Now and then there’s a story or item that brings a nearly violent response from a small subset of readers. Even though they are usually represent a very small minority of my readers, I’ll often publish such letters. Why?
It is often a waste of time, if only because “You can lead a reader to knowledge, but you can’t make them think.” — which is why I try not to answer moronic complaints directly. I at least do try to choose interesting letters, or particularly outrageous or relevant ones, to answer in True or on the various pages on this site.
OK, So Why?
But there’s a wider reason. Part of it is a matter of principle, but that’s not enough of a reason. Part of it is that when a contentious debate comes up, I get a lot of people passing the issues and page URLs around, which helps increase the subscription numbers. That’s nice, but that’s not really enough of a reason either.
The main reason is readers love it.
True is successful because I point at people doing dumb things — so we can all laugh at their silliness. It’s rather basic, but good, entertainment. So when my own readers do dumb things, why not just shine the light of reason on them and be entertained by them, too? Indeed, when I asked readers if that’s fair they not only said yes, they essentially insisted on it.
Some readers think I get upset at such “attacks”*. Nope. Some think I’m “defensive.” Not even. Some think I ought to just ignore idiotic ranting. Well, that I do — you should see the letters I don’t publish!
But when people insist on acting stupid and sending their stupidity in as a letter to the editor, then heck yeah I’m going to use it as part of the entertainment offerings of True!
*What Prompted This Page
A letter from Walt in California a short time back is perfect:
I’m curious about something. You’ve said from time to time that you really love your job. Yet you get such incredibly whiny, even nasty complaints from readers, even when they KNOW you will call them to task for their silliness. That would really get me down to get letters like that all the time. You say you don’t get upset with such complaints, but my question is this: how can you NOT get upset? I sure would!
Walt’s question is a good one. But I put his letter aside because I thought I’d surely get another letter from another reader that would actually answer it better than I could. I simply filed Walt’s letter away and waited, and my wait was short — less than two weeks. On Saturday, I got this from Martha in Texas:
Dear Randy: I wrote to you a few months ago about my dad enjoying your articles that I read to him because he is in advanced stages of dementia in a nursing home. Your stories would always bring a smile and a response from him, while nothing else would! I am deeply grateful to you for your efforts. I have to say that my Dad passed away Thursday night. I am enclosing the news story/obit from the local paper.
I remember Martha’s earlier letter, which ran in the Comments on this page. She said she “used to take books to read to him, but I usually got no emotional response” when she read to him. Yet stories she read him from True consistently made him smile — she got that “emotional connection” she was hoping for, not to mention a glimmer of the intelligent, lively man she hoped was in there somewhere.
The “news story/obit” she attached was a lovely article about her father, and I can see why she wanted to connect with him. The Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times noted Frank Wagner was a retired chemist (and chemistry professor at Baylor University) who, his friends said, was a walking encyclopedia. “He was the smartest man I ever knew,” said former State District Judge Mike Westergren. “He was absolutely brilliant. He spoke nothing but English but could read at least 15 languages including ancient hieroglyphics.” Wagner, Martha’s father, was 80 when he died last week. He had six kids — three sets of twins! — and four grandchildren.
So, Walt: yeah, I do get tired of petty complaints from readers. I publish the ones I think will lead somewhere interesting (or entertaining!), but I get more than I run in this space. But I don’t publish a very large percentage of the kudos, either, since I’m sure either type of letter would get tedious for readers over time.
It’s The Contrast that Satisfies
Here’s the thing: for every letter I get bitching and moaning about something trivial, I get 100 telling me how much the reader enjoys True. Some of them even detail how a 12-year-old Internet newsletter has changed their lives, or helped them connect with or comfort a family member, as Martha did. And just 36 hours(!) after her father died, she took time out to write to me to tell me about it, and to thank me again for helping her reach her dad.
When you balance those two extremes, the good far, far outweighs the bad. How could it not? And I have a lot of letters like that in my files.
So when you get down to it, indeed the trivial whines don’t upset me since I’ve got so many letters like Martha’s. How many of the complainers can say one person has told them they made a huge, positive impact on their life? It’s a real honor to get one; it’s absolutely humbling to get dozens of them. So yeah: I really do love my job!
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