Reading shouldn't be a chore

on accepting the things that you like, and those that you do

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Happy Friday my bookmarks. I’ve been having a bit of *a time* lately, so today’s newsletter is simple. It’s about letting yourself escape and giving yourself permission to let reading be fun.


Lately, I keep returning to Laurie Colwin’s work. Earlier this year, I set a challenge to read the entire oeuvre of an author and picked Colwin because—at the time— I had read two of her books without coming up for air. I’d simply picked them up and not wanted to put them down. They were strange, fairly basic novels generally about women having affairs and trying to get out of the reduced lives they’d somehow ended up in. It’s easy to identify with that pain now, as we are all now leading extremely reduced lives without much intrigue or enjoyment. I’ve become so acquainted with Colwin’s work that I see her repeated phrases now, her repeated imagery choices. This does not bother me. I love her.

Part of the reason I keep returning to Colwin is that her books are easy for me to read. I want them.

All I think about now is chores. There are so many chores and the addition of tiny chores is grating on me. Washing my mask every time I come back inside from walking the dog is exhausting. Making sure to take my shoes off immediately used to be something I did subconsciously and now annoys me. The dishes in the sink breed like fruit flies. There is always another meal to cook. Staying in our small apartment full time has made it dirtier. In the last week we’ve spilt coffee, wine, and maple syrup on the rug in the living room which is mostly white. Despite changing the sheets at the same rate as before it feels like we’re doing it every day. How is there so much laundry when I wear the same black sweatpants every single day? Things that I could once trick myself into believing were fun —like exercise —now hold no inherent joy. They are chores. Everything is a chore. Even the idea of trying to find something fun to do with this long weekend is a chore: how do you stay safe? what is the morality of renting a car just to drive and see some different trees for one goddamn minute? would we be able to stop for gas? What would we eat?

There has been a lot of rhetoric (content) about how now is the time to tackle a book that you’ve never been able to tackle before. Now, these people say, is the time for Anna Karinina, for War and Peace, for Nabokov and Bronte and Thomas Mann. Now, the content assures is the perfect time to immerse yourself in a big hearty book because you have time for it. What bullshit.

Culture shouldn’t be a chore unless you actively want it to be. But we don’t talk about reading that way. Reading is too often conflated with learning, and while often we do read to learn, that is work. I should read that, we say. But why?

Here’s the thing: unlike other forms of entertainment, we are used to hating reading. We were all assigned books we didn’t like in English class that we were made to read and write a paper on and maybe even underline uses of symbolism in. We are accustomed to reading being difficult and strenuous and annoying, and so we think maybe it has to be that way. Maybe we must read something “hard” in order to read something “good.” Every once in a while someone will do this with another form of culture: they will insist you must watch Mad Men or you’re uncultured. They will demand that if you haven’t seen every Ingrid Bergman film you’re a neophyte. How childish they will perceive you! But in the last few years, there has been a good pushback against that kind of rhetoric as defining of you as a person. Sure, there are television shows that are “high art,” that are beautifully shot and perfectly acted and full of small devastating moments. But (maybe because television isn’t taught in schools) it’s easy to just quit a show you look at your phone during even if the critics said it was great.

Now is not the time to be ambitious in your culture. Now is a time to re-watch a show you love, to download rom-coms to turn on and escape in, to laugh your head of at a dumb comedy. Now isn’t the time to figure out how to love Breaking Bad. Now is the time for season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, a literally perfect season of television with so much happening during it that you can’t possibly worry about the death count hitting 100k or how all your mugs are dirty again. Now is the time to have some culture that brings you joy, as a little treat. And that includes books.

This isn’t a newsletter that says anything new. I’ve encouraged you all to quit books before. But it is a reminder that just because you have more free time now does not mean that you have to read books that you don’t like. If anything, a terrifying global pandemic is the perfect time to read a book that isn’t difficult, a book that picks you up and transports you out of the world we are terribly stuck in and drops you off somewhere else. Now is the time for stories that are just good no matter how silly they are or how other people might perceive them.

