BOOKBITCH VIRGIN IN THE NEWS...
The Little Song Reader That Could
When Book Sense announced its 2004-2005 Reading Group Suggestions, it designated six novels as "amazing debuts": The Dive from Clausen's Pier, Everything Is Illuminated, The Lovely Bones, The Song Reader, The Time Traveler's Wife and White Teeth. The only long shot on this list--not a Today Show Book Club selection, a big prize winner or even reviewed by the likes of the New York Times--was The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker. This wasn't the first time Tucker's debut had exceeded expectations.
Published in May 2003 as a trade paperback original by Downtown Press (S&S's "chick lit" imprint), The Song Reader quickly proved to be more Secret Life of Bees than The Devil Wears Prada. In a starred review, PW called the story of two sisters in Missouri "an achingly tender narrative about grief, love, madness and crippling family secrets." Excerpted by Seventeen, chosen for Border's Original Voices and a July/August Book Sense Pick, the novel went back to press five times last year and became a regional bestseller. This year, in addition to making the Reading Group Suggestions list, The Song Reader has been chosen by the American Library Association as a popular paperback for young adults and again by independent booksellers as an "Adult Book Recommended for Teen Readers," along with books such as Catcher in the Rye and Girl with a Pearl Earring. With more than 70,000 copies in print, Pocket plans to expand the readership for Tucker's novel still more by publishing a special YA edition next June.
The Song Reader has also done surprisingly well in several foreign markets, especially in Germany, where Eichborn's July 2004 hardcover release was both a critical and commercial success, leading to a heated auction for the paperback recently won by Goldman/Bertelsmann. Reached by phone, Tucker said she is "thrilled" by her German reviews. "My German editor sends over stacks of them at a time, from highbrow newspaper book sections to magazines like Elle and Glamour," she told PW Daily. "I love the way they talk about Song Reader. To the Germans, it's a psychologically serious novel that's well written. A literary novel, as we would call it, but they don't seem to classify the way we do, where literary is defined in opposition to popular."
What's next for Tucker? This year saw the release of her second novel, the more suspenseful Shout Down the Moon, about a jazz singer and her son. She also had a story in Lit Riffs, alongside Jonathan Lethem and Neal Pollack. She's currently working on two new books. "One of them is about a father who has disappeared from his life and headed to New Mexico, hoping to hide his children from a dangerous world, " Tucker said. "The other is about a 19th-century physicist working on the nature of reality.... I doubt that anyone would mistake them for chick lit," Tucker added with a laugh.
Whatever she publishes next, Tucker can count on independent booksellers to help her get the word out. "I love Lisa, " Deb Wehmeier of Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans told PW Daily. "She came here and signed books for our New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that benefited our children's book bank for kids who don't have access to books. I do a book group for a dozen women in a women's shelter and Pocket donated copies of her second novel for the group. Lisa asked me the names of all the women in the group, and a short time later we got 12 copies of The Song Reader personalized to each women in that shelter. She deserves all good things."
PW Daily for Booksellers (Thursday, November 4, 2004)
Thursday, November 04, 2004
BOOKBITCH VIRGIN IN THE NEWS...
Posted by BookBitch at 11/04/2004 08:17:00 PM
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
October 31, 2004
QUESTIONS FOR CHRISTINE SCHUTT
Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
What is it like to be attacked by your fellow novelists for having written a novel that reportedly sold only 100 copies? Thomas McGuane said publicly that the National Book Awards underwent a ''meltdown'' by selecting finalists as obscure as you.
It surprises me very much. It surprises me that Tom McGuane could damn my book without having read it. And by the way, ''Florida'' has actually sold at least 1,099 copies.
The critic John Leonard suggested that a prize winner should be someone who has put in time and paid his dues.
I am 56. I have taught literature at a girls' school in Manhattan, Nightingale-Bamford, for more than 20 years. My first collection of short stories was titled ''Nightwork'' because I wrote it at night while I was divorced and raising two sons. How else can I pay my dues?
All the finalists in fiction this year are women. Do you think this has anything to do with the response you're getting?
Would they be doing this if we were five unknown men?
What do you think the award should stand for besides, obviously, literary excellence?
I do think you should honor some work that is trying to be a clean, hard object.
That could describe a washing machine.
True, it could. But what I mean is that a piece of writing should be hard and clean in the sense that there is nothing extraneous about it, no feathery adjectives.
