Reader responses as a Rorschach test

I’ve been writing for an unseen public for a great many years, yet I still get bewildered by the astonishing range of responses my words can elicit. Some of the feedback I receive is warm and gratifying, reassuring me that I’ve connected with a reader—but sometimes it’s so angry, even vituperative, that it makes me wonder how I could have misfired so badly. Just in the past week, for example, I received the following (excerpted) emails, the first from someone explaining why he was ordering both my books, the second from someone who has been reading Renting Dirt:

We read a few of your articles & blog posts and appreciated what you had to say. We are new owners of a resort & campground in Minnesota and are finding [the] balance between charging enough to keep the lights on and adding amenities, yet keeping the experience approachable for local families from the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

That was a greatly appreciated pat on the back—but then there was this:

I’ve never in my life tried to read a book about real estate, general investing or any other information topic that was so clearly dripping with one-sided political propaganda than yours. If you want to be a liberal pussy, that’s your business—but my family purchased an RV park and I bought your book trying to become better educated on RV PARKS. Take your own advice in the book and understand that nobody wants to hear about your political beliefs. If you’re taking people’s money, maybe try to educate them without pissing them off with your snide left-wing sissy nonsense.

Wow. That’s the sort of diatribe that can take the wind out of your sails—and even more so were it not for the counterbalance provided by other readers. But still: you have to wonder why anyone would think he has a right to impose his vision of a book on someone else’s writing.

On reflecting about this at some length, there are two observations I can report. The first, and less original, is that there’s a chunk of the population for whom certain words or phrases trigger a visceral response that shuts down critical thinking. It’s Pavlovian and possibly beyond conscious control, and in its unthinking fury ends all discussion or nuance. Worse yet, it dehumanizes those who unwittingly pulled the trigger, making them unworthy of respect, consideration or compassion.

And the list of triggers keeps growing: pandemic masking, abortion rights, LGBTQ+, critical race theory. In the case of my angry correspondent they included “Trump” and “extreme weather,” the first used in a description of objectionable flags and banners displayed by many RVers, to the dismay and sometimes fear of other campers; the second as part of a lengthier discussion about the campground industry being oblivious to growing climate threats. Mind you, this was all in the context of a book clearly described as a “first-hand narrative” of our ownership of a campground, with all the many problems and challenges we faced.

But instead of responding with an argument about why these aren’t problems, or why they’re overblown, or why the reality is more complicated than I allowed, my correspondent simply resorted to firing back with what I presume he thought were other triggers, i.e. “liberal pussy” and “snide left-wing sissy nonsense.”

That’s taking the intellectual high ground, eh? En garde!

Fortunately, I’m too old to have my feathers ruffled if someone calls me a sissy, and I probably am at least a liberal pussy—if not a radical one—so that swing is a whiff. But this sort of ad hominem riposte does make me wonder what the writer hoped to accomplish with his rant, and if he realized how much more he revealed about himself than he may have intended. Such a small-minded, rigid personality must feel under assault every day.

But the other observation I’ll make is that my raving correspondent is not all that unusual in this industry—and that my Minnesota fans may find themselves, with their commendable effort at “finding balance,” very much in the minority among their peers. Not that the majority are quite as wild-eyed, but as a tribe, mom-and-pop campground owners overall are fiercely individualistic, resentful of taxes and government regulation and certain that they know better than anyone else how to run their business. And if you don’t agree, shut up.

Quite aside from whether they’re right or wrong, there’s a case to be made that hardened attitudes are essential for success at running an enormously demanding enterprise. Doubt yourself, be wishy-washy about your rules, allow your campers to run your business—that way lies ruin. But over-the-top certitude may not be the best fit for dealing with people, either, and mom-and-pop campgrounds are all about the people. There’s more than one kind of balance that has to be struck in this business.

Given a choice of staying at a campground operated by the first of my correspondents vs. one run by the second, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to pick the first. I’m guessing that would be true for most other campers as well, not for political reasons but because of a wish to avoid unpleasant personal encounters, but unfortunately that’s a lesson the second writer may be incapable of learning.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

One thought on “Reader responses as a Rorschach test”

  1. Mr. Zipser, I enjoy reading what you have to say and over 90% of the time I have found your thoughts in alignment with my own, though you have a more eloquent way of communicating than I. I served in the Air Force from a time when gay people were dis-honorably discharged to a time when the military practiced “No ask, No Tell.” I served so that ALL Americans could enjoy freedom of speech and many other rights that basically amount to; “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else.”
    I believe many people enjoy being entrepreneurs so they can influence what rules they want to apply. Those guests who are agree with the rules will be comfortable, those guest that are not comfortable can find another place more suitable to their ideas. No need to be offended, no need to complain, no need to protest or fight. Just move on, look the other way, keep walking.
    Unfortunately, too many people have decided that a statue offends them even though it has been enjoyed by thousands for decades. But a minority decides they can’t look the other way and must tear it down forcing everyone to lose the opportunity to make their own decision to appreciate it or look the other way.

    Like

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