Here are a few books I’ve read in the past few years that I’ve loved and that (though they are beautifully written and well-structured) don’t fit into the mold of books we are being told to read right now because we have time. Grey’s Anatomy Season 2 of books, you might say:

  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid —This is the book I’m forcing on people this spring. Reid is a great writer, and this book is a tornado. It’s suspenseful, you hate almost everyone in it, and it’s smart of race and class and internet fame.

  • Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston — I shoved this romance novel about the president's teenage son’s love affair with the prince of England into the hands of everyone I saw last summer and now I bring it to you.

  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya —In all honestly this is the book I give to people when I want them to think I am cool. I gave it to a far too cool woman who did my forearm tattoo and she loved it because the thing is everyone loves it. This book is creepy and mystical and absolutely full of weird ass shit that you’ll fall asleep thinking about. It is also gorgeous and inspiring and strange.

  • Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell— This is the only dude book on this list, but it is truly an escape to travel to the suburbs and sit with a 1960s housewife who is bored out of her mind and how that eats at her and her relationships over time.

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison — I’ve written about this before, but Jemison’s trilogy of science-fiction books about a young girl who can move rocks in a post-apocalyptic world is the only sci-fi book I’ve been able to read maybe ever. I loved it

  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang — extremely short and extremely weird. Kang’s translated novel was the first I read in years that I finished and immediately wanted to start back over again to see how it was pulled off.


Painting is Woman Reading in a Forest, by Gyula Benczur.

Her hair changed overnight

Katherine Anne Porter, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, and me.

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For years, I’ve had dreams about my hair transforming over night. As a girl, my hair was bright, light, barely saturated at all from all of the sun it absorbed. My part was a gash in a polar bear’s side; my ponytails lighter in black and white portraits than my very pale skin. It was the hair color, women older than me loved to remind me, that people paid thousands of dollars a year to have, that they sat motionless for hours under the burn of bleach, watching their own face grow more and more tired just to try and get close to. I can’t remember if my mother warned us over and over again or if she only told us the one time and the terror of the idea branded itself into my small brain. It wouldn’t last forever, she said. One day, our hair —my sister’s and mine — would turn brown. Hers had, she told us. After puberty her hair had faded into a color she didn’t even know anymore because she spent so many weekend days in the kitchen of a woman named Betty Jo trying to bury that color under layers of highlights and lifter.

The dreams started when I was a middle schooler, dreams that all my hair turned the color of rust over night, dreams that I woke up and it was all a dark, uncompromising brown, dreams that it all fell out, so that every morning I woke with the same hair felt like a miracle. When my sister’s hair changed in high school, I realized that maybe I had been spared. But the anticipation of the change never left, and now I dream of waking up one morning and all of the, albeit dirtier and duller, blonde adult hairs on my head shimmering white like a morning snow.

That’s what happened to Katherine Anne Porter. When confronted with trauma too big to stomach, all of her dark curly hair turned white overnight, as if it had too much to carry to possibly hold up pigment. Or at least, that’s how the legend goes.

I discovered Katherine Anne Porter a couple of years ago when I was just beginning to think of starting this newsletter. In fact, I would have absolutely sworn that she was one of the first newsletters I wrote. Maybe she was, but when I went back to look for a link for this newsletter, I found nothing. Maybe she became such a staple of my own discovery of women’s writing that I forgot to mention her at all.

Last week, novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell told me about her surprising discovery of Heather Lewis, how what had shocked her wasn’t that she hadn’t heard of this writer (women’s writing is forgotten all the time), but that she hadn’t heard of a writer whose work was so closely in conversation with her own. How had no one mentioned this? How had no one read her work and thought, oh of course she is part of a kind of written heritage, a family of work that she should be familiar with?

