With his days in the magazine coming to a close, SALIENT Editor James Robinson looks into the letters pages, and tries to get a gauge on reaction, relevance, and the personalities behind the letters pages.
Dear Readers of Smarty-pantslient,
This is a feature article on the letters pages. Maybe you will read it more than other features in the magazine. We all know what letter writers generally think of feature articles on the whole. “Wretched” a disgruntled soul wrote in issue 13 of this year. “Universally ignorable” wrote another in 2003.
Upon taking up my editorship, I did not consider the letter writers of this very magazine. As I thought that letters were something that just came in each week, where a built-in group of disgruntled readers that changed little from year-toyear took it upon themselves to tear us to shreds each year.
When I received my first piece of scathing mail, from Eleanor Toland (who used to write under the guise of Major Lee Piztoff) in issue four, I was initially wrecked. “I am astonished. No, truly, I am astounded. You amaze me. You have truly done something that I thought would not be possible. Something that I thought no one would ever be able to do. You have actually succeeded in making Salient worse than it was last year.” But you get used to it. People write in nice letters. People write in nasty ones. The skin hardens. I quickly found it best to not take feedback on board. If you believe every good review, you at least have to believe every bad one. I grew in confidence and learnt to block the letters pages out. To the point where this week, when a Mr. Rooster Chicken family wrote in: “As the reign of James is in its final days, he is forced to accept that the end of the school year will also bring an end to his name within our collective memory, giving us a short but prefect opportunity to amplify our laughter towards the weakness of his moral fibre, and his failure as a respectable Salient editor…”, I was barely moved.
My start of the year fragility in the face of the (often alarmingly aggressive) criticism a university population can throw your way, is reflected in the thoughts of Sarah Barnett, 2004 Salient Editor. “At the start of production, any criticism, even badly spelt or full of exclamation marks or clearly from a lunatic, I took totally to heart. I would chuck all letters into a folder to be read and sort on Tuesday night after deadline, and there were some weeks where I dreaded reading them because I knew they’d criticise my baby or threaten to kill me or – worse – point out some heinous grammatical error that got through in the week preceding. So, poor me.”
Barnett’s predecessor, Michael Appleton points out his ambivalence to the letter writing populous, but sees use in the mass of letter writing: “They’re a popular and sometimes amusing part of the magazine, so ‘hook in’ readers who otherwise wouldn’t bother; they can perform a useful quality control function, where a reader picks up a mistake you failed to or offers a considered perspective on the magazine’s performance; and they allow some readers to feel greater ownership of the magazine.” Barnett stunningly confessed to me that she enjoyed reading some of the letter writers. “I actually came to look forward to certain writers, whether critical or not, because they would write letters relevant to student life and the magazine, they could spell and they were funny.”
“I didn’t kid myself that all views expressed in letters pages were particularly representative of the magazine’s readership. Rather, many letters were filled with overblown, expletive-strewn, infantile rhetoric offering more of an insight into the underdeveloped argumentation skills of their writers than into the quality of the magazine upon which they were ostensibly commenting.”
The operative word being some though: “What continued to be irritating was the sheer weight of illiterate, pointless drivel you’d get every week, that all went in because of the open letters policy. I considered amending it nearly every week on a quality control basis, but at the end of the day, Salient is owned by students and if that’s the voice they want to contribute to the magazine, so be it.” 2005 Salient Editor Emily Braunstein’s censoring of the letter’s pages had Eleanor Toland campaigning for her resignation. Appleton felt likewise, “I didn’t kid myself that all views expressed in letters pages were particularly representative of the magazine’s readership. Rather, many letters were filled with overblown, expletive-strewn, infantile rhetoric offering more of an insight into the underdeveloped argumentation skills of their writers than into the quality of the magazine upon which they were ostensibly commenting. Such letters could provide an amusing diversion, light entertainment of a similar quality to your latest teen rom-com. Just as often, they were tedious and borish.” I’ll leave the letter writing criticisms to my former editors. You’ve still got a week to get revenge.
