These days, it's easy to heap praise on our favourite stars - platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram means we can share when we are enjoying a new album by our favourite singer, whether we really identified with an actress' new film, or how we felt about the book we've just finished in moments.
But even in the days of instant communication, there is still nothing like a letter to give a personal touch. And few people seem to know this better than authors. JK Rowling's recent letter in the guise of Dumbledore to a fan who had survived a school shooting won her praise for the amount of care put into the message.
A recently emerged letter from Roald Dahl showed him giving advice to a student who had sent him an A-level creative writing project. The advice could be seen as harsh, but the fan believes that it taught him an important lesson early on. Other fan letters have inspired the correspondents to become authors, or simply provided a message of help for those who had written to their idols in an hour of need.
With that in mind, we have rounded up a series of some of our favourite responses from authors to their fans. Scroll down to see the whole list:
F Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald replied to this letter from Miss Lane Pride (whose name he seemed to enjoy), praising The Great Gatsby when it was first published in 1925. He seems particularly pleased with her enjoyment of the book, because as he says "for the first months there were hardly any sales at all, and until Mencken [a famous critic at the time] spoke for it the reviews were angry and childish".
(via Letters of Note)
When the 17-year-old Jay Williams wrote to Roald Dahl asking for advice on his A-level creative writing piece, he probably never expected the sharp response Dahl gave, telling him he "can't expect me to write your thesis for you" and asking him to "eschew all those beastly adjectives". Although the message was had a sightly harsh tone, Williams (now a full-grown adult working in journalism and PR) respected Dahl's words, saying:
"With the callowness and arrogance of youth, I was expecting him to say ‘wow this is amazing’…but it obviously sank in because that thing of keeping it tight really rang true as a young journalist and it has been a worthwhile lesson that I obviously learnt early on."
Many authors seem particularly keen to help their fans with their own writing. CS Lewis in particular made an effort to reply individually to the fans who wrote in, so much so that a whole book - CS Lewis' Letters To Children - has been written. One particular letter, advising an American fan named Joan, on how to make her descriptions more evocative makes comparisons to Wordsworth (although advising her not to read his poetry until she is older), and contains a long list of pointers on how to write more excitingly.
Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you're bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don't try it now, or you'll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you'll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.
About amn't I, aren't I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. "Good English" is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn't I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren't I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don't know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don't take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say "more than one passenger was hurt," although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!
What really matters is:–
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don'timplement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."
4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."
5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you'll like your new home.
(transcript via Letters of Note)
This letter, which sold at auction in 2013 for over £30,000, shows Bronte replying to a pharmacist named David Waldie in 1853. Waldie had written to tell her how much he enjoyed Jane Eyre. However, the three Bronte sisters had published the books under pseudonyms to conceal their gender, and Charlotte signs the letter C Bronte, and uses masculine pronouns, possibly to keep this pretense up, although she had begun to reveal her real identity by this time.
She writes: "The sincere affection of a reader's gratification is - I scarcely need to say - one of the much acceptable favours in which an author can be repaid for his labours. I shall be glad if any future work of mine gives you equal pleasure to that you speak of having found in Jane Eyre."
(via Lyon and Turnbull)
Walt Whitman to Bram Stoker
In 1876, a young Dublin government clerk wrote to the American poet Walt Whitman, praising his poetry, and including a draft of some of his own work. Whitman replied, praising his "fresh and manly" work and asking him to "write to me again". The young clerk was Bram Stoker, who went on to write Dracula.
Whitman's reply included these lines: "Your letters have been most welcome to me—welcome to me as Person and as Author—I don't know which most—You did well to write me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and so affectionately, too. I too hope (though it is not probable) that we shall one day meet each other."
And thankfully the two did meet, in 1884.
(via Walt Whitman Archive)
Beatrix Potter wrote this letter to a fan named Phyllis, who had written in asking for her own rabbit Fluffy to be included in her famous Peter Rabbit stories, explaining that she receives many letters asking for the inclusion of their pets in her books:
"There was a letter lately from a child in Wales who wants a book about a crocodile called Amelia! That I cannot stand! Then there is a small boy in Ireland who wants to know if Jeremy Fisher ever got married, and two want moles, & another wants a donkey named Salome, & another wants a horse book, and another wants hens, & another wants elephants - poor Miss Potter! Fluffy is a very reasonable request by comparison."
