David Walliams’s enthusiasm for replying to all his fanmail has been thwarted by a stolen box of post. Who else makes the effort for fans who put pen to paper?
Charles Dickens burned his, Ringo Starr begged for no more, and the footballer Joe Hart gets his mum to answer his. What public people do with their fanmail has been highlighted this week after David Walliams, the comedian who has become a successful children’s author, took to Twitter to urge his young fans to write to him again after a box of fanmail was stolen. “I apologise if you sent a letter & have not received a reply as I do endeavour to reply to everyone,” he said.
Walliams’s feelings about his fanmail are rather different from those of other celebrities. In 2008, Starr put out a video, announcing he would no longer reply to mail. “Nothing will be signed after 20 October,” he said. “If that has the date on the envelope, it’s going to be tossed. I’m warning you, with peace and love, but I have too much to do. No fan mail.”
You can’t blame Starr for being overwhelmed by his popularity. You can also sympathise when celebrities suspect anything they sign will be put on eBay the next day (as Starr did). Bill Murray, wonderfully cantankerous, told an interviewer in 2011: “I don’t answer fanmail. I don’t have time for that. It’s like there are hundreds of thousands of people that think they’re going to become millionaires getting autographs from movie actors. I don’t have time for those idiots.”
For others – particularly huge stars, who can become detached – fanmail is a welcome part of their lives. “The feedback I need most is letters,” Pete Townshend said in a biography, Behind Blue Eyes. “That’s why I try to reply, so people know they can get through if they want. I hate being externalised.”
Although Twitter and Instagram have become the main ways to reach celebrities, letters are still meaningful for many fans, says Rebecca Williams, senior lecturer in communication, cultural and media studies at the University of South Wales, and an expert on fandom. “They can be more personal. I think most fans understand they are unlikely to get a response and so when this does happen, it’s really important. It allows that sense of connection between fans and celebrities to continue, as well as helping to show the celebrities themselves as being caring about their fans and keen to make personal contact.”
The most reliable responders appear to be writers. Jodi Picoult and Chuck Palahniuk are said to reply to every letter. Children’s writers, such as Walliams, Jacqueline Wilson and Robert Muchamore, make a big effort to reply to their young readers. There has to be something more endearing about a child fan than an adult superfan, but it’s not as if the relationship is just one-way. Muchamore has said that, far from being a drain on his time, his dialogue with his fans influences his work: “Some people see using feedback as commercial, but kids authors need to get inside the heads of people who are much younger and have very different thought processes to themselves.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010