We’d all read Stratemeyer products when we were kids, enough to say we despised them. Trash, we all agreed, even those of us who’d devoured them.
We were all men, all young, all badly paid. We’d been recruited in one of three ways. The Syndicate cleverly placed ads in the kind of literary magazines in which we’d hoped to be published but weren’t. Literary agents who turned our autobiographical first novels down flat said they knew of a place that might pay us to write. At a grim party or dingy watering hole, we’d run into somebody already working there—or, just as often, who’d just quit. “It’s awful, but you could give it a shot.” Successful writers didn’t become Franklin W. Dixon.
The factory was a big open space too brightly lit and flimsily divided into small cubicles, each with a desk, typewriter, and wastebasket. We had to produce three thousand words a day. After the editors got at them, they’d usually turn into under a thousand. There were house rules. No drinking on the job, of course. No sentences over twenty words or words over three syllables; no metaphors; a minimum of adverbs; approximations of foreign accents permitted only for villains but never a foreign word; no mention of violent death, drugs, hunger, or sex of any variety; disrespect to parents, police, or politicians verboten; every chapter but the last to end in a suspenseful situation; every book to be of a standard length. The leading characters must never age, marry, or mature. If they learned anything in one book, it should in no way affect the next one. Intellectually as well as physically, Stratemeyer characters are perpetual virgins.
In the bullpen there was both competition and camaraderie. As with all hierarchical organizations, the social lubricant was grievance and the foremost topic complaint. We were all trying to write our second novels or stories for The New Yorker. Everybody wanted out, but we all needed the money, paltry though it was.
“I tried to give the boys a Negro friend. I was going to call him Jack Johnson.”
“In a breath.”
“Get bawled out, did you?”
“You bet. What did you do wrong today?”
“I used the word mysteriously.”
“Don’t tell me. Two syllables too many.”
“And an adverb.”
“How’s that new book of yours coming along?”
“Who has the time? Besides, I’m exhausted.”
“I know. The other night, I was trying to work on this story idea and discovered that I’ve forgotten how to write.”
“Try reading some poetry.”
“They’re mostly short and they clear the palate. I took a dose of Keats last night.”
“Did it help?”
“Say, you haven’t got a spare sawbuck by any chance?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Christ, I hate it.”
“All this. Short sentences. Short words. Short readers.”
“I hate Frank. Likewise Joe. And I can’t bear their fucking father. Who came up with the name Fenton anyway?”
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published seven fiction collections; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novelawardedthe Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.