That’s how I felt the first time someone mentioned Katherine Anne Porter to me. Here was a Texas-born and bred girl who wrote all her life, who grew up religious and started her career in newspapers, who moved to the East coast and got radicalized and disillusioned with religion, who spent plenty of time in her favorite city ,Mexico City, and who wrote in an accessible style and wished it was more literary. Same!!!!

Porter is best known for her fiction and primarily for her short-stories. She wrote only one novel Ship of Fools, but her collected book of short stories won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Katherine Anne Porter is also one of the few writers to tackle the 1918 Spanish Influenza, a plague we simply cannot stop hearing about as we face and mightily fail against our own. Porter wrote a beautiful short little book Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about the Spanish Influenza which was highly beloved. I was going to write a whole little ode to it today, but then my copy of Texas Monthly came yesterday and, of course, they were on it already. Michael Agresta infuriatingly wrote a really nice piece about it, which you can read here.

Here is an excerpt from the book that Agresta and I both pulled independently because it really is just that good and apt

Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is not a book about Porter’s own life. It is a work of fiction and as she once said, her stories are only "true in the way that a work of fiction should be true, created out of all the scattered particles of life I was able to absorb and combine and shape into new being."

But Porter did get the Spanish Influenza and did almost die. She became very, very ill while in Colorado. Here is how she described it to the Paris Review:

Yes, that was the plague of influenza, at the end of the First World War, in which I almost died. It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are. But you see, I did: I made the mistake of thinking I was quite like anybody else, of trying to live like other people. It took me a long time to realize that that simply wasn’t true, that I had my own needs and that I had to live like me.

Porter went on to overturn her life. She moved to New York and then Mexico where she became a revolutionary in the Obregón Revolution of 1921. She bucked what everyone else was doing (notably going to Europe and partying) in favor of what felt right to her. The experience of her illness, of the radicalizing force of an event which forced her to look at the world and her place in it as something momentary and indefinite, caused her to make choices that only she wanted to make.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as this pandemic (which notably is much milder than the 1918 influenza and of which I have also not been infected by) drags onward. A friend (wow it’s Hannah Grouch-Begley, our favorite WWI historian again) told me very early on—as this all was just beginning and we could still go on strolls with friends— that one of the first suburban booms happened after the 1918 influenza, that when faced with the germs and spread of viruses in the city, many people fled. I’ve been thinking about that almost constantly as I watch the numbers continue to tick up in D.C. and my friends in NYC survive their own bouts with this virus. The way we talk to each other seems to have become more whimsical. There is more of a willingness from the people I love to articulate exactly what it is that they want. Whereas before they might have said that maybe they wanted to start dating again or maybe they wanted to write, now they are saying openly and happily that finding a partner or having a baby is a priority for them, that writing things they love is now their ambition. People are verbally acknowledging dreams they thought too wild, or too ambitious to share before. It has had a crystallizing effect that is at once useful and fairly terrifying.

Katherine Anne Porter was exactly the same age that I am now when the Spanish Influenza hit. She had not yet published any fiction. She had not yet become an important writer of the 30s and 40s. She had not yet solidified exactly who it was she wanted to be. Scanning through her book Pale Horse, Pale Rider this morning (which I intend to re-read soon)I felt heartened by the clarity of her writing about what was a hard time in her life. It was published in 1939. In 20 years, I hope to have found some of that clarity too.


You can read Pale Horse, Pale Rider here, but really you should buy it here. (P.S. look at this absolutely gorgeous first edition I am considering trading my left arm for)

An interview with Kate Elizabeth Russell

"I realize now that abuse and obsession and violence are not things that should belong in a love story."

