E.B. White's Advice for Aspiring Authors
John Wilson Special Collections, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon
As a successful writer of works for both children and adults, E.B. White received fan mail often. But he seemed to hate it: White once wrote to a librarian that "although I'm not immune to praise and to friendliness, I get impatient with the morning mail, because it is, in a sense, my enemy—the thing that stands between me and a final burst of creative effort."
The practice of having youngsters write to authors is now widespread. It is an innocent, and perhaps laudable, diversion; but it has arithmetical consequences that teachers and librarians seem unaware of. The author is hopelessly outnumbered. You, as a librarian, tend to think of your exhibit as an isolated case, but it is one of thousands. The result is the author swamped with mail. Letters now come to me faster than I can answer them. Many of the letters contain requests—for an autograph, for a dust jacket, for an explanation, for a photograph. This to me presents a real problem. I have no secretary here at home, and if I am to deal with my mail I must do it myself; if I am to mail a book I must find the wrapping paper, the string, the energy, the right amount of stamps, and take the parcel to the post office up the road. This can occupy a whole morning, and often does.
His frustration with fan mail didn't stop him from writing back, though. In 1959, the Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style author—who, at that point, had been working at The New Yorker for 32 years—received a letter from a fan named Mike, who asked what an author had to do before he could have a book published. White politely responded with this (not very helpful) advice:
The principal thing [an author] has to do is to write a good book. Then he has to send the manuscript to one publisher after another until he finds one who wants to publish it. I'm glad you liked 'Stuart Little' and 'Charlotte's Web' and thanks for writing.
We have to wonder if Mike is still out there somewhere, trying to write a good book.