Most published writers, whether journalists, pundits, memoirists, novelists, essayists, poets, columnists or critics, receive at some time or another uninvited, though always welcome, commentaries on their work. I call such epistles "fan mail," using the broad definition of fan as anyone interested, touched, curious, enraged or inspired enough to read and then comment on the original piece of writing.
That is, not all fan mail is written by people who agree with, approve of or even appreciate the original work of writing. Since writers are published to be read, fan mail, both positive and negative, is an indication that the writer is doing his or her job.
Some but not all fan mail winds up as letters to the editor, which, in turn, sometimes but not always inspire their own fan mail. The fan becomes the fannee. Ho ho.
Fans can be a great resource, reference and sounding board to the writer of thick skin and skeptical mind.
Fan mail is always instructive, though, like all writing, not always in the way the writer intended. Ho ho.
The only fan mail that, in my opinion, should be dismissed out of hand is the unsigned. The anonymous critic lacks credibility, the courage of conviction, and, like the terrorist, a human name, face or idea worth considering. I like the motto of the Aspen Daily News, "If you won't want it printed, don't let it happen," and hold with the ethic that if you can't sign it, don't write it. Hate fan mail is, of course, as disturbing as it is unbalanced, and Bob Dylan's line "...don't hate nothing at all except hatred" is always worth pondering.
Every writer likes getting fan mail that approves and applauds his or her superior insights, perspectives, skills and wisdom; but the honest fan mail critic can be a writer's best help to being a better writer by pointing out errors of fact, a different perspective or deeper understanding. It can be, but it is more the exception than the rule.
I've been a published writer and recipient of fan mail for more than 40 years. In the early days I used to respond but discovered that such correspondence more often than not proves fruitless, thankless and distracting from the writing work at hand. It's best to let the writing stand on its own, as it is meant to do.
One of my first lessons in the perils of responding to fan mail came about after I'd written a column for my college paper encouraging readers to pass up a campus lecture by Robert Welch, who a few years earlier had founded the John Birch Society. I considered Welch to be a first-class nut job and his public reprimands of most Americans a waste of time for thinking people, a premise reinforced by four decades of perspective. But when the president of the local JBS chapter wrote a fan letter of strident disdain in response I did not listen to my own advice and was foolish enough to counter. Fan mail sparring with the local BS (as I termed it) president was an education in the antecedents of shills for the shrill as practiced by Bill O'Reilly, Chris Wallace, Ann Coulter, Jerry Falwell, and others.
A few years ago I received a fan letter on Aryan Nations stationary from a man with the unwieldy title of Ubersturmbahnfuhrer of that cretinous group of white inferiorists. The letter contained a veiled threat that I impetuously wanted to both publish and reply to, but my editor (correctly) said absolutely not. Instead, we gave the letter to the local chief of police to add to his file of such missives from the Ubersturmbahnfuhrer. A couple of years later this same Uberfan reportedly walked into a bar with a loaded rifle to rectify the sleight of being tossed out of the bar earlier that evening. The bar patrons—the story goes—took that old Aryan boy down, confiscated his rifle, pummeled him thoroughly and had him arrested. He was subjected to what his role models called Umseidlung and spent the next couple of years in prison, a good place for him to heal from his pummeling, ponder delusions of racial superiority and to compose fan mail, but I never received any more of it.
Most fan mail I've received has been less strident and disturbing than these examples, thanks be, but all fan mail is always welcome, always read, sometimes published and always held up alongside the writing that inspired it, for comparison. Fan mail is, or should be, a commentary, an addendum or part of a dialogue.
The best and most beneficial fan mail is that which responds to the issues in a piece of writing rather than attacking or praising the writer. It is the writing that stands or fails. The writer is the messenger, not the message. This is true for both professional and fan mail writers. Attacking the messenger is, literally, beside the point.