By Kent Winslow
What bothers me about the Nancy Drew books is first of all a matter involving authorship. As most raiders already know, Carolyn Keene is a pseudonym masking ultimate Stratemeyer Syndicate authorship. The writing of the books was,however, done by SOMEONE and it is pretty evident from reading the series that "someone" has been quite a number of different people at one time or another. Nevertheless, in television appearances and magazine interviews, Mrs. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams persistently and irritatingly asserts that SHE, in fact, is the actual author of Nancy Drew. Well, she simply isn't, and it seems to me to be in somewhat bad taste to attempt to take credit for others' work. On television, currently, there is a commercial running that expresses something of the same arrogance: the president of a company that brews beer gets on screen in his suit and tie and invites, "Taste my Schlitz." As if HE did anything else than sit at a desk!
Beyond this, though, there are many additional facts about the Stratemeyer Syndicate itself that are, to say the least, not very prepossessing, and foremost among these is the simple truth that the Syndcate is to part responsible for driving many other mystery-adventure series for young readers off the market. Needless to say, television played a role in this process, too, but one has only to examine the dust-jacket ads and promotions on Grossat & Dunlap books from the 1940's and '50's to see that in the overwhelming majority these are promotions of Stratemeyer books. The Syndicate, unlike individual authors, could exert a tremendous amount of economic leverage on publishers and distributors for the very simple reason that it could produce dozens of manuscripts a year, not just a few an in ordinary writer can,and also because it could make advertising departments promote its books by threatening to deal with a different publisher. Again this is impossible for an ordinary author ~ ordinary authors do not threaten publishers with anything.
One hears of all sorts of remarks made by writers of series books, to the effect that their series were inadequately promoted by the publishers, but none more plaintive and poignant than the complaint of Margaret Sutton who wrote the Judy Bolton series. Here is a set of books featuring a girl sleuth; the production and artwork are certainly the equal of Nancy Drew books, while the writing is vastly superior to that of Nancy Drew. Yet Judy Bolton exists no more, while ND [Nancy Drew] does. And Why?
For an answer to this question we might well pay attention to what Mrs. Sutton has to say.
"Whatever happened to Judy Bolton?" she wrote. This a question often asked me by people who were boys and girls in the forties, fifties and sixties when the series was second only to Nancy Drew in sales, and many children wrote to tell we they liked Judy best because she grew up like real girls and also because she often learned by making mistakes.
"First written to 1930 before the Nancy Drews appeared in print, they were bought by Grosset & Dunlap in 1932 when it was apparent that mystery stories for girls were selling well. Boys, too, liked the Judy Boltons because Judy's brother Horace always played an important part in the stories and her two boy friends add romantic suspense. So why did Judy go out of print and Nancy Drew did not? The answer is simple: because Nancy Drew was written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate headed by Harriet Adams, the company had more power than a single author and were able to influence the publishers more. Thus, Judy was begining to be phased out in favor of Nancy as early as 1960, perhaps earlier. The books were no longer advertised and distributed as well as the syndicate books. But they were loved, and still are, by readers who still collect them."
In 1971, Arthur Prager wrote an article for the Saturday Review about series books, and, in expanded form, this found its way onto library shelves later as his book Rascals at Large, or, The Clue in the Old Nostalgia. This book, like Leslie McFarlane's autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys, without actually attacking the Stratemeyer Syndicate, imparts to the reader a strong suggestion that series books in the twentieth century might, on the whole,have been a healthier and somewhat less frenetically commercialized area of writing and publishing had the Syndicate not existed. To this point Margaret Sutton responded:
"Prager's article exposes the book machine for what it really is ~ the dead in control of the living. It also raises the question ARE AUTHORS OBSOLETE? How can we hope to compete with a woman in charge of a book factory inherited from a millionaire father? We are the losers in this monstrous game of monopoly.
"Back in 1930 when I first submitted the idea for the Judy Bolton series to Grosset & Dunlap I was told how the Stratenteyer books were written and decided such writing was not for me. Two years later Grosset's young editor, Laura Harris, asked to see the series again. The first three Judy Bolton mysteries were published in May, 1932. Young and naive as I was, I did not see the Nancy Drew series as a threat to my own original plots and titles. The stories themselves were based on real life experiences and could not be copied. Sales climbed to four million before I noticed that Judy Boltons were no longer to be found in most bookstores.
"About this time I was on my way to have lunch with a friend who had asked for an autographed copy The Haunted Attic. When I stopped in at Macy's to buy it I was told, 'We no longer carry the Judy Bolton series. Why don't you buy a Nancy Drew? They're all written by the same author.'
"Shocked by such misinformation, I stood there speechless while the clerk handed me Carolyn Keene's Secret in the Old Attic. I thought of bookstores all over the country. Was this an isolated incident or did it happen again and again? Fan letters gave me the answer: 11 like Judy Bolton better than Nancy Drew,' a twelve-year-old wrote, 'but I can't find her books in any of the stores.'
"Today, with the Judy Bolton series out of print ~ even the four paperbacks were not very widely distributed ~ I feel impelled to protest the power that can push a real author against the wall and promote assembly line books by authors who never existed."
The Critic's Clew...to Miss Drew by Kent Winslow was originally published in from Mystery and Adventure Review magazine, date unknown (probably early 1980's)