TLS: “When the Script Hits the Fan”

In this week’s “Freelance” column of the TLS, novelist/critic DJ Taylor takes up the issue of fan letters to writers. He starts by characterizing those he himself has received, extending from the extravagant praiser to the anti-fan via the mildly admonitory and quietly knowing. Sometimes the extravagant variety results in a romantic relationship, but not in Taylor’s case. He spends a good deal of time mining the fan mail of George Orwell (who avoided personal contacts) and William Makepeace Thackeray, both of whom have been the subjects of biographies by Taylor, as well as others such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.

He concludes the article with this analysis of the attitudes toward their fans of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh (each a fan of, and writer of fan letters to, the other):

Every so often comes evidence of an author who has thought seriously enough about the compact between writer and fan to approach the business structurally, make category distinctions and ponder the right (or wrong) kind of response. The three volumes of Journals compiled in old age by Anthony Powell contain occasional references to the “sorting” of fan mail, in which Powell notes the locations from which it is sent, casts an austere eye over the contents (top marks awarded to people who write in with genealogical questions) and chides the “dotty” but persistent admirer who follows up his letters with small-hours phone calls and is finally told by Powell’s wife, Lady Violet, that he ought to see a psychiatrist.

But Powell, it turns out, is a mere amateur compared to his friend Evelyn Waugh, who devotes an entire letter to Nancy Mitford from July 1952 to the question of fan mail and how to cope with it. Many of Waugh’s categories, though pejoratively framed, will be instantly recognizable to the modern writer: “Humble expressions of admiration . . . . Impudent criticism . . . . Bores who wish to tell me about themselves”. As for dealing with them, Waugh’s counsel is invariably hard-line: “Manuscript sent for advice. Return without comment”. In the case of “very impudent” letters from married women, “I write to the husband warning him that his wife is attempting to enter into correspondence with strange men”. At the other end of the scale, admiring nuns could be sure of a picture postcard of the author.

Meanwhile, Waugh informed Nancy Mitford, wealthy Americans deserved a polite letter back. “They are capable of buying 100 copies for Christmas presents.”

Taylor’s latest novel is about the popular music business, where fans also play an important role. This is Rock and Roll is Life, and fans are present on the margins of the book, particularly in the road trip chapters, although not much letter writing is involved.

While Taylor’s column doesn’t mention it, fans often outlive their idols in both literature and music. Their posthumous adulatory activities find an outlet, extending well beyond mere letter writing, in well-organized fan clubs and literary societies. Indeed, in some cases–e.g., Jane Austen–a literary society can take on many of the trappings of pop music fan clubs.


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