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There are books that generate buzz, and then there is My Dark Vanessa, which was released last month into a veritable roar. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel was always primed to become a book inseparable from “the discourse.” It is a book, after all, about a teenage girl who has an affair with her high school teacher and whose process to reconcile what that means about the two of them takes a decade of pain and struggle to process. When Russell started working on the book a decade ago, she didn’t know that it would be released in a post- Me Too world, where it would land in the midst of dozens of ongoing narratives of real-life stories like the one she’d written. (For the sake of full disclosure: Russell and I have the same editor at Harper Collins, but when I read her novel, I hadn’t signed yet)

A book with a topic like this has to walk through a field of wildflowers with land mines for petals, and the only thing that can save it is talent. It makes sense that a book like this, a book with a protagonist who thinks of her abuse as a love story and who struggles to understand its impact on her, would become controversial. Plus, it makes sense that it had a target on its back on publication because it sold for a seven figure advance. But unlike, uh, other books with huge advances that dropped this year, My Dark Vanessa is a tightly written, thoughtful, page-turning book. It’s good. I read it in a single day, and it forced me to think about my own experience as a teenage girl in ways I had never realized.

Earlier this week, I called up Russell to chat about what she’s reading, how she crafted this book, and how spending so long with a story affected her ability to tell it:

Okay let's start off with the current problem: are you able to read anything right now?

A little bit but only in like bits and pieces. Reading a handful at a time suits my attention span right now. I haven’t sat and read through a novel all the way through. I’ve been picking up denser stuff: stuff that is suited to be read only a few pages at a time and then you can sort of set it down. I was re-reading this novel, that I read for the first time last year but was already compelled to reread it, called Malina. The author is Ingeborg Bachmann. It’s incredible.

I was also reading the diaries of this teenage Ukrainian diarist. The collection of diary entries is called I Am The Most Interesting Book of All. She's this incredible teenage voice that has so much swagger. Marie Bashkirtseff is her name. It’s the most frustrating thing that you feel like you have so much time but can't get into the mental state to take advantage of it I guess.

One of the things that stunned me about this book was how real the teenage voice of Vanessa was. I found the classroom scenes particularly realistic and overwhelming. How did you go about making those feel true?

The classroom scenes especially, I did have early versions of those, which was helpful inevitably to draw from just for getting the voice right. It was important for me to get the details of the room right to make the reader feel fully immersed in those scenes when she's with Strane [the teacher]. I was drawing maps of his classroom and maps of the office so I knew every corner of that classroom. When I was younger and I would be setting a scene that I wanted to be very vivid in the readers mind, I would have this impulse to describe everything and there would be these paragraphs of description. It took me a while to realize that that’s all information that I as a writer needs, but then I pick specific details that are going to work the best for the reader. I don’t need to give them every thing. It was a matter of looking at old drafts and doing work off the page.

The sort of power Vanessa feels internally in those scenes I remember from being a young teen, but that now as an adult I know was a kind of false power. How did you, as the writer, manage to give Vanessa the feeling of power while indicating to the reader that this is actually an unhealthy and abusive relationship?

I think working with this character over so many years helped me maybe retain some of that teenage voice in my own psyche or let me have this entry point into that voice. It was difficult when I was working on this in my 30s in the PhD program, it was a struggle to keep myself, my moralizing self out of it. The way that I sort of kept myself out of it was by writing in the present tense. That was one of those craft decisions that worked for me. That made the narrative click into place in a lot of ways.

Vanessa sort of experiences her abuse in a way where she just sees it as sex. That's how she views it and that’s how she would describe it and that’s the level she was able to operate at. When I was younger, that was the level I was able to operate at. I was writing these scenes, in which Vanessa was being abused but there wasn’t the space for the reader to see this as abusive. I was asking the reader to see this as only sex.

But that is the way a teenage girl sees it, right? When I read this book, I realized that I had a teacher who flirted with us inappropriately, who certainly could have been a Strane-type for me if any domino had fallen differently. Now of course, I see that as extremely fucked up, but at 13 I thought that we were just so desirable that of course he must be attracted to us. 

What an interesting thing to think at that age. It’s your way of making sense of it. Seeing him as helpless but yourself as really powerful.