You initially published with Knopf, which is known for its devotion to serious fiction, but ''Florida'' was published by a small academic press.
I was hoping that Knopf would take it, but they didn't. It was Gordon Lish at Knopf who bought my first stories, and he was fired before the stories came out. I think publishers are afraid of taking a risk on something that is different.
But ''Florida'' is not so radically different. It tells the story of an orphaned girl who finds refuge in books. Why, do you think, have orphans been such a powerful presence in Western literature?
Well, what is it to be an orphan? It's always to have to say ''please'' and ''may I?'' You are always spending the night at someone else's house. You don't want to make a mistake, or do anything wrong, or ask for too much.
You yourself seem timid, but in your short stories in particular you take on such bruising events as incest and dead bodies under beds.
There is a story of mine that has always upset people. It is called ''What Have You Been Doing?'' and it's about a woman who teaches her son how to kiss.
Is it based on actual experience? Have you ever kissed either of your sons amorously?
My older son, Nick, was very much an actor, and he did things that sometimes sort of shocked me. Sons forget their size and their bodies.
Are you saying you actually kissed your son? I'm horrified!
No, no, I never did that. I once tried to teach him how to dance. When you write, you always make it a little bit bigger and bolder than it is in life.
That's a relief.
I can be very bold and brave and nasty on the page.
Better on the page than in life! What did your sons, who are now in their 20's, think of the story?
They just laughed. It's wonderful having boys, isn't it? They're very forgiving of their mothers.
Yes, certainly more forgiving than the American literary world.
It doesn't matter what anyone says. If the work is good, eventually it will be found. I used to imagine that my work would be discovered after I am dead, but it's much nicer to be recognized in one's lifetime.
The New York Times > Magazine > Questions for Christine Schutt: Prize Fight
Posted by BookBitch at 11/03/2004 09:39:00 PM
Harlem School's Book Shortage Stirs Industry
When Phillip Lefevre, an English teacher at Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy II, wanted his seventh graders to read Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Arte Publico Press, 1984), about a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago, he faced one major hurdle: the school had no books.
A teacher in suburban Boston for the last 13 years, this was his first foray into the inner city teaching experience. "I expected the student body to be different, of course," he said. "I just was totally unprepared for how much less the district would actually provide."
FDA II, whose 420 students are predominantly black and Hispanic, opened its doors in September 2000, still has no library. What's more, the 115th St. New York Public Library branch across the street has been shut since 2002 because of budget cuts. In order for Lefevre to teach his 62 students a book recommended by the city school system, he had to look elsewhere.
Lefevre appealed to his friend Lee Isles, a data analyst at Barnes and Noble.com, for help. Isles managed to get a discount on the books and set up a fundraising Web site to donate to the cost. Isles then sent the link to his old job site, All Media Guide in Ann Arbor, Mich. (a company that provides content data to online retailers), sparking former co-worker Matthew Tobey's interest. Tobey in turn told his friend writer Neal Pollack about it. Pollack, who said he feels strongly that "no one should be denied the opportunity to read books just because their school is under-funded," shot an e-mail over to Susan Bergholz, Cisneros's literary agent. Bergholz contacted Martin Asher, editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, and 10 copies of the book were sent directly.
But perhaps not fully satisfied with this Band-Aid solution, all the major players decided to go one step further. Bergholz is sending three books for every 20-odd authors she represents, as well as overstock and galleys to the school. Pollack posted a "call to arms" on his Web site, donated money from his own pocket and is currently in talks with Tobey and Isles about ways in which to continue raising money for such future efforts.
"I think the real issue here has to do with how the New York City school system spends its money," Isles said. "I have a hard time believing that every school has these same issues."
As of this date, $748 have been collected, an amount just $102 short of the required funds. Lefevre is planning to use any additional money raised to fund a Harlem Renaissance unit for his class, and said he's "incredibly amazed" by the feedback Isles has received. "You have to understand, these kids are not used to books they can take home," he added. "This is foreign to them."
Though grassroots efforts like ones initiated by Isles (he was also responsible for raising enough money last week to supply Lefevre's students with copies of The Old Man and the Sea) provide learning materials where federal, state and local governments fall short, they also hold greater promise. "It's like Latasha [Greer, the FDA II principal] said to me," Lefevre recounted. "This is how things get going. This is how movements begin."
