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Hand to Mouth: Padraic opens his mailbag

Usually, all I receive in my email account for this column are messages from Esteban Kramer urging me to consider buying some penny-stocks on the web, or from Marcelino Spivey reminding me of the laughable dimensions of my penis and offering me “/1agra@professsionall=price= 2.87.” But every once in a while, I receive an angry message from a reader. Hate mail can be really invigorating.

For example, this year I made fun of self-help literature – the biggest scam in publishing, the most cynical trick played by publishers on the weak and vulnerable, the literary equivalent of a sulfurous, bubbling tar pond, trapping and destroying any sense of independent critical thought under a warm, soothing blanket of buzz-words and easy solutions – and received an incensed message from one “Andrea” (I’ve changed the name, because God knows I have no interest in continuing our correspondence). I was informed, in no uncertain terms, that “Your article, threading together a compilation of shallow and ignorant opinions, portrays that you are weak-minded proven by your inability to even consider the depths of life, energy, and the Universe regarding your disbelief of meaning.”

After receiving that message, I promptly purchased a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s obscenely popular A New Earth and retreated into a cottony world where verbs don’t have to be used in their proper context, sentences can drift on like the specks of our consciousness in the swirling aether, and good vibes are the only thing on the menu. So my mind was really changed by that message.

Sometimes I write to be corrected, but mostly I write just for the sheer destructive joy of it. I certainly do believe that self-help has about as much literary value as Cosmopolitan, but without the redeeming value of the Bedside Astrologer – but I wouldn’t get in a fist-fight over it.

I enjoy writing invective for invective’s own sake. And I sometimes detach what I am writing from the consequences of my writing; when I write to please myself, I forget that anyone reads the stuff, and that they might actually be pissed off by it.

Cintra Wilson, sometime columnist for Salon, author of a mediocre novel (Colors Insulting to Nature) and an outstanding book of cultural criticism (A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease) is a great hero of mine, largely because of her endless ability to find just the right word to express her boundless contempt for someone or something. She appreciates the edges on nouns like “putrescence” and the great value of extended, over-the-top metaphors rich in pungent adjectives. (For example, in a recent review of the 2008 Oscars on Salon: “This year, Oscar honored the heart-touching magic of the film industry’s celebration of life by sucking every possible ounce of spontaneous life, marrow and energy out of the event by waterboarding it to the point of gag-reflex failure with canned montages.”) I am in love with her, I think. I like that sort of crackly, taut writing, and I like to practice it in these pages. But sometimes I have trouble coping with the equal-and-opposite reaction to my columns.

I like to think of myself as a tough and wizened, full of righteous anger and a willing to get a bit dirty in the pages of The Daily. But truth be told, I hate getting messages from incensed readers. I was driven nearly insane when my column on a major American university was picked up on a blog, and subjected to the anonymous condemnations of readers across the world. It was really kind of unsettling – a whole bunch of people, writing in lower-case, misspelling every second word and just hating as hard as they could over their keyboards. I imagined all sorts of miscreants and prigs, chronic masturbators and friable neurotics condemning me – but they were probably just a bunch of average people taking out their baser instincts under the cloak of anonymity, like Victorian gentlemen out a-slumming.

I felt like I was standing in the pillory, being kicked in the ass by invisible townspeople, and that I would never know who to kick back at, although I might have some good guesses. The internet is a perfect forum for anonymous abuse – either because no one could ever identify you, and so there are no consequences, or because your own little cruelties can be subsumed in a collective action for which you aren’t individually responsible. But being yelled at by anonymous strangers provides a certain perverse feeling of strength and importance – someone cared enough to work up the steam to be pissed off.

Since then, I’m sorry to report that tawdry thrill of D-list web celebrity has waned. These days, I find myself a bit inured to the criticisms of the chattering masses. That is, until my inbox pings with a fresh helping of poorly-articulated criticism. My heart starts pumping, my fingers fly over the keyboard, ready for a fresh round of the old back-and-forth.

You can harangue Padraic at