I have the same memories and feelings with a lot of experiences in my youth. It's so cringey looking back, but I completely understand why I was drawn to understanding it in that way. In a way that allowed me to have a certain amount of power. Why wouldn’t I have wanted to see it in that sense rather than seeing myself as this victim, this helpless thing?

In every interview I've read, you talk about reading Lolita when you were young and seeing it as an epic romance and then at some point a switch flipped. You’ve also said the same thing happened with this book: that it started for you as a love story and became something else. When did that turn happen for you?

I don’t know. Something did switch. When I reread Lolita now, to a large extent, I still read it the same way that I did when I was a teenager. It's just that I realize now that abuse and obsession and violence are not things that should belong in a love story. When I was young, I still saw all the badness but that didn’t disqualify it from being a love story. I have a more healthy and nuanced view of that now. I still feel like I’m the same reader and writer that I did when I was a teenager, but I have a little bit more perspective I guess.

How long was it into the process before that happened?

I was in my mid-20s when I really started learning about trauma theory. In some ways it was a gradual thing. At the tail end of my MFA one of my thesis readers asked me if I had read this short story called "Lawns" by Mona Simpson. It was this incredible short story published in the 80s written in first person about this college freshman. You meet her, and she’s very unlikeable and doing weird stuff and then you realize that she’s been sexually abused by her father since she was a little kid.

I read this story and I recognized Vanessa in her so much. But at the same time, this was a story about incest. It felt so far removed from this "love story" that I thought I had been writing. I think that was one of my first realizations that what I was working on has more to do with sexual abuse than I ever realized. Reading that and then reading Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss and later Tiger Tiger by Margaux Fragoso. which are really narratives of sexual abuse. Beginning to learn about trauma theory for me really came out of being on Tumblr in 2010, 2011. You would see these bits of critical theory surrounded by gifs of girls in wildflowers. That was really formative for me. That was when I really started to see the cultural and theoretical framework that the book fit into.

So far, you’ve mentioned a lot of memoirs. I want to know more about your decision to write this novel in the first person.

For a long time, I resisted writing this in the first person. I don’t know if it was partly me thinking that writing in first person was somehow stigmatized especially when writing from a teenage girl point of view -- that it would be accused of being narcissistic or navel-gazey or frivolous -- but it got to the point where I really realized that this had to be written in first person because the meat of the story was in Vanessa’s psychology. Writing from a close first person point of view  was the absolute right way to tell this story. That realization really came from reading about trauma and realizing that this book I was writing was a story of trauma.

Especially because that is fraught. Women's books are always kind of assumed to be diaries that they transcribed into a document.

I mean, yeah what can you do? It’s still strange for me seeing certain responses to the book that for me so easily fit into these patterns of criticism of narratives of sexual abuse or first person narratives of adolescents girlhood. At the same time, I feel like it's kind of a badge of honor.

My book is getting the same line of criticism as these other books that I really really admire got upon their publication. I feel like we're in a little clique, my book and these other books. 

Since you were almost done with the book by the Me Too movement picked up steam, how did it feel to watch this book you'd been working on for 10 years become "timely"?

I feel like I always use the word "surreal" to describe how it felt in fall of 2017 when Me Too started happening and I was so deep in the writing process. I was working on the present day plot line of another student coming forward in fall 2017. I have such vivid memories of writing and taking a break and bringing up twitter and scrolling through and being like, "This is what I’m writing." It felt exciting but at the same time I struggled for a few months to figure out how I wanted to address it. I finally settled on sort of alluding to Me Too so that there was a larger movement happening in the background. It felt risky because having a timely novel isn’t something that I every anticipated or envisioned for myself because I've been working on this for so long.

I knew that by having a “timely” book there would be a really easy criticism to be made of it being opportunistic or capitalizing. That’s not something I find ultimately worth caring about because it is an easy criticism. Especially if you haven’t read the book yet. I got to the point where I decided to believe in myself and believe in the book I had written because I had been doing this work for so long that even though I was an unknown writer without known publications, I knew that I had something meaningful to say. I’ve been here. I’ve been watching and observing these conversations. I've been doing the work and writing this novel.

