Several times a week, on average, I get an email from someone I don’t know asking a favor. Most commonly, a person wants me to read something she has written: an essay or article, a story, even an entire book. Sometimes the writer wants me to visit his blog and make comments there. I am pretty regularly asked to blurb about-to-be-published books or in some other way to promote them (it’s often suggested that I assign them to my classes).
High-school students write to solicit my opinion about this or that — well, usually it’s not “this or that,” it’s C. S. Lewis. People want reading recommendations on a range of subjects. I am very often asked, especially by my fellow Christians, about graduate school in English or the humanities more generally.
Sometimes people ask me about Anglicanism, or present me with general theological conundrums. (These I feel absolutely unqualified to address.)
Folks, I just can’t keep up with all these requests. I have classes to teach, I have writing commitments, I have work to do at my church, I have a family to care for — and often I get the same kinds of questions from people I know, usually former students, people to whom I think I have some legitimate obligations. There simply are not enough hours in the day for me to answer all these questions.
I have tried for years to keep up, in part because I know that C. S. Lewis, that admirable fellow — who even in the days before email got ten times the requests I get — answered all his mail, even when it took him hours a day to do it. But I have to to wonder how he ever managed to get through all his correspondence, even with a brother willing to serve as secretary. And I even wonder whether he was wise to devote as much time to answering letters as he did.
But in any event, I have too often promised to read something that I ended up not being able to find the time to read, or I have read and commented on strangers’ work only to let something essential fall into the cracks as a result. So the only conclusion I can come to is this: if I don’t know you, I’m not going to be able to read your manuscript or answer complicated questions at length. Of course, I try to answer all my emails, but I often end up disappointing people by replying briefly on subjects that deserve more detailed scrutiny. I wish I could do better, but I hope you will understand if I don’t.
I can’t resist adding that Edmund Wilson’s version of the above is wittier and more pointed — and also stricter! — than mine:
And one more thing. Dear reader, the statistics I’ve read suggest to me that there’s a very good chance you are an extravert. I am not. You may not only like the thought of corresponding with strangers, but think it fun to meet with them as well. For me, that kind of experience is, well, un-fun. If I decline your friendly suggestion that we have lunch or dinner or coffee, please do not take it personally. I would probably decline a comparable offer from Bob Dylan or J. K. Rowling or Pope Francis, at least unless I had a friend to accompany me to lessen the social pressure. I know most of you think of introversion as a disease to be cured, but there’s no cure yet. Call me when one is developed — wait, strike that, write me. But don’t expect a response right away….