Smiley's letters.

Smiley's letters.

Smiley's letters.

Media criticism.
July 27 2004 6:08 PM

Smiley's Letters

Novelist Jane Smiley's epistolary relationship with the New York Times.

Her pen pal is the New York Times
Her pen pal is the New York Times

Getting a letter to the editor published on the New York Times editorial page is a long shot, as Times letters editor Thomas Feyer explained in a piece last fall. The editorial page letters column receives at least 1,000 fax, e-mail, and postal submissions a day and prints, on average, only 15.

But Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley has consistently beaten those odds, with at least nine of her letters appearing on the page since Nov. 14, 2000. The Times Book Review and the Times Magazine (both outside Feyer's fiefdom) have printed another three Smiley letters over the same period, with her most recent correspondence appearing July 25 in the Magazine.

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Smiley writes from the liberal perspective, reliably pillorying George W. Bush, attacking the gun lobby, disparaging the Reagan legacy, and dittoing Paul Krugman. But the secret to her success isn't necessarily her views: The Times prides itself on publishing letters from across the political spectrum. Feyer did, however, acknowledge in his piece last fall that letter-writing somebodies have a leg up over letter-writing nobodies. "Of course, we publish many writers speaking with authority in their areas of expertise, and letters from officeholders responding to criticism in these pages. We enjoy hearing from literary lights about what interests them—Norman Mailer on Kosovo, Jane Smiley on the Bush administration, Roger Kahn on crying in baseball," he wrote.

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The Times may enjoy hearing from literati such as Mailer and Kahn, but neither appears to correspond with the page very often. Nexis reveals a mere five letters by Mailer on the Times'letters page since 1981—with three of them co-signed by other writers—and just one by Roger Kahn.

The best explanation for Smiley's frequency on the Times page is that she works at it.

"Depending on what's going on in the world, I send them a letter every day," Smiley says from her California home. "Some days I send two."

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Smiley, who has written for the Times Magazine, the TimesBook Review, the paper's various travel sections, and its op-ed page, thinks the paper stopped assigning her pieces once they figured out they could publish her copy for free. She compares her Times letters to spitballs launched toward the front of the classroom.

"It works for both of us. I get to vent," she says. "I'm not on anybody's Rolodex when it comes to public policy. This is my chance to have a little bit of influence on political culture."

Nobody would call Smiley's letters to the editor writerly. Clichéd references to leopards changing their spots and flatfooted instructions to a somnambulant America to wake up betray her reputation as a stylist. A sampler from her collected letters to the Times:

As long as Americans live in thrall to the gun lobby, we will suffer the collateral damage of school shootings, workplace shootings, sniper attacks from bridges, and all sorts of other unnecessary mayhem.—April 27, 2004

Every bit of vigilance helps every newborn girl toward a decent life. I applaud [Nicholas Kristof's] experiment and the columns that he has written about it.—Jan. 27, 2004

The election of 2000 was a naked power grab that allowed the right to put its programs in place as quickly as possible. —March 31, 2002

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But my literary assessment doesn't disturb Smiley.

"These letters are things that I dash off," she says. "When writing letters to the editor, I'm very, very angry." Novel writing allows a leisurely and playful approach to a subject, she says. Letters to the editor require a writer to express a conventional thought in an expressive way that will capture immediate attention. The only other publication Smiley pesters with letters to the editor is the Guardian, her other daily newspaper. So far, the Guardian has resisted.

Smiley says her first letters to the Times were edited heavily, with excess verbiage getting the knife. Now that she understands the formula, she does the editors' work for them, submitting more succinct notes.

"I can often tell which letter is going to fly," she says.

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"She writes a good short letter," agrees Times letters editor Feyer.

Feyer calls Smiley a "wonderful writer" whose letters often speak for many other people and describes her as belonging to the small family of successful letter writers who understand the page's preference for compact arguments over elaborate treatises.

Smiley may never match the slugging percentage of Louis Jay Herman. In eight years after his retirement in 1987, Herman submitted 859 letters to the Times, 123 of which were printed, according to his records. The accomplishment earned Herman a Times obituary ("Linguist And a Devoted Man of Letters") upon his death in 1996. Brown University professor of philosophy Felicia Ackerman is another Times letter-writing legend, immortalized in a September 2001 Lingua Franca piece by Christopher Shea.

Will this Slate article jinx Smiley's Times streak?

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"It may have that effect," says Feyer. "It's probably not going to help her chances."

Smiley shrugs off that possibility.

"One door closes, and maybe the door to the Guardian opens."

******

Thomas Feyer explains how the Times selects letters for publication in this Sept. 14, 2003, piece  and its May 23, 2004, sequel. E-mail me at pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)