I had written a book that I really believed in. I knew it was nuanced and complicated. It’s scary, and it still is kind of scary to have it be part of the Me Too conversation.

Okay final question: One of the things this newsletter really focuses on is books by women that may have been forgotten. Do you have any we should keep on our radar?

I haven’t read these yet. I just discovered this writer named Heather Lewis. She published some novels in the 90s and early 2000s. They’ve been more or less forgotten. I haven't read them yet, but they are in the mail to me.  Her work is supposed to be super, super dark, almost unbearably difficult to read. It deals with themes of sexual abuse and girlhood and violence, and I’m so excited to dig in. It’s this almost frustrating experience when you discover a writer who is pretty contemporary, whose work fits thematically so close to your own, and you’re like why haven’t I heard of her before? Where has she been? 

I feel like especially there are women writers from the 80s and 90s who just got buried. It’s as though Laurie Moore is the only writer from that era. Especially in writing programs. And Mary Gaitskill. I love both of them, but there are so many women who have been forgotten or go out of print.

Buy My Dark Vanessa at your local independent bookstore, or at bookshop.com

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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The forgotten writer who was once more famous than Agatha Christie

Meet Mary Roberts Rinehart

Last year, I wrote about my long-standing love affair with Agatha Christie: how my mom introduced me to her work early, how I tore through her novels as quickly as I could, how I was obsessed with the idea that a woman could be a writer famous enough to have her weekend disappearance extensively covered across the Atlantic Ocean. I was a child during the Harry Potter mayhem. I had seen the way the papers covered J.K. Rowling —who was, granted, doing a miraculous thing and getting a whole generation obsessed with fiction —as if she was the first woman to ever spawn that kind of fervor.

Even last year, when I wrote about Christie, I provided a caveat that I had to write about a Brit when usually this newsletter focuses on American literature because she was exceptional, rare. I was wrong. While Agatha Christie is one of the most lauded mystery writers of all time, America had our own. We’ve just forgotten her

In 1930s, when newspapers wanted to reference that women were highly paid writers they pulled out two names: Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Roberts Rinehart grew up near Pittsburgh. She didn’t set out to be a writer. She trained instead as a nurse, scandalously married a doctor she worked with, got married and had three sons. She was all set up to have a normal, boring, upper middle-class life. They were rich enough to own a house and dump some money into the stock market and they were rich enough to lose it all when the stock market crashed in 1903.

“That night,” she wrote in her autobiography, “we started home again. All we had in the market was gone and in addition we were in debt. We owed twelve thousand dollars. It was more than our annual income. We might as well have owed twelve million.”

Now things were not so easy. Robert Rinehart, who had graduated from public high school at 16, decided she would write. And so she wrote a short story about an amnesia case her husband had seen and was paid two cents a word for it (about 60 cents a word today, which is more than basically anyone pays for fiction).

The first book she wrote was called The Circular Staircase and it was serialized in a magazine called All-Story for five issues and after published as a book in 1908. It is estimated that the book sold 1.25 million copies. After that she became a machine. In her first year of work, she sold 45 stories and novellas. She earned $1,842.50 (a little over 50k in today’s dollars) She churned out 5 bestselling books and two plays between 1907 and 1911. She wrote for the Saturday Evening Post.

This is where it gets interesting though. She was a well known writer when the war broke out, and she still had two fairly young children. But when the Saturday Evening Post asked her if she wanted to be one of the few women war correspondents, Roberts Rinehart said yes. The United States wasn’t in the war yet but she found her way into Belgium trenches and medical tents. “I was not I think, greatly popular,” she wrote, “it annoyed [the male war correspondents] that I was there for an indefinite stay and I did not blame them.” (Read this earlier newsletter by Hannah Grouch-Begley about what our stories about women in world war I get wrong.)