To donate money, visit Isles's site. To donate books, clearly mark packages "book donations" and send to:
Frederick Douglass Academy II 215 W. 114th St. New York, N.Y. 10026
PW Daily for Booksellers (Wednesday, November 3, 2004)
Posted by BookBitch at 11/03/2004 09:12:00 PM
Monday, November 01, 2004
NANCY DREW’S FATHER
by MEGHAN O’ROURKE
The fiction factory of Edward Stratemeyer.
Issue of 2004-11-08
The summer I was seven, a sudden adventure shanghaied my parents, and they hastily deposited me at my grandmother’s home, in suburban New Jersey, for the weekend. I was sitting mournfully by the back-yard pool, without the prospect of a playmate, when my grandmother came down the flagstone path, a box in her hands, and announced, with an air of genial relief, “I’ve found your mother’s old Nancy Drews.” Warped and moldy, “The Bungalow Mystery,” on top of the box, appeared unpromising—and, at two hundred pages, long. But desperation will drive a child to great lengths. I began to read and, it now seems, didn’t look up for several years.
What I was reading were dozens of variations on a single story, which went something like this: Nancy Drew, a sixteen-year-old girl in the suburb of River Heights, visits a friend and learns of a mystery, typically involving a lost treasure or a missing heir. An anonymous note slipped under her door warns her, “Keep off the case, or else”; high jinks and a car chase ensue. While sleuthing, Nancy gets knocked out by a crook, and comes to in an elegant old mansion (“Nancy saw lovely damask draperies, satin-covered sofas and chairs”), where she partakes of a refreshing tea service and cinnamon toast; renewed, she discovers a secret passageway, thanks to a cunning knob of some kind, rapidly solves the mystery, and restores social order.
As Bobbie Ann Mason points out in her excellent 1975 history, “The Girl Sleuth,” Nancy Drew is a paradox—which may be why feminists can laud her as a formative “girl power” icon and conservatives can love her well-scrubbed middle-class values. She climbs fences like a tomboy but cries “How dainty!” upon spotting a gold bracelet. Her friends have marvellous weddings, but Nancy never frets about her future; more than a kiss from Ned Nickerson, her worshipful beau, would only interrupt her sleuthing. Like many juvenile heroines of her time, she is missing a mother. (Hers died when she was three.) But there are no shadows behind her “sparkling” bright-blue eyes. The shadows are in the world, and they are easily detected and vanquished, for they have squinty eyes, poor grammar, badly mended clothes, and a habit of wearing too much rouge.
Next year, Nancy turns seventy-five, and, having sold more than two hundred million books, she has been rewarded with a twenty-first-century makeover. “Nancy Drew Girl Detective” is a new series launched last spring by Aladdin Paperbacks, a division of Simon & Schuster. The contemporary Nancy is more attuned to emotional issues than the old Nancy, as one can only expect in our therapeutic age. But her gaze remains unshadowed.
I don’t remember wondering much about Carolyn Keene, the book’s putative author, although I must have eventually asked how she could write so many books; I recall my father gently suggesting that Keene had been replaced by a ghostwriter. This concerned me for one reason: what if the books changed? I needn’t have worried. The truth is that Nancy Drew, like her comrades-in-sleuthing the Hardy Boys, was never the creation of a single mind. From the start, she was the product of a corporation—a literary syndicate. The man who created the syndicate was not a feminist or a brilliant writer. But in his own unassuming way he was, like Nancy Drew, a phenomenon.
Edward Stratemeyer was born in 1862 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His parents, Henry and Anna, were middle-class German immigrants with a staunch work ethic. Henry was a tobacconist, and Anna, who had been married to Henry’s brother before his death, reared six children; Edward was the youngest. As a boy, he idled away his time reading the popular rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger and William T. Adams (a.k.a. Oliver Optic). As a teen-ager, he had a printing press and amused friends by printing broadsheets and stories, including an early effort titled “Revenge! or, The Newsboy’s Adventure.” His father spoke to him of wasting time. According to Deidre Johnson’s “Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate,” he was twenty-six when he sold his first story, “Victor Horton’s Idea,” to Golden Days, the beloved boys’ magazine, for seventy-five dollars—about six times the standard weekly wage. Later, he liked to claim that he had written the story on brown wrapping paper in the tobacco store, and recalled showing the magazine’s check to his father, who promptly said, “You’d better write a lot more for them.”