A flick over old letters pages finds the letters scenario far different from what it is today. A letters page rebuttal from 1941 reads, “I beg you to reconsider the facts you are appearing to be missing that are also quite undeniable.” 65 years down the track, and from this very issue, retorts have been reduced to the level of “Daddy Ape is a homosexual. He practices daily sweet monkey lovin’.” If anything the letters forum has become a brutal exchange of opinion. The Salient letters pages have grown in prominence, even if letter writers of yesteryear pine the current lack of quality. The now burgeoning letter-writing cult was given a boost in 2003, when the letters pages were shifted to the front of the machine, and the percentage of pseudonomical writers increases every year. So it is slightly odd to refer to my set of interviewees for this story by the names of ‘Fibonacci’, ‘Eric Shin’, ‘Critical Critic’, ‘Off-Peak Boy’, and ‘Nibbles’
What compels these people though? The above mentioned five have been regular features of the letters pages over the last few years. Why lend your writing skills to such a disposable format? The five were hard to pin-down, although some leaned at a sarcastic run for glory. “Fame, glory, power, chaos, money,” Nibbles says. Eric Shin went down a similar road with his declaration of “drugs, bitches and infamy”. Critical Critic bought a smile to my face with his claim that, “In fifty years time at a Victoria alumni get together, the Prime Minister will turn to the Governor-General and say, ‘Do you remember Critical Critic? Man, fuck that guy.’ And my life will be complete.”
Fibonacci tells me that a pseudonym allows you to “reinvent yourself” and there is “potential to be as psycho as you like without the risk of being arrested”. When Fibonacci added that her letters were ways to vent frustration at things viewed in everyday life, she added that it came down to, writing to Salient or “committing homicide”. Critical Critic said that, “it’s good for my rage”. Nibbles added that she’s a “bit of a vindictive bitch”. Troubling. It seemed that these may be angry students spewing rage forth in a desperate bid to reduce violent urges and keep themselves out of prison. Is this your typical letter-writer? Mostly – delusions of violence aside – it’s about escapism. Off-Peak Boy says that it’s fun to build up a following from weekto- week, in a “persona that is distinct from what you’d normally write.” Any run-ins with the real people behind the pseudonym’s are pleasant. Despite his protestations otherwise, Critical Critic is a surprisingly friendly person to sit and have a beer with.
Sukmeov was offensive in print and in person. His emergence in 2002 was punctuated with such classic wisdom as telling controversial women’s rights officer Jasmine Aletia that: “you need the cock.”
Pseudonyms have bought the letters pages attention in Salient. And while a look at the letters pages in 2006 reveals a mostly self-indulgent group of writers, in 2002 the letters pages were mostly the domain of surprisingly intelligent debate. A glance across a typical letters page in 2002 saw debate over Feminism, Israel- Palestine, controversial taxi spending at VUWSA, and funnily enough, the merits of a young Nick Kelly. Influential on the current explosion of pseudonyms was one Yule Sukmeov. Critical Critic says that, “Basically, it all comes back to Yule, since I think he really inspired the explosion of pseudonyms in 2003. Even though in retrospect he was highly shit.” Eric Shin talks of Sukmeov’s era as the “halcyon days” for pseudonyms. And it was Sukmeov who started the column cross-over, with a fortnightly 2004 effort. Sukmeov was offensive in print and in person. His emergence in 2002 was punctuated with such classic wisdom as telling controversial women’s rights officer Jasmine Aletia that: “you need the cock.”
The Aletia debate seemed to add a radical, prolific edge to the Salient letters section. A section that was usually no more than four pages was extending out though to six pages. And in 2003 it would not be uncommon to see letters pages stretching out to seven and eight pages, a trend that continued into 2004 and 2005. The Aletia debate became so prominent over such a period of time that 2002 Editor Max Rashbrooke declared in the letters pages, “sometimes I don’t think we’d get any letters if it wasn’t for Jasmine Aletia.” While vitriol was definitely around sporadically pre-2002 in the letter’s pages, it soon found a home. “This new breed of pink triangle Nazis are bringing the campus into a state of imbalance,” wrote an ‘Unwilling sponsor of feminazis’, a good example of a far more consistently aggressive edge starting to show in the letters pages. And I might add, an example of a slight decrease in overall rationality and literacy.
