Friday, April 28, 2006


One of the first books I truly loved as a child was was The Secret of the Old Clock, the opening volume in the Nancy Drew series. Eventually, like millions of young girls spanning three generations, I would consume all thirty titles. Even now the sight of the worn covers, or the yellowed pen and ink illustrations inside brings on a wave of childhood nostalgia. In an instant, I’m back in my narrow bed huddled beneath a blanket and a small circle of light. There are pink roses on the wallpaper, and my parents are long asleep. At that hour, it feels like there's no one in the world but me and Nancy Drew.

Soon after, I would linger beneath the covers with books like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden, but I first experienced the deep communion between reader and fictional character with the famous girl detective.

In concept, Nancy Drew was created by a millionaire book packager named Edward Stratemeyer, who paid a young journalist $125 a book for volumes 1 - 7. Eventually the price escalated to a whopping $500. But a strange thing happened between the concept and the final product: the writer created a real character, a spunky young heroine who triumphed over the dangers and the complexities of modern life with flair and intelligence. In doing so, she spoke to millions of girls as they prepared to navigate the most mysterious world of all: adolescence.

I guess there wasn't so much curiosity about authors at that time; I never wondered much about Carolyn Keene. Nor were her age, her photograph, or the size of her advances used to trump up sales. The packaging of Stratemeyer's series was limited to the books. It did not extend to the author.

Meanwhile, Mildred Wirt Benson, the woman who brought Nancy to life for $125 and wrote all the best books in the series, quietly went about her life--and kept typing. When she was finally recognized at age of eighty-five, Benson was revealed to be a person much like Nancy herself: a determined optimist who learned to fly a plane in her sixties, and would continue to write for Toledo Times until her death at ninety-six. She left behind more than 130 novels--most written under pseudonyms and for a fee. Benson harbored no illusions that her novels would endure for the ages; and when she was finally identified, she found the adulation of her fans a mixed blessing.

Kaavya Viswanathan, who has grown notorious for the plagiarized passages in her novel How Opal Mehta Got the past week, seems to have struck a different kind of deal with her book packagers. It wasn't so much her writing skills they were after; it was her persona. Her status as a teen prodigy and student at Harvard was skillfully hyped to create buzz around the novel.

Until this week, Viswanathan seemed like the luckiest of writers. At seventeen, without ever agonizing over a single query letter or even needing to complete her novel, she secured a top notch agent and a half-million dollar publishing deal. Legions of talented writers who've spent years of their lives and a fortune in postage trying to attract the attention of the publishing industry, could only shake their heads in bemused frustration--or bitter envy.

Now everything has come into question-- from the the the exact nature of Viswanathan's authorship to the size of her advance. But the greatest question of all concerns the capricious nature of luck. Kaavya Viswananathan's novel may be reissued; and driven by its notoriety, it may sell even better than predicted. But it now seems that the grossly underpaid Mildred Wirt Benson, who spent most of her life in anonymity, may have gotten the better deal.


Anonymous said...

What memories you have aroused with the Old Clock! And yes, we didn't seem to be interested in the author. I read a while ago this same story and felt a bit sad for Mildred Benson. Apparently the Hardy Boys stories were similarily farmed out for small change.

The second author's story is just another example of how commercial and ad based our world is, far worse I think than the farming out of writing.

Melly said...

"But the greatest question of all concerns the capricious nature of luck."
Oh, Patry, what a great way to put it.

Buffy said...

Good ole Nancy Drew.

I remember when I first read the was already old and dusty and smelled like damp.

I loved it.

Patry Francis said...

marja-leena: One article said that before Benson was recognized, even her own daughter found it hard to believe she'd written the Nancy Drew Series. And yet, it seemed that she lived a charmed and wonderful life. One can only wonder: if she'd gotten the money and fame she clearly deserved, would it have added or detracted from her happiness and productivity?

melly: Thank you. There was a bedtime story I used to read to my kids about a woman who saw the good side of everything. She and her little cat endured a flood, homelessness, and all sorts of disasters with amazing EQUANIITY. (Maybe I should have squeezed her into my last post.) When someone would bemoan her latest crisis, the old lady would only shrug and say, "Whether it's good news or bad news, we'll have to wait and see." It's amazing some of the wisdom you find in children's books...

buffy: "...old and dusty and smelled like damp" Sounds like my copy! It's amazing how a favorite book can bring back such sensory memories.

Suzanne said...

So much to love here, Patry. We were on the same path as girls, it seems. Thank you for the information on the Nancy Drew series--I didn't know this! My husband and I were discussing Kaavya Viswanathan this morning and he quipped, 'She's part of this entire cut & paste generation,' which I thought was apt. Sadly, (for me) none of it surprised me. I've grown completely cynical. How depressing!

rdl said...

Oh most definitely to the last line(and to it all!) - I loved Nancy Drew.. and Cherry Ames - tho I probably have that series to blame for my present medical career. Great post!

Anonymous said...

I heard that the publicity will help her book sales!

I just saw a wonderful show today on PBS about Marietta Holley, the female counterpart of Mark Twain. She was an unlikely person to write about women's rights, but she did....within the boundaries that she could as a woman in those times.