(via David Brass Rare Books)
Although not directly a letter to a fan, The Catcher in the Rye author did inspire somebody through his letters. Salinger was notoriously reclusive, employing an agency to deal with his correspondence for the majority of his later life.
One assistant, Joanna Rakoff, became particularly affected by the emotional outpourings of letters from Salinger's fans. The Catcher In The Rye appeals strongly to those in their late teens and early twenties, and the fans who wrote in to Salinger explained how they related to the novel. Rakoff, who had never read his work, eventually was inspired to become a writer, and published a book about her experiences answering Salinger's fan mail (with a generic response, which she found " harsh and cold and jerky") in 2014.
"A lot of the reason I ultimately read him was seeing the impact he had made on these people's lives. Somehow, for to this vast swath of the world's population, he was able to make them feel less alone. They wrote these letters to him that were so intimate."
Several endearing responses from the Harry Potter author to her fans have come to light in the past few years, including a response to a school shooting survivor in America written as Dumbledore.
And this 2006 letter to a fan who wrote to tell her that the books had helped her deal with the loss of her parents at a young age, as well as bullying at school, is equally as touching. Rowling writes:
"Thank you for your incredible letter; incredible, because you do indeed sound phenomenally like Harry Potter, in your physical resemblance and in your life experience. I cannot tell you how moved I was by what you wrote, nor how sorry I am to hear about your parents. What a terrible loss.
"I know what it is like to be picked on, as it happened to me, too, throughout my adolescence. I can only wish that you have the same experience that I did, and become happier and more secure the older you get."
(via Letters of Note)
Her 'coming-of-age' novels became synonymous with being a teenager from the publication of Are You There God? It's Me Margaret in 1970 to the present day, so it is inevitable that many children and teenagers wrote to Judy Blume asking for advice. So many of them, in fact that she published a book called Letters To Judy, showing the sort of things children were concerned about, with the subtitle What Kids Wish They Could Tell You. She addresses the letters en masse, for instance talking about a series of girls who asked her if she could write a novel about being gay:
"Because I tend to write out of my own experience and feelings I don’t know if I will ever write that book. But others have written about being gay and will again. I hope parents will remember that early same-sex crushes, sexual play and experimentation do not necessarily mean that a person is homosexual. What is most important is to prevent young people from feeling judged or condemned for their feelings and to encourage them to feel good about themselves, no matter what their sexual preference."
The actor and author, who has famously struggled with depression, wrote this inspiring response in 2006 to a fan named Crystal who had reached out to him during a bout of depression. His advice was simple but effective, and typically charming - comparing up, and down days to the weather, and reminding Crystal that "it will be sunny one day".
(via Letters of Note)
Enid Blyton had a stricter policy with her young fans - sending out standard replies to all letters. Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter recalled writing to the author aged six, during an episode of Desert Island Discs in 2014.
“I had a dreadful experience with Enid Blyton. I had a reply and it was wonderful: the best day of my life.
“Three weeks later I wrote to her again and I received an identical reply.
“I remember bursting into tears and going to see my mother saying: ‘She doesn’t remember me’. That was something I was so aware of. We tried not to send duplicate letters.”
And because of this Ms Baxter enforced a strict policy with her Blue Peter team, ensuring they wrote individualised replies to each child who wrote in, keeping an index to ensure that if a child wrote in twice they would have their first letter referenced in reply to the second one, to let the child know that both letters had been read.
A To Kill A Mockingbird fan wrote to Harper Lee in 2006 asking for a signed picture of herself. Lee replied with this charming note saying that she did not have any photographs but instead used her writing skills to present the fan with something more valuable: some advice, with the spirit of the novel embedded in it.
"As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don't think you are the most important being on earth. Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and say, 'I'm probably no better than you, but I'm certainly your equal.' "
(via Letters of Note)
Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings while working as an English professor, as well as studying Latin and Anglo Saxon, and his love of words is clear, as can be seen by his development of the Elvish language and names that appears in the books, which has its own grammatical system that makes it possible to learn. This also comes across in a letter to a fan named Elise Honeybourne, where as well as thanking her for her "generous and delightful letter", he is "specially grateful for your pleasure in the names: I took a great deal of trouble with them", before going on to analyse Ms Honeybourne's own name.
(via Letters of Note)
Images: archives/Letters of Note/Rex Features, words: Victoria Gray