He did. He wrote “Poor but Plucky” as Fred Frisky. He wrote “Dashing Dave, the Ever Ready Detective” as Captain Ravell Pinkerton, of the U.S. Secret Service. He wrote “Joe Johnson, the Bicycle Wonder” as Roy Rockwood. He also worked as a stationer—he did not sell enough stories to support himself—and then, later, became an editor at Good News, where his heroes Alger and Optic published their work.
Every Horatio Alger hero’s rise to riches depends on a lucky break. Stratemeyer’s was his proximity to Alger himself. In 1898, the older man, in failing health, wrote to Stratemeyer at Good News and asked him to complete a story that he was too ill to finish. “Can you take my story and finish it in my style?” he inquired. “You will divide the proceeds equally with me but I shall retain the copyright. . . . I fancy it would be easy work for you as you have a fluent & facile style.”
In truth, Stratemeyer’s style was much like Alger’s; each was of the “Maggie, for this was the name by which she was universally known” school of circumlocution. Stratemeyer took on the job and ultimately completed several of Alger’s unfinished manuscripts for posthumous publication. (Alger died in 1899.) Then, in the late eighteen-nineties, Gilbert Patten began publishing his stories about Frank Merriwell, America’s first fictional schoolboy hero. The success of the Merriwell dime novels is hard to conceive of today: they sold a hundred and twenty-five million copies over two decades. Stratemeyer, who had given Patten his start at Good News, decided that he could improve on the invention. The result, in 1899, was “The Rover Boys”—the schoolboy exploits of three wisecracking brothers named Tom, Dick, and Sam. It was an immediate hit.
Stratemeyer’s timing was superb. The spread of primary education had spawned a host of independent young readers, and juvenile fiction was on the verge of becoming hugely popular. The dime novel, which had emerged in 1860, had created an appetite among children for more exciting fare than Sunday-school moralism. What Stratemeyer brought to this burgeoning market was not literary brilliance; the early Rover Boys books are crudely written at best. But he had two essential gifts: a knack for coming up with ideas, and organizational genius. As Henry Ford was revolutionizing the auto industry, Stratemeyer was revolutionizing the way children’s books were produced. The boy who had played at the printing press had learned how to put his single-mindedness to work for him.
The most daunting obstacle facing publishers at the turn of the century wasn’t finding good stories but figuring out how to package and distribute them. Advertising was relatively uncommon, and, in any case, children didn’t read the newspaper. Salesmen travelled around the country, selling books from publishers’ lists, but this system was highly inefficient.
New printing techniques had made it easier to manufacture good-looking books for less than ever before. Most “quality” hardcover juvenile fiction cost a dollar or a dollar twenty-five, but it was still primarily instructional. The most famous of these was the Rollo series, about a boy who travelled through Europe with his uncle, learning the virtue of honesty. For excitement, people had the Deadwood Dicks and the Lone Star Lizzies, low-end dime novels aimed at working-class men and read on the sly by boys—and some girls—everywhere. (Publishers assumed that girls would happily read boys’ books, but not vice versa.)
In 1906, Stratemeyer had his first big idea. The Rover Boys had sold tens of thousands of copies, but Stratemeyer had hopes for more. He went to a publishing firm with a radical proposal: his new series, “The Motor Boys” (the Rover Boys with more speed), would cost fifty cents but, with its cloth hardbound covers, look like it cost twice as much. The “fifty-center” would bridge the gap between the nineteenth century’s moralistic tradition and the dime novel’s frontier adventures. Because the fifty-center was a hardback, unlike the dime novel, it seemed respectable to parents. And it was within range of a boy’s allowance, or his wheedling skills.
At first, the publishers worried about the scant profit margin—probably three to five cents per book. But Stratemeyer thought that the books would make up in volume for the diminished profit margin per unit. He was right. The Motor Boys series quickly became “the biggest and best selling series for boys ever published,” according to a publisher’s blurb. When Stratemeyer repackaged the Rover Boys series in the same format, it, too, grew into a bona-fide phenomenon, selling more than six million copies by 1920. Years after Stratemeyer’s death, boys were still writing to say things like “I think you write the best books ever. You know how to put that touch in them that gets boys. . . . I will always try to imitate the Rovers as much as I can.”
