Rereading as a Writer
How revisiting a book makes us better
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Almost every year, I reread Edith Wharton’s second novel The House of Mirth (1905) and see no signs of ever tiring of doing so.
Its protagonist Lily Bart is like no other heroine—beautiful, bored, feminist, funny, false to others, smart, puerile, self-destructive, and doomed. Trapped in a society in which women are ostensibly forced to marry, Lily is twenty-nine—the point of no return lest she descend into spinsterhood—and must land a husband despite her independence and a fervent desire to be alone. Only rich widows and “unmarriageable” women get to be “free.”
But Lily doesn’t want to marry in the first place, and she’s not at all “unmarriageable,” i.e., she’s beautiful, charming, and knows how to “please” a man (i.e., when necessary she can act the part). She couldn’t be unmarriageable if she tried. Unmarriageable women devote themselves to helping the poor, live modestly, and become a saint. Lily likes to gamble and party (nineteenth-century style) and doesn’t have an altruistic bone in her body (though she tries). When another character mentions an “unmarriageable” woman who has her own apartment as an example of how Lily might live independently, Lily says, “But we’re so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy.”
There’s more to Lily’s situation than the fear of being unfashionable. She doesn’t have an income. Being unmarried will relegate her to poverty.
But why reread it so often? (I think we’re getting on at least ten times.) Yes, Wharton’s prose is gorgeous. The characters are so real they seem to be physically in the room with you. But there are lots of books with those attributes.
I mean, I’m not a toddler. Why read the same story to myself again and again? (We all end up our own parents or guardians reading to ourselves in adulthood.)
And it’s hardly a feel-good story. Why put myself through it?
In her book On Rereading, the literary scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks tries to answer this question. On Rereading is a memoir of the books she continues to return to and an exploration into why we reread books. For Spacks, rereading can be seen as the ultimate paradox. Some call it enriching, a way to know ourselves more deeply; others an indulgence. Some praise it as the key to truly understanding a book; others as a waste of time. It can be an experience of sameness or difference.
As writers, we reread on two levels: as a reader and as a student of the book. We love stories and can’t help but get swept up in them. At the same time, rereading is the way we learn our craft.
I read The House of Mirth on both levels. Here’s what I mean.
As a Human: The Sameness Factor
I’m a sameness enthusiast in all things. I eat pretty much the same three meals every day. Though the novel is brutally sad, rereading makes the misery familiar. Each time I delve in, it’s easier to recognize. It’s no less sad, but I think confronting Lily’s sadness in the safety of the novel’s pages makes my own more manageable.
As a Writer: Dialogue
The novel is a masterclass in dialogue. The characters’ lively banter somehow also builds tension. I still don’t know how she does it, but I think it has to do with Lily’s lack of self-awareness. She describes herself as “a keen observer of her own heart,” yet she flails, unable to submit to or go against societal norms.
As a Human: To Know Yourself Better
It’s Lily’s failure to take care of herself that made me weep the first time I read the novel in my twenties. Sob, actually. Full, heaving sobs.
At the time, I wasn’t caring for myself—though not in the same ways—and was Lily. I recognized in her my willfulness matched only by my self-destructiveness.
Reading it every year, I get to see how Lily has stayed the same and I’ve changed.
As a Writer: Point of View
It’s also one of the rare books that somehow manages to slip out of the protagonist’s point of view without breaking the story’s spell. What we call a point-of-view slip occurs when the writer doesn’t have control of point of view. We’re being given the experience of the protagonist only and suddenly slip into another character’s point of view. That takes us out of the story and kills our suspension of disbelief. (For more on Point of View, go to the Fundamentals mini-course here.)
As a Human: To Have a Fan Moment
I love Wharton as a writer and for who she was as a woman. She writes almost exclusively about the upper classes, but readers and critics are mistaken when they call her full-length works “novels of manners.” No, Wharton was fierce, and her work exposes not just the falsity of America’s caste system, but how deadly (literally) it is to women.
Most people don’t know who Wharton really was. There’s what we might call her early identity. She was a debutante and married the wealthy Teddy Wharton. They had an apartment in Paris and lived at the estate known as The Mount in Massachusetts, where she gardened and became designed the interior of their vast home. (Life wasn’t easy; they both suffered from depression.) World War I changed all that. When it broke, she was traveling abroad; instead of returning to the United States, she stayed on the Continent, caring for the wounded and establishing organizations to help refugees, women, the unemployed, and the sick. The war turned Wharton into a medic, humanitarian, philanthropist, and war reporter on the front lines.
She kept writing. Scribner’s would go on to publish Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. (It’s underrated today.) She’d go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence and be regarded as one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.
Rereading can evolve us as humans and writers. It can also lead us to read about a book and discover aspects of literary history we didn’t know before, like, for instance, the fact that The House of Mirth was originally serialized.
The Serialization of The House of Mirth
The House of Mirth was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine in 1905. An offshoot of the publishing house Charles Scribner’s and Sons, Scribner’s Monthly serialized many novels, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Henry James’s The Middle Years, and Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. It ran from 1887 to 1939 and was intended to compete with The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Weekly, both of which also serialized novels. (More on that in upcoming posts.) Multi-modal publication made sense. Scribner’s Monthly was an upscale publication with over 200,000 subscribers. Why not take advantage of them
The process of serialization made Wharton the brilliant writer she became. The experience of serialization made her into a writer. As Wharton said, writing publicly and to a deadline “turned [her] from a drafting amateur into a professional.” (For posts on going pro, see “Drama-free Self-Discipline” and “The Antidote to Writer’s Block”
Why Publishers Today Should Embrace Serialization
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, publishers understood how to use serialization to their advantage. The serialization of the novel worked in tandem with the publication of the book. In Wharton’s case, The House of Mirth was serialized in September, October, and November 1905 and the book came out in October.
That may seem counterintuitive, but it worked. The novel was a critical and commercial success, serving as Wharton’s “breakout novel,” as her biographer Hermione Lee put it.
It’s not surprising that the serialization of The House of Mirth was a resounding success. Its magic is difficult to fully articulate. It’s a quiet novel with a compelling plot—harrowing and uncomfortably funny at times—and it must have shocked readers at the turn of the twentieth century.
If you haven’t read The House of Mirth, do so. If you have, reread it. For those of you who haven’t published but are sitting on a manuscript or an idea just waiting to be realized, take Wharton as your guide, go pro, and serialize.
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