The Rumpus Literary Website Brings Back Old-Fashioned Letter Writing

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Stephen Elliott, founder and editor-in-chief of a literary website called The Rumpus, has found a modern-day audience for old-school letters. The program, a mixture of old-world letter writing and the modern web, is called Letters In The Mail and it aims to further disrupt the way we think about publishing.

Elliott is a writer, filmmaker (his movie About Cherry comes out later this year), and occasional teacher. He started The Rumpus in 2009, and it has evolved into a mix of reviews, interviews, the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column, with lots of other content. (I took a class from Elliott when I was in college, and also conducted a couple of interviews for the site in its early days.)

“We were around for a long time before we started making any money,” he says. Now, however, the team has cobbled together enough of a business model to pay Elliott and two full-time staffers (managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald and Lisa Dusenbery), as well as rent on a small office in San Francisco’s Mission District. That model includes a book club (where members pay $25 a month to receive a monthly book ahead of publication), events, advertising (“not so much as to be obnoxious”), sales of merchandise such as the “Write Like A Motherfucker” coffee mug — and yes, physical letters.

Elliott says his interest in letter-writing goes back 26 years, when his he sent weekly letters to his then-fiancée, who was traveling through Europe. For The Rumpus, Elliott has been sending out an (almost) daily email, which now has more than 12,000 subscribers. The email is a lot more personal than most website newsletters, with lots of anecdotes and musings, but Elliott says “it still wasn’t the same.”

“And so I had the idea that I would send The Daily Rumpus out sometimes as a physical letter,” he says. “Then I realized, there’s probably a lot of other writers that miss writing letters, so I got everybody involved and now when you sign up you get a letter from a different author three times a month.”

Letters In The Mail kicked off earlier this year, and it now has about 2,300 subscribers. The Rumpus is also in the process of launching a Letters For Kids program, which is being run by young adult author Cecil Castellucci. Asked about his favorites so far, Elliott says “they’re all really good,” but points to Matthew Spektor’s letter about a phone call he received from Marlon Brando, and to Lorelei Lee’s letter about an imagined conversation with her grandmother about Lee’s career in pornography, as two that stand out.

But why do the letters have to be physical? As someone who makes his living writing for a website, I’m probably more invested in the question than most people — but whether it’s on a screen or on paper, isn’t it still writing? Elliott says that when he writes a physical letter, he’s “aware of a deeper commitment and intimacy.”

“When someone reads a letter it’s generally the only thing they’re doing,” Elliott says. “They give it [their] full attention. When someone reads an email they’re often reading it on their phone while boarding a bus.”

Participating in Letters In The Mail costs $5 a month ($10 if you’re outside the US). Elliott says profits for The Rumpus are modest, because most of the money goes towards printing and to paying the letter-writers. Like every other Rumpus initiative, Elliott says the program started because he thought it would be interesting, not because he saw it as a moneymaker — but at the same time, it has to be profitable, because the site doesn’t have money to lose.

Beyond the normal ups-and-downs of starting a new site, and launching programs like Letters In The Mail, it seems like a pretty turbulent time to be writing about the literary world, as publishing and bookselling struggle to reinvent themselves. Elliott admits that there’s plenty of uncertainty, but he seems pretty sanguine about it:

” The publishing industry will undergo massive shifts, but that’s the nature of things. There will always be literature, and literary pursuits. How it’s consumed will change. And The Rumpus will change as everyone working on The Rumpus changes. We’re not tied in any way to the trials and tribulations of Random House. We’re our own thing, and sometimes we don’t even know what that is.”