The fifty-cent books had an advantage over their more expensive, single-volume counterparts: you could release a “breeder” set of three at once—a strategy that Stratemeyer had pioneered with the Rover Boys—to test the waters, and, if the set did well, you had immediately generated an audience for the sequels. Sequels to one-off books, in contrast, tended to sell relatively poorly. By the time a fifty-cent series reached ten volumes, it was considered successful; it had captured enough faithful readers to bring in good money for writer and publisher alike.
Stratemeyer could not keep up with the demand for his stories. This prompted his second big idea: he would form a literary syndicate, which would produce books assembly-line style. From his days of working at Good News, he was acquainted with the best juvenile writers, and knew that “any one of them could have built up a 70,000-word novel from a comma, if required,” as one such writer put it. By the time the Stratemeyer Syndicate was incorporated, in 1910, he was putting out ten or so juvenile series by a dozen writers under pseudonyms, and had more series in development.
Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation. Each series was published under a pseudonym that Stratemeyer owned. As Fortune later noted, it was good business for children to become attached to a name, but it would be bad business for that name to leave the syndicate with the ghostwriter.
There were a few missteps in the early years. In 1906, G. Waldo Browne, an enthusiastic contract writer, wrote Stratemeyer that he had completed the first book of the “Young Builders” series that Stratemeyer had commissioned, and excitedly outlined his ideas for forthcoming volumes, including “The Young Mechanics: How They Earned the Money to Build a School House,” “The Young Mill Owners: How They Lifted the Mortgage from the Old Red Mill,” and “The Young Manufacturers: How They Won the Great Financial Battle.” Alas, Browne was informed, he had not quite “hit the nail” with Stratemeyer.
Through the first years of the century, Stratemeyer and his publishers engaged in an epic publicity effort that included buying up lists of children’s names and addresses, circulating a catalogue of books, and seizing every chance to cross-promote his books. Each series volume, for instance, contained a paragraph plugging the volume preceding it and the volume to come, known as the “throw-ahead.” The sheer number of books that Stratemeyer produced meant that he had more leverage with publishers (he worked with several, and would move from one to another when dissatisfied) than the average author, and could better orchestrate his distribution efforts among their salesmen. He pushed cost-averse publishers to invest in a higher number of illustrations per book, and in better covers. And he kept looking for ways to expand his readership. In 1910, the formation of the Boy Scouts of America meant an open line to Stratemeyer’s core audience. Immediately, he began a series about Boy Scouts, to the dismay of Scoutmasters, who complained, according to the Fortune reporter, that boys were turning up their noses at “mundane” tasks like tracking woodchucks.
None of Stratemeyer’s innovations would have mattered had he not known what kids wanted to read about—“that touch in them that gets boys.” The Stratemeyer fifty-center was an adventure story aimed at children between the ages of ten and sixteen; it assumed that kids, like adults, were captivated by the new technology of the twentieth century, and, generally, tried to keep up with trends in adult fiction. Stratemeyer had, in his own prankish way, the muscle memory of children’s enthusiasm for novelty. “The trouble is that very few adults get next to the heart of a boy when choosing something for him to read,” he wrote in a letter to a publisher in 1901. “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby, or with that which he puts down as a ‘study book’ in disguise. He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something.”
Stratemeyer’s heroes—among them the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls (the first girls’ series, Dorothy Dale, was introduced in 1908), the Motion Picture Chums, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins—dashed about in six-cylinder racing cars or jets or balloons. “Swift by name and swift by nature” was Tom Swift’s motto. Most strikingly, Stratemeyer abandoned the model of self-improvement that informed both Alger’s and Patten’s best-sellers. His children were already perfect—solidly middle-class “Übermenschen,” as one syndicate partner later termed them. “Manly” and “wide awake,” they succeeded at whatever they turned their hand to and enjoyed utter freedom (in contrast to “firmly guarded” nineteenth-century types), typically exposing the schemes of ne’er-do-wells hoping to siphon away the fortune of an innocent orphan. Stratemeyer understood that twentieth-century children wanted a fantasy posing as reality. As Patten aptly put it, the new model was a story about “the boy that every kid would like to be. Not, mind you, the boy that every kid ought to be. That was the Horatio Alger idea.”
