Salinger fan mail: Not always fun mail

Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote an article that made me sad, about answering fan mail for J.D. Salinger. She says:
The letters came from Sri Lanka or the Netherlands or Arizona. They included deeply personal admissions—cancer diagnoses, bankruptcy, divorce—and were often written in Salinger's own brash style or, at the very least, incorporated the slang of the period he chronicled....For the most part, they knew that Salinger didn't read his fan mail—in fact, he'd insisted that nothing, not one letter, be passed on to him—but each was convinced that his letter was going to be the one that was so moving, so brilliant, so funny, so perfectly aligned with Salinger's interests and sensibilities, that we, at Ober, would pass it on to him.

...These were not letters that the writers had tossed off carelessly, but notes that had clearly been written and rewritten, until just the right tone was struck. How could I simply throw them away? I began sending them personal letters telling them how much we appreciated hearing their stories and explaining, more gently, that we were prohibited from sending Salinger his mail, but we so often wished that we could.
Back in the day I used to answer a subset of religious and spiritual slush, which was heavily populated by car crash victims and lonely little old ladies, and so I recognize the urge to write really, really, really nice "sorry and no thank you" letters. (A few times writers sent me long handwritten thank you notes in response to my rejections, which actually almost made me cry at work once.)

As much as people in the industry give shit to the slush pile (and I give a ton of shit to the slush pile), and as hardened to illiteracy and jerk-ness as everyone gets, there are still some letters that crack you open like a tiny crustacean.


  1. As a clerk for a judge we once worked VERY hard to come up with a way to deny relief to someone without using the term "frivolous."

    Although his request was legally frivolous (yes, it's a term of art), the materials he sent were so heartfelt that we couldn't use that word on him. His requests were wonderful... just not anything that could have been granted by our court. We spent ages coming up with alternate reasons (each element had to be addressed separately) to say "no."

    I'm still pretty proud of how we handled it.