She intended to stay reporting on the war until it ended, but left because somehow her rising stardom coupled with the fact that she was a nice white rich American lady got her into Buckingham Palace.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was the first interviewer of a British royal family member ever. She met with Queen Mary, produced absolutely no news, snagged an anecdote about slippers, and became instantly, an overnight celebrity. When she returned to America, she was famous.

She wrote almost 40 novels over her long career and hundreds of short stories, poems, and articles. She made two canonical contributions to the American literary world: her introduction of a kind of mystery writing later derided as “had I but known” novels, in which the narrator observes many clues that could stop the impending drama but is too naive to see them; And she is also to blame for the “the Butler did it” trope, which comes from her novel The Door. Mary Roberts Rinehart was on the national New York Times bestsellers list for almost 40 years straight. She was a staple of the American bookshelf.

In the 1990s, there was a brief resurgence of interest in Roberts Rinehart. In 1994, Charlotte MacLeod published a biography of Roberts Rinehart that led to some coverage I could find mainly in papers near where Roberts Rinehart lived in Pittsburgh. In almost all of the marketing materials for MacLeod’s book Had She But Known, Roberts Rinehart is compared to Christie. The only nomination the book received was for the Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction. But for the most part, she’s gone.

So how did we forget her? How did she slip so quietly out of the minds of the American people?

Despite the obvious that we often refuse to canonize women and especially writers who write for popular audiences, there are also a couple of less obvious reasons that Roberts Rinehart may have been forgotten. The first is that her work does not hold up as well as Christie’s does. Roberts Rinehart writes about black americans and Irish americans and Asian americans with cheap stereotypes that we as a country like to pretend we never endorsed in the first place.

She also, at risk of sounding like a publicist, diluted her brand. Roberts Rinehart did whatever she wanted. She was a war correspondent, a travel writer, a poet, an op-ed writer, and a novelist. She wrote not only with volume, but also with versatility, and while that’s part of what allowed her the great fame she experienced, it also makes it harder to remember her for one thing.

The one thing that really stuck out to me in reading dozens of interviews from the 1930s and 40s, though, is the way Roberts Rinehart demeaned her own work. “I did not want a career,” she told a reporter in 1950, “The word has never been used in the family and never will be. I ‘work’ when and where I can but there is no real career and never has been.” She consistently made a habit of projecting the values of her culture onto her own life whether or not they were blatantly false. She says that she never (not once!!) kept working when one of her children shouted “Mother.” She said she never let her work interfere with her family life. In her biography of Roberts Rinehart written in 1980, Jan Cohn writes that the myth, “built up over a quarter century of interviews and essays and expressed most fully in [Roberts Rinehart’s autobiography] is of crucial importance in understanding Mary Roberts Rinehart. Only within the protective structure of that myth, only as a wife and mother whose writing was undertaken for the good of the family, could Mary defy the Victorian culture into which she had been born.”

The myth of her career as acceptable to the general public is what made her famous. Mothers sent their sons to war because she wrote a convincing op-ed in the Saturday Evening Post which she later said she regretted. She became the voice and face of a kind of acceptable success for a woman to have. But it may be the reason she slipped so easily from the minds and history books of American literature.

Roberts Rinehart died in 1958. She had spent all of her money on things she wanted. Her papers are housed at the University of Pittsburgh.

Many of Robert Rinehart’s early novels are available to read on Project Gutenberg for free!


On Friday, I’ll be sending a Q&A with an author who was an absolute joy to chat with and whose book is one of the biggest of this spring!

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Poetry Month is over .... Now what?

The second year of this newsletter has already begun

I forgot our anniversary and I’m sorry.

I started writing in this space on March 5, 2019. On March 5 of this year, we were a week away from the stay-at-home order still currently in place and my brain was foggy. The main emotion I felt was fear, and when I did write here in March I tried to do so from that place of distraction and loneliness, a place filled with a fog so thick I could barely see my own hand in front of my face, much less do any real ruminating on what this space is for and what it means. But here we are, a full two months later, and I’m feeling more clearheaded and more energetic and more optimistic about what we can do in this space together. Plus, I’ve started to be able to read again.

