As a newspaper reporter in the pre-internet days I would occasionally receive letters and postcards from readers. Rarest were the expressions of gratitude, though a generous reader once included a five-dollar bill with his note. At the time, money was tight, and I kept it (thus breaking newspaper policy). More common were corrections, either howls of outrage over my idiocy or pedantic exegeses of simple errors of fact. Roughly once a year I would receive something more memorable and even less coherent: long, hand-written letters, sometimes twenty or thirty pages of unparagraphed scrawl. Often they defied decryption, and seemed written by a certified graphomaniac. The same author wrote to me at two different newspapers. I thought of them again some years later after first seeing samples of Robert Walser’s “microscripts.” None, as I recall, seemed particularly threatening, though I sensed true throbbing mania. Based on what I was able to read, the letters outlined convoluted theories about government control and corporate malfeasance, and were as close as I ever got to the American fringe, where people like Ted Kaczynski dwell.
In Unreliable Memoirs (1980), Clive James recounts his year working as an assistant editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. Mostly he was a proofreader:
“. . . writing is essentially a matter of saying things in the right order. It certainly has little to do with the creative urge per se. Invariably the most prolific contributors were the ones who could not write a sentence without saying the opposite of what they meant. One man, resident in Woy Woy, sent us a new novel every month. Each novel took the form of 20 thick exercise books held together in a bundle. Each exercise book was full to the brim with neat handwriting. The man must have written more compulsively than Enid Blyton, who at least stopped for the occasional meal. Unlike Enid Blyton, however, he could not write even a single phrase that made any sense.”
Like James, I have no bitterness about the years I spent working for newspapers. That’s where I learned to write, and where a naïve, under-educated young man learned something about the world. It was my graduate school. James continues:
“It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane. They arrived in relays from daylight to dusk. For all the contact they had with reality they might as well have been wearing flippers, rotating bow-ties, and sombreros with model-trains running around the brim.”
Today, I still get occasional conspiracy-minded notes of outrage from readers, but most are directed at me (I was accused last week of being “a dirty Jew,” as proud an epithet this goy has ever received) and not the rest of the universe. Email seems to encourage vitriol that at least possesses the virtue of concision and of “saying things in the right order.”