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Wednesday, 11.10.04: Nancy Drew's Father

I need to take a break from my unproductive obsession over the election results.

The 11/10/04 New Yorker contained an article called "Nancy Drew's Father (the fiction factory of Edward Stratemeyer)" by Meghan O'Rourke.

Nancy Drew was one of my huge influences. I went on at length about this in my 2/11/00 entry.

Somewhere along the line I suffered the disillusionment that author "Carolyn Keene" was also a fiction. I might have heard that a man named Edward Stratemeyer was behind Nancy Drew and her comrades The Hardy Boys.

What I didn't realize was that Nancy was the product of a corporation -- a literary syndicate. Edward Stratemeyer was the Henry Ford of children's book series. He didn't invent the genre, but he invented the assembly line. He also took advantage of expanding primary education in the early 20th century -- more kids could read. And the technologies for printing low-cost attractive books had just emerged. He convinced publishers to sell high volumes at low mark-ups. He figured out that "breeder sets" of 3 cheap novels published at once set the stage beautifully for sequels, in a way that single novels did not.

Stratemeyer's popularity as a series writer (or re-packager) came first. When he was swamped with work, he came up with the idea of a literary syndicate. He wrote 3-page plots and mailed them to a contract writer, who wrote a book in a month to strict specifications. Stratemeyer edited the manuscripts for conformity to his formulas and style then published them under an author's name that he owned.

He knew what kids liked: repetition, novelty, action. Nancy's world was exciting, but reassuring. A world full of crooks is still negotiable and fundamentally rational. Hard work pays off. Wrongs are righted.

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.)

Nancy emerged in the 1920s, on the heels of the women's suffrage movement. Twenty-three of the first 30 were written by young college graduate Mildred Wirt. I'm confident that Nancy was a product of new ideas about a woman's place in the world. And certainly she influenced my own thinking that girls were meant to be intrepid leaders and organizers, whose curiosity for exploration was more important than conformity to traditional boundaries.



Influences: Nancy Drew (2.11.00)



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