Under The Sun

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Many critics will tell you that their best allies are authors who write letters to the editor in response to a negative review, because such authors more often than not display exactly the attitudes and bad prose style that earned them the negative review. Here, with a slight twist, we have an instant classic of the genre:

"To the Editor:
"In Brooke Allen's review of a new biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Oct. 5), she inappropriately underestimates the ability of high school students to comprehend literary pieces like "The Scarlet Letter." Not only are Allen's comments irrelevant to the purpose of the review, but they also offer no evidence for her rude assertion. In fact, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 23 percent of the 191 million adults in America perform at the lowest reading proficiency level. On the other hand, we, as 16-year-old students at the Hockaday School, have mastered the works of Homer, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and Hawthorne. Thus, reading comprehension is dependent upon the quality of literary exposure, not upon age."

(There's lots to laugh at here, but my favorite is "mastered".)

For the record: when I was 16 I was an editor of my high school newspaper, and had learned to identify poorly-written opinion pieces. I'd also read The Scarlet Letter, and I knew even at the time that I hadn't really understood it at all. And finally, contra these students' lack of literary judgment, Allen's remark about high school was in fact germane, though not essential, to her review.

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