Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I’ve Got Mail

by Kathleen Ernst


Last week I got my first hate letter, from a reader who so disliked Old World Murder that she felt compelled to track me down and tell me so. Angry Reader criticized my “agenda” which, she said, included racism, feminism, and recycling. She concluded by saying that the only thing she liked was the cover, and that she’d never again buy another book of mine. Ever.

The plot of Old World Murder does celebrate women’s history, and protagonist Chloe does makes a negative comment about someone who is a racist. So yes, I guess you can tar me with those brushes.

The recycling thing was a bit more bewildering. Perplexed, I returned to the manuscript, and found this line: “When Chloe spotted a recycling bin on one of the landings, she stopped long enough to discard the photocopies she’d made for her intern.” That was it.

I always respond to letters and email from readers. In this case I wanted to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry you were disappointed. No one book is a good fit for every reader, and I hope the next one you try is much more to your liking,” and leave it at that. Since I suspect this reader’s ire had to do with issues a whole lot bigger than one mystery novel, though, I broke my own rule and hit the delete key.

The next day I got another email with Old World Murder in the subject line. I will admit that for 2 seconds I wondered if Angry Reader had asked a friend to hit me with another blast. This letter, though, was from a reader who loved the book. She loved the story. She loved the writing. She wants to spend more time with the characters.

She concluded with this: “Old World Murder was a reminder to me that stories are powerful and they make us better, ordinary people live extraordinary lives, and everyone who lives is a part of history.”

I write stories to entertain, but I do focus on things that matter to me—things I am passionate about. In this case, Nice Reader didn’t just like my book (which would have been plenty!), she understood what I was hoping to do. And she took the time to tell me so. Since I couldn’t reach through cyberspace and give her a hug, I sent a response that I can only hope means as much to her as her note did to me.

These two letters reminded me that when we choose to put our work out there, we can’t predict where it will land. When we choose to become professional writers, we have to accept the whole notion of public censure or approval. All I know to do is roll with the negatives, and take time to celebrate every upbeat moment you can.

PS – On the day this post goes live, I’ll be in the middle of a week spent as a volunteer docent, living in and providing tours of an old lighthouse on an island in Lake Michigan. I promise to respond to all communications—well, almost all—as soon as I return.


Robin Allen said...

Kathleen, I am so sorry this happened to you. You're right that Angry Reader has bigger issues than your book. (Who has a problem with recycling?) Imagine what her entire life must be like. And then write a book about it. :-)

I'm glad her vitriole was balance with sweetness.

I hope I'm as diplomatic as you and can hit the delete key when the time comes.

Jessica Lourey said...

I am always surprised that people are willing to spend the energy to send anger on to strangers.

I think feminism, racial equality, and recycling rock, though, as does an awareness that history is made up of everyday people and their activities. Your book just moved to the top of my TBR pile.

Gwen Gardner said...

Wow, Angry Reader needs to get a grip. I can't imagine spreading hate like that. Obviously there are bigger issues at stake here. Thank God for "delete" buttons.

Beth Groundwater said...

Not responding to the Angry Reader was the right thing to do. Then forget about the email. It was all about them and their issues, not you and your book.

Darrell James said...

I'm always suprised by the vast difference in the way people see and react to life. This sounded like an emotional response that, at it's core, had little to do with you or the book.

Alan Orloff said...

I love a good recycling yarn!

Lois Winston said...

Kathleen, unless someone has OCD or has been given a class assignment, I've never understood why anyone would waste time reading a book she didn't like.

Angry Reader obviously has a lot of problem. Hitting the delete key is the right way to handle people like that because no matter what you'd say, she'd find fault with it. You never want to engage that sort of person.

Jessie Chandler said...

Kathleen, my cousin and another gal saw this on my facebook (from linked blogs thing) and both of them said they are feminists who don't like racists and reycyle all they can. They said to blow off Angry Reader and mentally hug Nice Reader often. I completely agree. Once in a great while, that delete button is a writer's best friend!

Alice Loweecey said...

Kathleen, you radical recycler, you!

You did the right thing not to engage Angry Reader. Responding to fans is great and gives them a connection with us. But the delete key is made for the haters.

Think of it this way: It takes a powerful writer to call forth strong emotion.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks, everyone, for the moral support! Your comments are much appreciated.