Complain, Complain

With the obvious exception of the front page, the best read portions of any newspaper are not the sports columns or the comics or the editorials. The best read sections – the segments most loyally and carefully scrutinized – are the ones readers write themselves: the classified ads and the letters to the editor.

The classifieds, of course, are the bread and butter of the newspaper’s finances. For a fee, one can announce anything in the classifieds, from sexual needs to political convictions. (For years a Toronto man used the Globe and Mail to advertise his umbrage under headings like ”Hang traitor Trudeau!”)

Being themselves items of commerce, however, most classifieds seek to effect some commercial transaction: cars for sale, houses for rent, purebred Rottweilers on offer. It’s via the letters to the editor that the polity raises its voice on the pressing issues of the day.

I wish to protest most strongly about everything.
Henry Root
West Brampton
London Evening Standard, August 15, 1979

It’s no accident that the letters invariably run in the editorial spine of the paper, alongside the satirical cartoon, political columns, the op-ed essay, and the editorials themselves. Most personal correspondence is conducted as a private affair – letters to lovers, confidants, bank managers – but the letter to the editor is by its nature written for public consumption. (Good letters address the editor merely as a convention; they are in fact addressed to fellow readers. Bad letters are those scrawled in red crayon across ragged swatches of offending newsprint.)

The letters therefore share the fundamental presumption of the editorials (and a crucial presumption of liberal democracy): that it is possible to intervene in the course of social and political events simply by publicly commenting on them. Whether concerned over government conduct, furious at Canada Post, or bemused by a paper’s consistent grammatical blunders, all letters to the editor are composed in the hope that they might have some effect.

To have a letter in your columns is frequently felt to be the duty of the distinguished: it is ever the ambition of the obscure.
The Times, Jan. 9, 1930

For the pollsters, with their flow-chart surveys and scientifically sound samples, the letters page can only be a poor register of popular opinion. And yet it’s one of the few platforms afforded ordinary folk for the direct expression of their views.

In motion pictures, the public’s participation is largely limited to furnishing box office receipts; in television, to serving as game show contestants. Only the print media make a point of recording and acknowledging the sentiments of their readers.

As irrelevant as such a form may sometimes seem in a world of big capital and big government, the letters page is nonetheless an essential daily jolt of democracy-in-action. Imagine a society in which it didn’t exist – no “Yours, disgusted” of Tunbridge Wells, no “Shocked and appalled” of Smiths Falls. Imagine a newspaper in which letters are selected for how well they accord to an official line.

The technical term for any system that denies space for dissent is “authoritarian.”

Happily, we live in a country that prizes diversity of opinion, and from abortion to immigration to free trade, the readers will have their say. The hard left, the organized right, the politically marginal – all jockey for the high ground of the compelling argument. Wit mixes with pathos, the mighty with the humble, and the obvious with the unconventional.

My friends are expecting me to write a strong letter on the subject of the Canada Health Act. This is that letter. Please print it, as I hate to disappoint my friends.
Morton S. Rapp, MD
The Globe and Mail, Dec. 19, 1983.

Unlike the classifieds, which are open to anyone for a price, access to the letters page is free, but limited by constraints of space. Hence the point of Dr. Rapp’s joke: “Please print it.”

(The Kingston Whig-Standard is an exception. Its policy is to publish all the mail it receives, apart from the libelous and the manifestly insane – a laudable impulse that can unfortunately render its letters section unreadable.)

The discrepancy between the volume of mail received and the paucity of available space is what allows the letters editor to “play” the section as an editorial instrument. And like the labour of the entire paper, the dual effort typically is to array the full range of competing views while at the same time encouraging the possibility of a rational consensus.

The fact that the two are rarely reconciled is not something to lament: on the contrary, it’s the triumph of pluralism. In a true democracy nothing is incontrovertible and no one is infallible.

My husband, T. S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: “You’re T. S. Eliot.” When asked how he knew, he replied: “Ah, I’ve got an eye for celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ and, do you know he couldn’t tell me.”
Valerie Eliot
The Times, Feb. 10, 1970
(Bertrand Russell had died.)

The letters to the Citizen are representative, if not exactly typical. Ottawa is a thoroughly well-educated town, home to two universities, the federal government, the diplomatic circuit, a raft of national headquarters, a press gang of parliamentary correspondents, and a further grab-bag of artists, scientists, economists and consultants.

Not only can none of these people agree with one another, but they’re just as likely to write about the prosaic (the No. 11 bus service) as they are about the grandiose (Perrin Beatty’s nuclear submarines).

The avid reader of the letters page is therefore treated to a running dialogue on everything from the sacred to the mundane, and every bit as informative and entertaining as the contents of the news columns. (That’s why most papers insist that published letters be signed. If one is going to contribute to the popular discourse, one must have the courage to do so in one’s own name. The days of pseudonyms like “Victorian” are long gone.)

However, if there’s a recurrent motif in the letters to the editor, it’s the performance of the paper itself. Readers comment, not simply on issues and events, but on the paper’s coverage of issues and events.

They contest its version of reality, dispute its emphasis, bemoan its grammatical lapses. They rebut the editorials, harangue the columnists, and take issue with the choice of comic strips. In short, they work unflaggingly to keep the paper honest in its coverage and accountable to its readership.

And although from time to time one’s savagely polished gem may be rejected by an anonymous letters editor, the aggrieved can take comfort in the tale recounted by Jack Kapica in Shocked and Appalled, his collection of letters written to the Globe and Mail over the course of a century.

Reporter George Bain, longtime gadfly to the Liberal government, left the paper in 1973. The shortest letter never published by the Globe read simply:

Where’s Bain?
P.E. Trudeau


  • Ottawa Citizen April 23, 1988