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Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

Author, translator, and editor Daniel Levin Becker discusses his hopes for future letter writing like those featured in the new anthology, Dear McSweeney's: Two Decades of Letters to the Editor from Writers, Readers, and the Occasional Bewildered Consumer.

Daniel Levin Becker is the author of Many Subtle Channels and What’s Good, and the translator of books including Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure and Eduardo Berti’s An Ideal Presence. He is senior editor at McSweeney’s.

Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

In this post, Daniel discusses his hopes for future letter writing like those featured in the anthology, Dear McSweeney's, his experience combing through two decades of letters, and more!

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Name: Daniel Levin Becker
Book title: Dear McSweeney’s: Two Decades of Letters to the Editor from Writers, Readers, and the Occasional Bewildered Consumer
Publisher: McSweeney’s
Release date: September 21, 2021
Genre/category: Literature, anthologies
Previous titles: As author: Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP, 2012); What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language (City Lights, 2022). As translator: La Boutique Obscure by Georges Perec (Melville House, 2013); Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Burning Deck, 2015; with Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel); All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo, 1963–2018 (McSweeney’s, 2018; as co-editor and co-translator with Ian Monk); An Ideal Presence by Eduardo Berti (Fern Books, 2021) The Revival of Democracy in America and the Better Angels of Your Nature by Renaud Lassus (Odile Jacob, 2021); and Light Revealed: From Galileo’s telescope to quantum strangeness by Serge Haroche (Odile Jacob, 2021). As editor: All That Is Evident Is Suspect (see above); Small Blows Against Encroaching Totalitarianism vols 1 & 2 (McSweeney’s, 2018).

Elevator pitch for the book: Since 1998, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern has been receiving letters to the editor: dispatches, pleas, confessions, treatises, ruminations, rants, raves, and at least one misdirected customer service query. Gathered here are one hundred installments from this sprawling one-to-many correspondence, including but not limited to musings on moths and mummies, macaroons and cats, armadillos and homicidal sea worms, and the arcana of Jerry Lewis’s acting career—all from some of the brightest contemporary voices in... well, American letters.

Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

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What prompted you to edit this book?

Amanda Uhle, executive director of McSweeney’s, asked me to do so, and I accepted without hesitation. I knew I would be joining a small but mighty lineage of other McSweeney’s anthologies—including but not limited to best-of volumes for the Quarterly and the Internet Tendency and collections of short stories, humor writing, and the like, and the vote of confidence was certainly welcome.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The whole process took about 15 months. Much of that consisted of reading all the letters printed in past issues and the somewhat unrulier annex of online letters, then selecting, triaging, and sequencing the ones I wanted to include. (In some cases, letters also needed to be transcribed, since the layout files for the issues in question are now so old that none of us had a computer that could read them.) The next phase involved tracking down contributors and securing their permission to reprint their letters, and then came design, proofreading, and the other production processes that took the whole thing from a sprawling Word document to the handsome volume you see—or will soon see—before you.

The idea itself was open-ended, and the initial challenge was deciding how to organize it: thematically, chronologically, geographically, etc. But after diving into the archive, I had a hunch that it would be better not to draw too much attention to organizing principles, instead sequencing the letters in a kind of gentle narrative—even if it’s a narrative legible only to me—and that’s indeed what I finally did.

Daniel Levin Becker: On the Forgotten Art of Letter Writing

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Not to speak of, though it was a little thrill to reach out to some contributors whose work I’ve long admired. For instance, we’ve just started working with Brendan Emmett Quigley on a crossword puzzle that we’ll use to promote the book, and the prospect of getting to be a crossword editor for a few days has filled me with great glee.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

While compiling these letters I kept expecting to learn something about McSweeney’s or the Quarterly or its readership, but ultimately I feel like I learned more about how people convert their own lived experience or idle ruminations into a piece of writing they want to share with a potentially large but totally unknowable audience—that’s the idea of readers becoming writers that I mention in my editor’s note.

Otherwise, no—no real surprises, just enchantment to see how many different approaches there are to said conversion.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I love books, anthologies or otherwise, that compel us to engage more attentively with forms that don’t get spotlighted much—that aren’t the main literary attraction, so to speak—and the letter to the editor occupies a strange place in the printed matter landscape, a much lonelier one in the internet age.

So I’d love for this to get people excited about that kind of letter-writing again. If it causes an uptick in weird epistolary novels, I’ll consider that a bonus.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Write a letter to McSweeney’s Quarterly! Or to any editor, really! It’s sort of like dancing like nobody’s watching, except you get to stay seated.

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