Stratemeyer was a micromanager. During the syndicate’s golden years, Stratemeyer, who lived in Newark with his wife and two daughters, would arrive in his Manhattan office at nine every morning, dictate two chapters, and then fire off a series of letters to publishers. No detail was too minor to escape his attention; once, while preoccupied with an important business deal, he noticed that a publisher had sent him a cover on which a Japanese life preserver bore an English name printed in tiny type, and immediately sent off a letter requiring a correction. He repeatedly accused his publishers of laziness and indifference to the success of his books, yet he had that particular gift for caustic woundedness that made other people want to do more for him. At the end of the most cutting of letters, he would sign his name in a spidery fashion, as if to suggest that his native enthusiasm had been dealt a great blow. In an early letter to W. F. Gregory, an editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, he practiced this to great effect:
Dear Mr. Gregory,
I received yesterday the package of books and have looked the two volumes over with interest.
I think “The Fort in the Wilderness” is exceedingly good. . . . I wish I could say as much for “Dave Porter” but I cannot. To me the pictures are very poor and will do the book more harm than good. Every one of them lacks life and action. The race on the ice is tame and the knock-down blow in the gym simply awful. And what life is there in the automobile scene? I suggested lots of good things—the feast, the “rough house,” the boys on the run-away trolley, the serio-comic initiations, etc., but none were used. Some day when I feel rich I am going to ask you to put in two or three new pictures at my expense.
We don’t know if Stratemeyer ever felt rich, but certainly by 1920 he was rich. His books had sold in the tens of millions of copies. His writers were still struggling to make a living—they knew that the syndicate could dispose of them at any time—but he was enjoying the fruits that come to the chairman of any successful company.
In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list. Thirty-one series were in full swing. Yet Stratemeyer still wasn’t content. He had noticed the growing popularity in the twenties of adult detective fiction and of pulp magazines like Black Mask,which wasfounded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. As the journalist Carol Billman points out in “The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate,” Stratemeyer saw that this detective fiction, grafted onto an adventure story, might appeal to children. In 1926, the year that S. S. Van Dine’s “The Benson Murder Case” introduced Philo Vance to the world, Stratemeyer wrote the outline for the first three volumes of a series that proved more popular than any that had come before: the Hardy Boys.
If the Hardy Boys emerged at roughly the same time as hardboiled detective fiction, they were also a distinct counterpoint to it. Where private dicks like Sam Spade were wise, urban, cynical, hard-drinking, and suspicious of “dames,” Frank and Joe Hardy were innocent, suburban, fresh-faced, and clean-living. They have an amiable, distant relationship with women; their mother packs a delectable picnic lunch, and no one seems to notice when her name changes briefly, in mid-series, from Laura to Mildred. Iola Morton and Callie Shaw—Frank and Joe’s “special friends”—turn up primarily to be saved from danger and to praise the boys. (“Oh, I really think Frank and Joe are too wonderful for anything!”)
As Marilyn S. Greenwald tells it in a new biography, “The Secret of the Hardy Boys” (Ohio; $32.95), Stratemeyer found the Hardys’ first ghostwriter, the young Canadian newspaperman Leslie McFarlane, through a classified ad in a trade paper. Stratemeyer sent him outlines, cautioning McFarlane to remember that these books were less flashy than their cheaper counterparts: “You perhaps understand our cloth books go in a different field from the paper volumes and the stories are not quite so melodramatic.” The books were to be two hundred and sixteen pages and twenty-five chapters. For the first one, “The Tower Treasure,” McFarlane would be paid a lump sum of a hundred and twenty-five dollars—a figure that required Stratemeyer to sell sixty-two hundred and fifty books in order to make a profit, assuming that the royalties were around two cents a book. As for McFarlane, he later wrote, “I greeted Frank and Joe Hardy with positive rapture. . . . There was, after all, the chance to contribute a little style.”
Stratemeyer’s initial Hardy Boys outlines were two pages long, and set the breezy tone for the books. The first began:
Joe and Frank Hardy are on their motorcycles on an errand for their father, Fenton Hardy, the famous detective. It is Saturday, a holiday from the Bayport High School which they attend, springtime. . . .
The shore road, the rocks below—the racing auto—will it hit them? Narrow escape—anger of a middle-aged man who ran car and anger of boys. “A road hog,” they say.
