How Edmund Wilson said NO

Update: Here's Mark's first post of this, from 2009

Here's literary critic Edmund Wilson's form-letter for turning down requests from strangers. As Tim Ferriss notes, Wilson wasn't a hermit or antisocial, but he maximized the time he spent socializing with the people he liked by not letting strangers gobble up his time:

Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him without compensation to:

read manuscripts
< contribute to books or periodicals
do editorial work
judge literary contests
deliver lectures
address meetings
make after-dinner speeches

Under any circumstances to:

contribute to or take part in symposiums
take part in chain-poems or other collective compositions
contribute manuscripts for sales
donate copies of his books to libraries
autograph books for strangers
supply personal information about himself
supply photographs of himself
allow his name to be used on letter-heads
receive unknown persons who have no apparent business with him.

The Best Decline Letter of All-Time: Edmund Wilson (via Making Light)


  1. Sometime in the late 1970’s I wrote a short fan letter to artist Edward Gorey, whose work I had just discovered. Some time later I got back in the mail a small printed postcard (in a style matching his artwork) that said:

    You’ve written me to no avail
    Because I never read my mail

    – TWR

  2. Christ, What an asshole.

    I see it as not clever or informative but rather being well, an asshole. 

    donate copies of his books to libraries…is on the list.. Geeze, can you get even more assholishness there? Sure he might not have the books on hand, etc….but either ignoring the request or shuffling it off to the publisher would be kinder.

    Maybe he should have maximized his time with people that were good people?

    1. Is it the efficiency of using a form that you dislike, or do people deserve more of his time just for the asking?

        1. Are you kidding? There are probably conspiracy nuts who write 4,000 letters per day.

        2. He does, but apparently they are the letters that Americans wrote to each other via the Internet.

      1. Sometimes no response is better than a form letter response.
        I’m sure authors today do it much better:
        “My fees are X,XXX” to be at your symposium..please contact my publisher for details of the contract”.

        1. Exactly. It’s like needlessly being a dick, when you could have just said nothing. Ironically saving yourself time mailing out these forms.

    2. Maybe they should have had the courtesy to ask his publisher directly instead of bothering him.

    3. Yeah, I also came here to reflect this sentiment. I don’t have any problems with letters like this, I just take issue with two of the points on it. Adding those to the “without compensation” category would have been fine with me but to absolutely rule them out? Mean and douchey.

  3. I know the feeling, requests to have me on tv, signings, symposiums,  etc.  People, please!

  4. Frankly, there is nothing interesting or admirable about this. People want the benefits of living a public life– fame, riches, notoriety, etc. But they don’t want to commit to the correlated work and time.

    Everyone I know who is a success got there partially through other people’s work: time with mentors, education, family members, books, etc. This imposes a moral duty to interact with your community.

    If you want to tackle this problem in a positive, generous way, have your secretary write a nice form letter that doesn’t appear like a form letter. You can tell people ‘no’ and still be courteous and personal.

    If you really detest the public, put some work in and use a pen name and Salinger it in some hidden cabin.

    1. I agree, although I suspect there is another class of successful people that got that way by being total dicks.

    2. If you want to tackle this problem in a positive, generous way, have your secretary write a nice form letter that doesn’t appear like a form letter.

      The guy wrote essays. Literary criticism. Not Fifty Shades of Grey or Harry Potter. Just because someone is a public figure, doesn’t mean that they have people.

        1. I’m just saying that having a Wikipedia entry doesn’t mean that you have liveried footmen.

      1. A)  He was an editor at big magazines or an academic for a good portion of his professional life. If there weren’t salaried professionals taking care of his secretarial duties, he had the resources to hire one.

        B) He criticized H. P. Lovecraft and Tolkien as hacks.

        C) Ergo, he is a jerk of the highest magnitude.

        1. 1. He was not an academic. Maybe you are thinking of another person named Edmund.

          2. Lovecraft and Tolkien WERE hacks.

    3. You’re making a massive assumption here; that Wilson is doing what he does(did) primarily motivated out of living a “public life”. I think it is very unlikely that someone write critical essays for “fame and riches”.
      If anyone is to be considered only in it for fame and riches, it would the muppets who expect him to turn up at their events and deliver a speech etc for free, hoping his hard earned kudos will somehow rub off on them with no effort or contribution on their part.

      1. Whether or not he did it for self-aggrandizement, his success is due to the public supporting his work by paying for it. There are no self-made men, it is one of our more pernicious ideologies. How he chooses to spend his time is his own business, but the letter is a bit condescending to people who are fans of his in one form or another. 