Poetry month revitalized me in a way I hadn’t expected. Getting to read and edit the guest contributions that I sent out reminded me that part of why we read is because we want to feel inspired, and a huge part of why we write about what we read is that we want to share that feeling with others. The same inclination that forces you to slide your drink across a fancy bar for your date to try also makes you carry a book in a bag to a friend’s house without asking and drop it off in the hopes they’ll love it to. We write about what we read to understand it more and to interact with the work in a new way, but we share what we write about what we read because ultimately, we want to share the feeling it gave us.

When I started this newsletter, media was in a bad place. Now it is in a worse one. I viewed this as a platform to publish the stories I wanted to write that no one had the freelance budget to pay for. Weird stories about women who wrote novels about being spinsters at age 30 and got women who got dragged in their own obituaries. I wrote these newsletters to be read. I wrote them to share knowledge. But when this newsletter, in retrospect, is at its most successful is when this is a place to share not just knowledge, but joy — to relish in what writing can do for us and what it can’t, to talk about how books evolve.

Right now, books are not the important thing. In the scale we operate on now (one of thousands of human lives lost because of an inadequate government that refuses to do anything), a book doesn’t really matter. I don’t believe that bookstores should be open. I don’t believe that a book will save us. This isn’t ever going to be a newsletter that believes books are inherently good or that they are any more powerful than they actually are. But something doesn’t have to be so big to matter. Something can matter because it allowed you to escape for a single day, or because it made you smile. That’s enough.

This past month, as so many of you emailed to tell me what you’re reading or how the poems effected you, or what your hang ups were, I realized how much this little letter means to me. This isn’t just a list of people who read this newsletter because you like books. You are people who care about women’s writing and who more seriously, seem to care about me. You have emailed me when I have written emotional letters, and when you found a book you loved. (One of my new favorite authors came from newsletter reader Libby Nelson!) You have texted me to tell me you’re learning to like poetry and you’ve emailed to tell me that you’re having a hard time too.

It’s a daunting, wonderful thing to realize that this space matters to so many of you and that it matters to me more than I knew. Right now, all of the money I have made for the last two months has come from this newsletter. Substack awarded Written Out a grant, which I used to pay my bills and to pay our contributors last month. This career, writing, is barely one. There is absolutely no security and very little future. You “make it” as a writer with a fair dash of lucky and whatever nepotism you can scrounge up and you pray it sustains you. This is different. Unlike everything else in my career, this is stable until I want it not to be. It’s one of the only things I control. This is personal.

As we continue into year two (lol we are already two months in), I’m trying to remind myself that this is a space for joy. I am going to do more interviews with authors with new books out for you. I am going to find more old out-of-print books to love and share with you. I am going to tell you some weird as hell stories about history’s women writers we may have forgotten. Next week, I promise you, has two straight bangers: a story about the American Agatha Christie everyone forgot, and an interview with the author of one of this spring’s biggest books.

The only real change on your end is to the subscriptions. More of the work that I write is going to be free this year. This isn’t an economy where I feel good about paywalling things that are for everyone. The stories that are behind the paywall will be there because they are very personal or petty gossip, both of which do not belong to everyone.

If you want to subscribe, I’m putting subscriptions on sale until the end of the month at 20% off with the code STAYATHOME (or just click this fancy button):

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Your support funds this newsletter, but it also funds my ability to write it. Your support allows me to take this seriously and to feel secure in writing as a career in a moment where not a lot of people can say that.

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Year two has already started, but with poetry month behind us, I think we’re already off to a good start. As always, email me all of your hopes and dreams, books and authors. Happy Friday.

xo

K


Painting is Franz Nölken’s “Schreibendes Mädchen”

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