Dear Answer Lady,
I am a totally unfamous novelist in my late twenties. I sometimes get email from readers but it's rare enough enough that I am usually taken by surprise when it happens. My "fan mail" is flattering but also sometimes unnerving and/or a pain in the ass. Sometimes the emails take the form of traditional "I really liked your book!" but other times they are totally random and weird. One time someone asked what kind of underwear I wear, and could I please send a used pair. Other times I get emails from teenagers.
I feel kind of weird about the email from teenagers because I'm a grown man, and should I really be emailing with children? But I feel obligated to reply out of politesse. Also I myself had a youthful email correspondence with this zine person I admired, and he was really nice-he even invited me to go to Wigstock with him. (Looking back, I really wish I had gone.) I consider my correspondence with him to have been formative for me in my late-teenage years, but that was before everyone was freaking out about pedophiles and these days I just don't think it would be a good idea to have that kind of relationship with an underage reader, no matter how aboveboard and Dear Mr. Henshaw-y.
This is all just a long way of saying that I never know how to deal with mail from "my public." So recently I got an email from a teenage boy. It wasn't exactly inappropriate, but it was sort of out of left field, in the sense that I had to read it twice to be sure it was actually intended for me. Besides the general WTF of it, it was otherwise a smart and funny email, and I was please to have received it. This kind of thing is actually very rare from readers, who ironically tend toward the illiterate.
The main thing to remember here is that I am unsuccessful enough that any correspondence at all is a novelty for me, which is sadly the main reason that I immediately forwarded the email in question to a friend, with a message something along the lines, "OMG this person is crazy! What do I say!?"
What I really meant, of course, was "Look! Someone sent me an email today!" but I wasn't going to admit that was what had me all excited. Basically I needed a cover story. Of course, the friend in question is well-known in her own right and probably gets a hundred admiring emails per day so I don't know who I was trying to impress, but whatever. The problem is that instead of actually hitting forward I hit REPLY. And sent my reader an email telling him that I think he is crazy. (Which I don't even.)
FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!!! I need all the fans I can get. I can not afford to alienate even one-especially one who sends funny, smart emails that aren't actually that crazy at all. Plus I feel really bad about being mean to someone who is essentially a child, particular in light of my own positive experience with internet correspondence as a youth. HOW CAN I RECTIFY THIS SITUATION????
Being Too Forward
Dear Too Forward,
We've learned a valuable lessor or two here, right? Never forward anything as a way of mocking someone ever again. Never talk shit about anyone behind his or her back ever again. And never make fun of someone else as a way to make yourself look good.
Haha, just kidding. I mean, it would be nice to live by these rules, but let's face it, we are not saints. Lucky for us! While it seems fun in some ways to spend your days hugging hundreds upon hundreds of your hippie supplicants, it also seems taxing and like it might give you a perpetual cold. Happily, that is not our dharma. We are not saints, we're just ourselves, and sometimes we are going to make total boneheaded errors that, just merely remembering them will cause us to flush and shudder for years afterward.
Email lends itself so easily to this kind of hideous embarrassment-it's sort of the dark hidden cost of all the happiness and convenience email brings into our lives, that it can function as a permanent and shareable record of our most hideously embarrassing moments. This is part of the reason why I can't fully enjoy Moe and Georgia's Crap Email From A Dude project. Who among us hasn't sent an email, with either mistaken or just retrospectively wrongheaded intent, that would qualify as hideously Crappy? We're all guilty, all of us, of having said and done some stupid things, and twenty years ago those things would have just faded into memory. Now, though, concise records of many of our mistakes are owned jointly by us and whoever we humiliated ourselves in front of.
This teenage boy now has the power, if he wants to, to make a whole bloggy stink about how you are such an asshole. He probably won't-he's probably just as embarrassed by the whole thing as you are-but he could. And even if he doesn't, just knowing that he knows that you had a moment of preening self-importance at his expense-well, that is the kind of thing that would (and does!) keep me up nights, Too Forward.
But let's pause for a moment here-before I tell you what you can do to make this right (not much!)-and consider another side of this story. What if you are not entirely in the wrong, here?
You mention that you have a hard time figuring out how to respond to "fan" emails but you also allude to the fact that most people don't know how to go about, well, sending them. In the age of everyone/no-one is famous, this is a big, widespread problem. Pre-Facebook, pre-Direct Message, pre-Reblog, if you wanted to get in touch with someone you had never met but felt like you had something to say to, you had to do some things! You had to go to the library, look him up in Who's Who, find the address of his publicist, then write a letter, address it to the publicist with a pen, fold the letter into an envelope, put a stamp on it and deposit it into a mailbox. That last sentence contains at least five words that I'm pretty sure my youngest cousins, Dylan and Kaylie, would not understand. (Though D and K are very helpful if you are trying to figure out how to use an iPod Touch-it's not that intuitive, okay?)
The relative ease of clicking "send" makes contacting a stranger seem less of an occasion for formality and politeness. It isn't. It's wrong to assume that just because you know a lot about someone or you appreciate her work, you are allowed to address them as you would a good friend. Familiarity with a person's work also doesn't make that person beholden to you. Forward, you are correct to feel obligated to respond to "fan mail," but you shouldn't feel obligated to respond at length to emails that are rude or strange. And if someone has dashed off his email without a thought as to how it might be received-eg, he has written you an email containing no preamble and some non-sequitur factoids-you're within your rights to think it "crazy," and to be confused about how to respond.
All that being said, though, you know you fucked up when you forwarded this email, and you need to apologize to its sender, especially because he is sixteen et cetera. Be humble and solicitous and kind and sincere in this apology. But don't debase yourself too much, or say anything you wouldn't want made public-you never know who has a mean streak and a Tumblr. Or you do know, and it is: everyone.
Questions? Oh please let us help! Write Emily's private line here.
Previously: How To Deal with Blog Comments from Yo Auntie