      2.  If you don’t want to read the  correspondence from your public, have your literary agent or business manager screen it all. It’s more professional and kinder to your public.

        To me, it seems as if he enjoyed rejecting people in a very condescending matter. If he really flat-out didn’t want to deal with anybody, why read the mail and then check off which reason to reject it? Skimming the mail and throwing it away without answering would be less insulting then getting this form letter.

  5. Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible

    I rather think he doesn’t regret it at all.

    Still, with success and fame there comes a time when, from one’s own perspective, people want and expect too much of one’s time.  I imagine it took a while of being gracious and generous with his time and attention before Wilson eventually began to feel sufficiently taken-advantage-of to begin using these cards.

    Harlan Ellison went off a bit about fans and their more crazily selfish expectations in his essay “Xenogenesis,” but that’s probably not going to help Wilson’s case here.  If you think Wilson’s a dick for this, you’re really gonna hate Ellison’s attitude.  But I don’t hold this against Wilson.  Illiterate yokel that I am, I don’t believe I’ve had occasion to read a word he’s written (other than this postcard), but I don’t find this card unduly offensive. It’s a relatively civil (if a touch short-tempered) reminder that the things on this list are not quite completely cost-free items for Wilson to hand out to whomever may ask for them, and that he gets asked for this stuff often enough to move him to come up with this form letter.  I personally wouldn’t ever ask anyone I didn’t know well to do or give anything on his list, most especially not for free.

    1. I thought of the Ellison rants first too, which were actually pretty funny.  There’s not a ‘public’ figure out there that isn’t similarly tasked time-wise and Ellison puts a face on it.  When I wasn’t laughing, I kinda felt sorry for him.

      The thing is that each of us in our request for time and attention from each other only sees the burden of our own requests/demands and not the whole tide of wants and needs made on one individual.  For a public figure, it must seem like a tsunami coming at them every day.

      1. I just remembered something my 12th grade English teacher used to do.  He had a rubber stamp made that read “To my favorite student” with his signature reproduced underneath.  And that’s what he’d use to sign our yearbooks.

        He was a hell of a cool guy in all conceivable respects.

    1. I love that Heinlein includes references to other works that answer the particular question.

  6. Having seen the first posting of this on BB (the above entry is now updated with a link to it, good one)

    … I am happy to read the comments there – where thoughtful people consider the circumstances where it came to be, and compare wth other reactions.
    … vs todays instant pile-on of “christ what an asshole” comments.

    Ah, the Halcyon Days when BoingBoing commenters started by assuming the best of others until shown differently – rather than todays assume-the-worst starting point for any story.

    1. Man, you speak the truth. The last couple of days have reminded me why I mainly just read and not comment. 

  7. “I’d rather have the thieves than the neighbors – the thieves don’t impose. Thieves just want your things, neighbors want your time.” – Larry David

  8. Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him …
    Under any circumstances to:

    It is impossible for me to do any of these things either. Where is my Boing-Boing post??

  9. I liked Edmund Wilson’s form letter well enough.  Think about what happens next after the recipient gets this response.  The recipient then invites some lesser-known poet/critic/writer/scholar to deliver the speech or contribute the manuscript that Wilson was first invited to contribute.  It is terrific when superstars pace themselves and say “no” to invitations, rather than soaking up all the air in the room.  In a better world, instead of “winner take all”, there would be more room at the top of the profession for a larger number of highly talented contributors.

  10. I think the letter, short of silly things like not donating his book to the library, is pretty damn good.  The listed items in the letter are what he does for a living. It’s how he pays the mortgage.

    The response letter is most likely a result of a lifetime of people asking to pick his brain and donate his thoughts, time, expertise and professional experiences- for free. Pro Bono, as they say, without compensation.  It’s a hard edged letter and borne from, what appears, to be frustration.

  11. A friend of a friend dated Wilson’s son years ago. When she and the son visited Wilson, he asked what they had been doing. She answered, “We visited an aunt of mine.” Wilson, misunderstaning, said, “I didn’t know they mine atoms!”

  12. I can’t find it refrenced online, but I remember the biologist Steven J. Gould had a similar, but much more kind and clever,”boilerplate” answer to the overwhelming flood of mail he received.  Anyone able to find a copy?

  13. I rather like Wilson’s form.  I recently had an invitation to appear at an event 1,000 miles from home in support of a commercial enterprise — with no mention of any remuneration.  I thought that was tacky.

    1.  Be confidant enough to say “no”. That will solve this problem better than a snotty form letter.

        1. At what cost? Your personal integrity? Your respect for others?

          Even if you are a diehard cynic, remember: “Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down.”

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