This year the number of letters has decreased, and a lot of writing has become attention grabbing and selfindulgent. “I have decided to become one of those pseudo-celebrities that adorns your letter pages” declares one Angus Knight in issue 4 of this year. Eric Shin claims that most of his letter writing is done to “mock other letter writers”. Will the new breed of letter writers kill each other off in a spell of mutually assured destruction?
The current level of attention afforded the letters pages almost explains the current levels of pseudonym self-indulgence and reliance on the pseudonym itself. Yule Sukmeov and Critical Critic both crossed over to regular column notoriety. Lemon Cohen was immortalised in the partly Robbie Nielson (Man creator) driven hunt to unveil his identity. It was an indicator of how big a pseudonym could, and had become in a short space of time as the magazine soon turned on its axis around Cohen’s identity. Nibbles talks of sitting next to Robbie Nielson at a party halfway through the saga, and her “girlfriend glaring at her the whole time.” Which, strangely, is a meeting that Nielson is unaware of ever happening. Cults of personality were no longer the annoying self-indulgence of Salient staffers. Anyone could pick them up through the Salient pages.
But if this group isn’t a representative of the wider university population, than what does the wider university population think of them? I consulted students about the letters pages in their weekly Salient. The results ranged only in levels of dismissiveness.
“I don’t really think about the Salient letter writers,” said one. “Never read them, they’re a waste of time,” remarked another. One said that although he never really paid attention to them anymore, he used to “love the smack talking.” It was a common consensus that a few might be read before moving on. One student bought up the worthy point that in an age of apathy, the letters pages were “the only thing that students actually get involved in”.
If anything, the letters pages become an interesting time capsule of opinion, where student thought can be roughly traced and mapped. The response to Geoff Brischke’s considered piece on the media treatment of suicide in issue 23, 2005 was rational and sensitive. But a letter on an article on suicide in 1996 illicited the response that suicide was for those “locked in self-hate”. A letter from the mid-1990s talks about moves to ban smoking inside bars as the product of “self-righteous fascist bastards” and a letter from that same year talks of the introduction of student fees as “bourgeois hand-wringing” that could “easily and quickly be abolished.” People reacted with disgust at the fact that the threshold for independence from your parents in the eyes of the government is 25. Ten years down the track those letter writers would be sad to know that some things just don’t change. The issues covered are predictable, but interesting. The 80s sees interesting discussion on the Springbok Tour, the 70s Vietnam. Sexuality, gender and social policy come to light with a flourish in the letters page around the turn of the millennium. If anything, the letters pages are an imprint of student opinion that will always remain. And even in today’s slightly less considered letter-writing climate, you are still leaving your opinion in these pages that will be catalogued and looked back on. I imagine someone will read with interest in thirty years time that in 2005 Christians views on sex before marriage were along the lines of, “if it’s sexually arousing it’s probably not a good thing to be doing,” and “if you taste skin, you probably want more”. But I’m sure that that same historian would probably react with confusion at the increase in illegible and hateful letters in the first few years of the 21st century.
The Opressed Straight White Male once wrote of me that I was a “knobgobbling, goat-raping pencil-pusher”. And if anything, the letters pages afforded me a way to get torn apart and savaged in a fashion that I would probably never be privy to again in my life. Some letterwriters over the years have got to me. And sometimes I’ve snapped back. But you learn not to. I’ve been astounded at some things written in these pages in my time, and highly entertained by others. When it’s been aimed at me, I’ve usually been able to be ignore it. Usually being the important word.
And when I have received a positive remark from some letter page veterans, I was happy. I’ll always assume that you’ll hate us, but I’m always glad when you don’t.
So I guess it’s like what Wes Mantooth says to Ron Burghundy at the end of Anchorman, “I may hate you, but goddamnit do I respect you.” See you in hell, James Robinson.