfast and stuff.  So you do get odd\r\nresponses, but a lot of that is just that, you know, that people are, \r\njust\r\naren’t reading it quite the way that you wrote it.

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I think the, I guess the oddest response recently \r\nthat I got\r\nwas I wrote an editorial about Fox News, a comment, as the sort of \r\neditorial,\r\nfirst piece in the magazine.  And\r\nthis was a response to some statement from the Obama administration that\r\n they\r\nwere going to not treat Fox News reporters as real reporters.  So I wrote a comment about it, and I\r\nthink Fox News is fairly ridiculous—and certainly the opinionaters on \r\nFox are\r\nridiculous—and I’ve made some fun of them at the beginning of the piece,\r\n but I,\r\nat the end of the piece, which was only about 1,000 words, I said that I\r\nthought it was a bad idea for the state or the White House, whatever, to\r\n single\r\nout one news organization and say you’re not a real news organization.  I just think that’s a very chilling\r\nthing and the First Amendment is all about letting people, even people \r\nwhose\r\nviews your despise, have their say, because then at the end of the day, \r\nyou can\r\nsay, "You had your say and you lost." \r\nIf you silence them, you don’t get to say that.  So\r\n I said this in the piece.

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So I got a very angry email from somebody who was a\r\n Fox News\r\njunkie, who said, “You Harvard professors are all the same, Fox News is \r\ngreat,\r\nyou know, you’re full of it,” and so I wrote back and I said, “Did you \r\nfinish\r\nreading the piece?”  And he said,\r\n“No, I didn’t bother, it was such drivel.”  So I \r\nwas like, “But you bothered to write an email about it,\r\nisn’t that kind of weird?”  I mean,\r\nso you do get that.

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Question: After you\r\ncriticized the “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” author, did people start \r\ncritiquing\r\nyour grammar?

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

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But I think, yeah, with that piece, so this was \r\nthis book by\r\nLynne Truss and it was a big, big bestseller in the US, and there were a\r\n lot of\r\nbad things about it.  One was that\r\nthe style of punctuation that she was explaining in the book is British \r\nstyle\r\nof punctuation, which doesn’t work in the United States, I mean, they \r\nhave\r\ndifferent rules, so it didn’t make sense that people buy this book in \r\nthe US\r\nand think they were going to learn how to punctuate from it.

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And then the book itself was full of real, I mean, \r\nlike\r\nhowlers, I mean, really bad punctuation mistakes and some grammatical\r\nerrors.  So I had to say this, I\r\nmean, you know, I just thought the world should, at least somebody \r\nshould say\r\nthat she doesn’t know how to punctuate.

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So the great thing was that there was a fuss in \r\nEngland\r\nabout it, apparently, and her editor was interviewed and he was asked \r\nabout my\r\nreview, and he called me a "wanker"—which I thought was, you know, not \r\nvery\r\nclassy, but all right—and then it\r\nturned out that the next book Lynne Truss was going to write was \r\ncivility, how\r\nthere’s no civility any more.  She\r\nshould start with her editor.

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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