Sometimes a throwaway tweet taps into a seething mass of resentment and frustration, one that many people don’t even realize they’re a part of. That’s what happened yesterday when novelist Celeste Ng, presumably after receiving the email that broke the writer’s back, posted:
Teachers: please, please, please don't assign your students to email an author and ask questions. It's not fair to us or to them.— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) October 8, 2015
The blowback—cries of “selfish,” “churlish,” and “sour”—was swift. But so was the chorus of amens from beleaguered writers across literary Twitter. “There are many ways writers can pay it forward, but I’m damn sure it’s not spending 24/7 responding to emails,” declared Emily Russo Murtagh. Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel agreed: “I took email address off website b/c I can either respond to email all day or write fiction, but not both,” she wrote. The thread spooled down toward scroll-infinity as, tweet by tweet, Ng’s gripe revealed itself from different angles.
I get a lot of those. It's a bit crazy to think teachers did that. https://t.co/ppgjDi1GxM— John Metta (@JohnMetta) October 8, 2015
Once got an email from a student asking me to explain the origin, meaning and theme of my play. For a 1 page paper. https://t.co/90j6PusDCD— Peter Sagal (@petersagal) October 8, 2015
I get so much "URGENT!! My teacher told me to email an expert tell me about space I need it for a grade" email https://t.co/ne5PKcfq9s— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) October 8, 2015
Some weary role models have even devised strategies for throwing students (and educators) off their scent.
In fact, avoiding mail is something of a writerly tradition. George Bernard Shaw devised a clever autoreply postcard for his unsolicited letters. So did Evelyn Waugh and Marianne Moore. (And if they felt overwhelmed by snail mail, imagine dodging correspondence in the Internet and social media era.) Umberto Eco, channeling a broken satellite dish, once told the New Yorker that “I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.” In an essay titled “Why I Am a Bad Correspondent,” novelist Neal Stephenson explained: “There is little to nothing that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings. It follows that I should devote all my efforts to writing more material for publication.”
As sensible as this sounds, surely we can agree that it is a little sad. Fiction speaks powerfully to us—it’s only natural that we might want to speak back. And much-ballyhooed “death of the author” aside, a person who commits words to paper should be, to some extent, responsible for their life in the world, answerable to the reactions they stir and committed to an ongoing conversation about their meaning. Easier said than done, of course, which is why scribblers have FAQ pages and occasionally even leave their fortresses of solitude to give a talk. But the intimacy of a letter received and replied to can transform a young fan, just as the heartbreak of being ignored can stay with him. (Slate’s Dan Kois still bears scars from the indifference of one Donald J. Sobol, to whom he wrote as a grade-schooler.) What’s the solution?
Based on what I heard from a few authors I direct messaged and emailed (I know, I know), it is possible to formulate a few commandments of author correspondence.
Thou shalt not ban or even discourage children from contacting writers.
Schedules permitting, authors should welcome the chance to connect to their audience, even if that audience is being funneled toward them by teacherly mandate. There are people whose jobs it is to unclog other people’s toilets and fry chicken parts in deathly-smelling vats and organize Kim Kardashian’s wardrobe by color. Authors, I’m sure you can find it in your hearts to suffer through some kid’s pedantic observations about your use of simile on occasion.
That said, thou shalt not expect a response.
Writers are only human, and answering one person’s message lies far down on the list of their professional duties. I won’t even use a boldfaced directive to dignify the question of whether it’s OK to make a kid’s grade dependent on a busy professional dropping everything to respond to a query.
Thou shalt do thy research and craft thy questions with care.
If thou art so popular that thou suffers from email overload, thou shalt consider employing a staff.
Politicians do it.
Thou shalt consider publishing under a pseudonym if you really hate reader interaction.
Robert Galbraith did it.
Thou shalt delete thy Twitter account to free up more time for writing.
Just kidding. That would be ridiculous.