Patry Francis said...

Colleen: Holley sounds like an intriguing character. I'll have to check that out. Thanks for the link.

Robin said...

Excellent post, Patry. As usual.

I grew up on Nancy Drew, too. And the Hardy Boys. Sadly, I don't remember giving much thought to the authors.

Things seem to be a bit different in that respect now, though. If only because kids can Google the authors and even send them notes. A little girl just told me yesterday that she recently wrote RL Stine a letter through his website.

She was clearly awestruck.

The kids seem to be at least slightly more in tune with who's writing the books these days.

I wonder how teens feel about the Kavyaa ordeal. I don't think I've read many teenager comments.

Thanks, Patry

Patry Francis said...

robin: I, too, have wondered how Kaavya is surviving all this. Though I approve neither of plagiarism--nor the "excusism" that characterized the responses of author and publisher, it's hard to blame a nineteen year old
for this complex debacle. One can only wonder how much control she had over her work in the first place.

Anonymous said...

How interesting. I never read Nancy Drew, my German childhood staple books being by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren and the British writer Enid Blyton, both prominent figures whose identities were closely merged with the books they wrote.

The internet and media in general have truly changed the way in which we view and handle anything and anyone "public" and/or famous, hasn't it?

By the way, I remember well those nights hidden under the duvet with a good book and my flashlight. I still love reading in bed and with a husband who goes to sleep before I do I may well have to revert to the flashlight again!

Sky said...

I grew up with Nancy Drew, too, and had every book! I treasured them, along with the Hardy Boys, Black Beauty, Little Women, Little Men, and the earlier books of the Trixie Belden series.

Hmmmmm...I think in both instances young women were "used" with no understanding of those events. As you say, however, Viswananathan's novel may now even outsell the original expectation - so in the end the publishing house and the author reap higher rewards...interesting stroke of luck for sure. ;)

I read recently about other writers who began careers with similar beginnings in plagiarism. While it took a while to live the reputation down, several became successful and went on to do fine things...including award winning works.

Patry Francis said...

Kerstin: Nothing more cozy than a duvet and a book. I have a husband who goes to sleep early, too, so I often set set myself up on the couch with my blankets and pillows. It's almost, but not quite, like reading in bed.

Sky: It's obvious that Benson was a real writer, no matter how anonymously she lived. If that's true of Kaavya, she, too, will continue to write. But with new charges of plagiarism (this time from a novel by Sophie Kinsella) levelled at her today, it's not looking good.

robin andrea said...

When I was growing up in the 50s and early 60s Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were my companions. I loved cracking open a new book and getting pulled into the stories.

I must not be keeping up with the news. I had not heard of this particular plagiarism scandal, but I do recall that there seems to be quite a bit of that going around lately. I left this comment over at Rainy Day Thoughts about this: I am often influenced by external sources, especially music and poetry, but am spurred to creativity by internal forces. I usually know when I am copying something, so I use quotes!

P. A. Moed said...

You bring back memories of those clandestine reading sessions under the covers!

As for the latest plaigiarism scandal, I have mixed feelings. I have some sympathy for the author, who must have been under a lot of pressure to produce a saleable work at a young age. In those circumstances, I can imagine the temptation to lift sections from another book. But I'm also a purist on this point--I do believe literature should be an original, creative work. It should also be infused with life and wisdom. It's the rare teenager that can produce a work of fiction that has these qualities. We can also blame the cult of youth in this country. Younger, better, sexier, cooler? This ethic is crazy. I prefer to read and write books created the old-fashioned way!

Zinnia said...

My son read Secret of the Old Clock not too long ago.

Patry Francis said...

r.d.: I agree with you. Viswanathan's argument that she appropriated the material "unconsciously" sounds disingenuous to me. I should probably spend more time looking at hawks and crabs like you do, and less time reading the news.

patti: I once thought that writers and books were immune to the "youth cult." Apparently not. Fortunately, most of literature remains safe from the write-by-numbers approach.

zinnia: It's good to hear that a boy loves Nancy Drew, too.

Sky said...

Oh Patry, I didn't know about today's news and still have not heard it. Will try to catch it later tonight. You are right - doesn't sound good. She is getting into some pretty muddy water, it seems.

When I was a student plagiarism was drilled into us as such a "NO-NO" that it was an automatic "F" with no exceptions. When I taught English later for a year, I treated it the same way.

Borrowing another's ideas was the same thing as using words verbatim, so borrowed ideas had to be footnoted just like quotations did.

This is so disheartening. :(

Swirly said...

You touched upon so many things here that I think about so often - the notion of celebrity (and its fleeting-ness), how marketing and hype seem to be replacing real talent, and a certain loss of innocence. Is this right? Maybe not loss of innocence, but a loss of a real work ethic, because a desire for fame and fortune seems to have taken hold of so much of our society that all sense of integrity seems to be falling to pieces. I am glad you wrote about this - it is so important.

ShellyS said...

Ah, yes, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase got me hooked on Nancy Drew. :)

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