Dispatches | January 29, 2007

Recently I received a piece of hate mail.  I have never gotten hate mail before, and it knocked me for a loop.  To get hate mail you have to be famous, or you have to do something public that is controversial.  Sometimes people get hate mail when they are embroiled in messy personal situations (though I suspect hate voice-mails or e-mails are more common in those circumstances). 

But none of the aforementioned conditions applies to me.  Well, wait a minute.  One of them does, kind of.  I wrote a blog for this website, and someone didn’t like it, and they sent me a very ugly letter.

At first, when I started to read it, I was shocked and embarrassed.  I folded it up without reading the rest of it.  I was going to throw it away, but instead stuck it in my file cabinet. 

Some people are by nature deny-it types, and some are deal-with-it types.  I am the latter, and after about four minutes I was curious to know exactly what this person who hates me said, so I got out the letter and read it through.  Just once.  I am not a masochist, and once was enough.

The letter-writer, who did not sign his/her name, said many unkind things, some of which were inspired.  The overall theme seemed to be that I was nobody, which was not too much of a barb. Not all of aspire to be somebody. For a long time I have believed that a really good editor should aspire to invisibility.  It’s a vocation that requires a strange blend of confidence that you know some things better than the writer and can help make a piece measurably better, and selflessness about getting any credit for doing so. 

The letter-writer said numerous other things, which I read with interest.  To detail them is beside the point, but I’ll mention that one of them involved saliva.  After reflecting for a few weeks about this incident, I keep coming back to the familiar old rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” etc. 

Obviously, words can hurt.  My words hurt the letter-writer (though having reviewed them to see if they were unjust, I still find them acceptable).  The letter-writer’s words did not particularly hurt me.  Why? Does it have to do with rhetorical muscle or lack of it?  With truth?  With thickness or thinness of skin?  I have been called a bitch online by an author whose work I’ve rejected, and it didn’t hurt me because it’s not true.  No one around here would say that — and we all at TMR know each other probably much too well.

I will say I did get very interested, in an academic way, in the subject of hate mail.  Not being a bitch, I have no grounds for writing any, but it seemed like it might be fun, a good style exercise, and I’m thinking I could put some in a book that I work on here and there — in the rare visible interstices of my life as an invisible editor.