A cast of characters sent to McFarlane dictated that the boys’ Aunt Gertrude be “peppery and dictatorial” and that the mother, Laura, be a “sweet singer.” Frank is dark, Joe blond. The boys are to have a barn with a gym; Fenton Hardy is equipped with a James Bond-worthy library full of dossiers on jewel thieves and an extensive wardrobe of disguises. (These more fanciful plot elements dropped away in later volumes.)
In 1930, Stratemeyer decided to follow up with a girl detective, whom he called Nancy Drew. The women’s movement of the time had energized girls’ fiction, creating an audience for female characters with spunk (in contrast to Stratemeyer’s early girl heroines, like Honey Bunch, who “knew exactly how to do a washing for she had watched the laundress many times”). Stratemeyer had signed up a young college graduate named Mildred Wirt, and he sent her the outline of “The Secret of the Old Clock.” Wirt went on to write twenty-three of the first thirty Nancy Drews. From the start, the series sold better than any other Stratemeyer series, overturning the conventional publishing wisdom that boys’ series outperformed girls’.
Wirt gave the early volumes a “New Woman” flavor, but the core of Nancy’s appeal is similar to the Hardys’. The mode is adventure with a flourish of mystery. The plot is furthered by coincidence. Nancy discovers “clues” everywhere: A tire tread? “A clue!” A ransom note with a fire-dragon crest? “It may be a clue,” Nancy cries. Needless to say, these “clues” don’t function as a puzzle that the enterprising reader can piece together for herself, as they do in Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Instead, they are reassurances that order reigns behind the scenes. Nancy later happens to walk into a store in Chinatown and discovers that the store sells notepaper with a fire-dragon crest. Happily, the owner recalls not only that Nancy’s suspect had been in the store several months earlier but also his name and build. The message is confidence-inspiring: The world is rife with crooks, but it is negotiable, and fundamentally rational. Hard work pays off. The damned remain damned—unless they repent—and the wronged (long-lost maharajas’ sons, heirs to candlemakers’ fortunes) are restored to their rightful life at the intersection of High and Elm, among the rangy Colonials and the tall trees.
Nancy was Stratemeyer’s final creation, and she lived far longer than he did. In May of 1930, the year that Nancy made her début, Stratemeyer fell ill with pneumonia. While he was sick, he had a dream that he was a character in one of his own baseball series. He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
Even as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were invading children’s bookshelves, there was one place you couldn’t find them: the library. The Stratemeyer Syndicate came under attack from educators and librarians from the start. As early as 1914, Franklin K. Mathiews, the chief librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, published a damning article, “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains,” about series fiction. “Parents who buy such books think they do their boys no harm. The fact is, however, that the harm done is simply incalculable,” he argued. The series books would “debauch and vitiate” a child’s imagination.
Early on, librarians condemned the syndicate’s series as tawdry, sensationalist work taking children away from books of moral or instructional value. Decades later, some educators began to argue that the books were a stepping-stone to more sophisticated literature, a way to get kids reading in the first place. (Television was now the real problem.) In either case, librarians seemed uncomfortable with the idea of reading as pure entertainment. Nancy Drew was long banned from many public libraries.
The syndicate’s production methods didn’t help matters. Mathiews made much of the assembly-line process: “The public will, I am sure, be interested in knowing just how most of the books that sell for from twenty-five to fifty cents, are not written, but manufactured,” he pronounced scathingly. “There is usually one man who is as resourceful as a Balzac so far as ideas and plots for stories are concerned. He cannot, though, develop them all, so he employs a number of men who write for him.”
Mathiews assumed, rightly, that the very word “manufactured” would make people squirm with distaste. But Stratemeyer’s assembly-line method surely made his series better, not worse. The rapid rate at which the syndicate was producing fiction allowed Stratemeyer to learn from his mistakes more swiftly, making his series more sophisticated than many of the series penned by individual authors. Furthermore, when it came to refining a catchy story, two heads often proved to be better than one.
Stratemeyer realized that the way to move books was to keep them constant. The “manufactured” nature of the series was curiously reassuring to kids, who felt that there was an endless supply of goods they knew and liked coming their way. Children, of course, love repetition, as any parent who’s had to watch “Finding Nemo” ten times knows. But so do adults. The hardest thing about selling what economists call “experience goods”—like books or movies—is persuading people to try something they can’t be sure they’ll like. That’s why a handful of brand-name fiction writers (often writing books with continuing characters) dominate the best-seller lists and the shelves of airport bookstores: in some way they’re a known quantity. As the Stratemeyer Syndicate grew, a snowball effect could be seen: the more books that appeared in any given series, the more children bought them, confident that supply would not run out.
Though collaborative effort doesn’t seem strange to us when it comes to making television shows or movies, even today we resist it when the resulting narrative is bound between hard covers. Yet Stratemeyer’s books really were meant to be simply another form of mass entertainment. His closest peer wasn’t another writer—say, L. Frank Baum—but his near-contemporary Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” movie producer who worked at Universal and M-G-M in the nineteen-twenties and helped pioneer the studio system. Like Stratemeyer, Thalberg devoted obsessive attention to every detail of his products, and believed in staying out of the public eye; his first screen credit was a posthumous one.
Why did Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys survive when their peers did not? As the social historian John G. Cawelti has noted, some formulas are more enduring (and instructive) than others. A “good” formula creates an integral fantasy world, one that is both entirely like and entirely unlike the culture that produced it. The most lasting formulas not only reveal something about the culture that shaped them but in turn shape the culture that comes after them. (Consider the profound influence of the Western on the American psyche.) If Alger’s rags-to-riches stories didn’t last, it was essentially because they were too literal—too specific an expression of working-class ambitions of the eighteen-seventies and eighties.
The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew endured, in part, because they avoided overt adult moralizing, and because they were more complex than their juvenile forebears. Generally, multiple plots unfold at once, and the connection among them becomes clear only at the book’s end. The mystery formula elegantly embodies children’s two conflicting impulses: the search for order and security, and the appetite for novelty and risk-taking. Consider the ritualized cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, which represents order and excitement at the same time—“Nancy flew from the saddle and hit the ground so hard she blacked out!”
The series also survived because they were rewritten over time. In 1930, the syndicate was inherited by Stratemeyer’s daughters, Edna Stratemeyer and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. The daughters shut down the Manhattan office and opened one in East Orange, New Jersey, where they worked at rolltop desks throughout the Depression. They dramatically reduced the number of series in production: in 1935, fourteen series were circulating; in 1940, nine; by 1980, when the syndicate was in its final years, only four. But these four accounted for nearly six million dollars in sales. Edna retired after a decade, but Harriet had inherited her father’s single-mindedness, and took over the bulk of the writing of the Nancy Drew series herself, remaining at the syndicate until her death, in 1982.
Harriet’s primary inspiration was to update the most promising of the existing properties—the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. She sent out all the extant volumes for reëvaluation. Some needed complete rewrites; others only a deft touch-up. In 1959, the new Nancy Drews began rolling off the assembly line. Nancy’s age, like the Hardys’, was revised upward. She was now eighteen, not sixteen—the driving laws had changed—and she motored around in a convertible instead of a roadster. On the cutting-room floor lay scenes that had contained offensive stereotypes of blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups. And the books were shorter—twenty chapters instead of twenty-five. It is these versions, not the originals, that most people today have read. The collaborative project was complete: what Stratemeyer had conceived, and ghostwriters had executed, had been streamlined and improved upon by Harriet.
Ultimately, Edward Stratemeyer was a conventional-minded businessman with a radical idea that would not have been radical in any other industry. It was to give his customers, who happened to be children, what they wanted, not what he thought they should want—and to make a product that was better than his competitors’. He understood, as George Orwell later wrote, that there was such a thing as the “good bad book”—one that “has no literary pretensions but remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”
As Nancy has aged, children’s-book publishing has become more sensitive to psychological “issues,” and Nancy’s quick-footed efficiency is now thought to be intimidating for young readers. And so, in “Nancy Drew Girl Detective,” the new Simon & Schuster series, Nancy relates her adventures in the first person, acknowledges her flaws, and shows herself to be a more empathetic and inclusive soul than the old Nancy. But if I were sitting by the pool again, in search of distraction, I would pick the old Stratemeyer formula over the new one. Stratemeyer understood, in the end, that children want their heroes to have an air of mystery. A young reader isn’t trying to discover the ways in which she’s ordinary; she’s trying to discover just how to banish the shadows so that the afternoon lasts a little longer
The New Yorker: The Critics: A Critic At Large
Posted by BookBitch at 11/01/2004 08:40:00 PM