Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers

First thing in the morning write down "The." Then follow with another word, then another.... Such advice and more goes out to the would-be author from the Stratford-on-Avon of correspondence schools. A successful author, self-taught, here tells about the fun and profit, or profit at least, in teaching writing for fun and profit.
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Beware of the scribes who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the marketplaces and the places of honor at feasts; who devour widows' houses...
—Luke 20: 46, 47

In recent years I have become aware of fifteen Famous Faces looking me straight in the eye from the pages of innumerable magazines, newspapers, foldout advertisements, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in living color, sometimes posed in a group around a table, sometimes shown singly, pipe in hand in book-lined study or strolling through a woodsy countryside: the Guiding Faculty of the Famous Writers School. They are Faith Baldwin, John Caples, Bruce Catton, Bennett Cerf, Mignon G. Eberhart, Paul Engle, Bergen Evans, Clifton Fadiman, Rudolf Flesch, Phyllis McGinley, J. D. Ratcliff, Rod Serling, Max Shulman, Red Smith, Mark Wiseman.

Here is Bennett Cerf, most famous of them all, his kindly, humorous face aglow with sincerity, speaking to us in the first person from a mini-billboard tucked into our Sunday newspaper: "If you want to write, my colleagues and I would like to test your writing aptitude. We'll help you find out whether you can be trained to become a successful writer." And Faith Baldwin, looking up from her typewriter with an expression of ardent concern for that vast, unfulfilled sisterhood of nonwriters: "It's a shame more women don't take up writing. Writing can be an ideal profession for women....Beyond the thrill of that first sale, writing brings intangible rewards." J. D. Ratcliff, billed in the ads as "one of America's highest-paid free-lance authors," thinks it's a shame, too: "I can't understand why more beginners don't take the short road to publication by writing articles for magazines and newspapers. It's a wonderful life."

The short road is attained, the ads imply, via the aptitude test which Bennett Cerf and his colleagues would like you to take so they may grade it 'without charge." If you are one of the fortunate ones who do well on the test, you may "enroll for professional training." After that, your future is virtually assured, for the ads promise that "Fifteen Famous Writers will teach you to write successfully at home."

These offers are motivated, the ads make clear, by a degree of altruism not often found in those at the top of the ladder. The Fifteen have never forgotten the tough times, the "sheer blood, sweat and rejection slips," as j. D. Ratcliff puts it, through which they suffered as beginning writers; and now they want to extend a helping hand to those still at the bottom rung. "When I look back, I can't help thinking of all the time and agony I would have saved if I could have found a real 'pro' to work with me," says Ratcliff.

How can Bennett Cerf—chairman of the board of Random House, columnist, television personality—and his renowned colleagues find time to grade all the thousands of aptitude tests that must come pouring in, and on top of that fulfill their pledge to "teach you to write successfully at home"? What are the standards for, admission to the school? How many graduates actually find their way into the "huge market that will pay well for pieces of almost any length," which, says J. D. Ratcliff, exists for the beginning writer? What are the "secrets of success" that the Famous Fifteen say they have "poured into a set of specially created textbooks"? And how much does it cost to be initiated into these secrets?

My mild curiosity about these matters might never have been satisfied had I not learned, coincidentally, about two candidates for the professional training offered by the Famous Writers who passed the aptitude test with flying colors: a seventy-two-year-old foreign-born widow living on social security, and a fictitious character named Louella Mae Burns.

The adventures of these two impelled me to talk with Bennett Cerf and other members of the Guiding Faculty, to interview former students, to examine the "set of specially created textbooks" (and the annual stockholders' reports, which proved in some ways more instructive), and eventually to visit the school's headquarters in Westport, Connecticut.

An Oakland lawyer told me about the seventy-two-year-old widow. She had come to him in some distress; a salesman had charmed his way into her home and at the end of his sales pitch had relieved her of $200 (her entire bank account) as a down payment on a $900 contract, the balance of which would be paid off in monthly installments. A familiar story, for like all urban communities ours is fertile ground for roving commission salesmen skilled in unloading on the unwary housewife anything from vacuum cleaners to deep freezers to encyclopedias to grave plots, at vastly inflated prices. The unusual aspect of this old' lady's tale was the merchandise she had been sold. No sooner had the salesman left than she thought better of it, and when the lessons arrived, she returned them unopened.

To her pleas to be released from the contract, the Famous Writers replied: "Please understand that you are involved in a legal and binding contract," and added that the school's policy requires a doctor's certificate attesting to ill health before a student is permitted to withdraw.

There was a short, sharp struggle. The lawyer wrote an angry letter to the school demanding prompt return of the $200 "fraudulently taken" from the widow, and got an equally stiff refusal in reply. He then asked the old lady to write out in her own words a description of the salesman's visit. She produced a garbled, semiliterate account, which he forwarded to the school with the comment: "This is the lady whom your salesman found to be 'very qualified' to take your writing course. I wonder if Mr. Cerf is aware of the cruel deceptions to which he lends his name?" At the bottom of his letter, the lawyer wrote the magic words, "Carbon copies to Bennett Cerf and to Consumer Frauds Division, office of the Attorney-General." Presto! The school suddenly caved in and returned the money in full to the widow.

Louella Mae Burns, the other successful candidate, is the brainchild of Robert Byrne and his wife. I met her in the pages of Byrne's informative and often hilarious book Writing Rackets (Lyle Stuart, 1969, $4.00), which examines the lures held out to would-be writers by high-­priced correspondence schools, phony agents who demand a fee for reading manuscripts, the "vanity" presses that will publish your book for a price.

Mrs. Byrne set out to discover at how low a level of talent one might be accepted as a candidate for "professional training" by the Famous Writers. Assuming the personality of a sixty-three-­year-old widow of little education, she tackled the aptitude test.

The crux of the test is the essay, in which the applicant is invited to "tell of an experience you have had at some time in your life." Here, Louella Mae outdid herself: "I think I can truthfully say to the best of my knowledge that the following is truly the most arresting experience I have ever undergone. My husband, Fred, and I, had only been married but a short time . . ." Continuing in this vein, she describes "one beautiful cloudless day in springtime" and "a flock of people who started merging along the sidewalk .... When out of the blue came a honking and cars and motorcycles and policemen. It was really something! Everybody started shouting and waving and we finally essayed to see the reason of all this. In a sleek black limousine we saw real close Mr. Calvin Coolidge, the President Himself! It was truly an unforgettable experience and one which I shall surely long remember."

This effort drew a two-and-a-half-page typewritten letter from Donald T. Clark, registrar of Famous Writers School, which read in part: "Dear Mrs. Burns, Congratulations! The enclosed Test unquestionably qualifies you for enrollment...only a fraction of our students receive higher grades...In our opinion, you have a basic writing aptitude which justifies professional training." And the clincher: "You couldn't consider breaking into writing at a better time than today. Everything indicates that the demand for good prose is growing much faster than the supply of trained talent. Just consider how a single article can cause a magazine's newsstand sales to soar; how a novel can bring hundreds of thousands in movie rights..."

There is something spooky about this exchange, for I later found out that letters to successful applicants are written not by a "registrar," but by copywriters in the Madison Avenue office of the school's advertising department—Donald T. Clark's ghostwriter in earnest correspondence with ghost Louella Mae Bums.

Perhaps these two applicants are not typical ofthe student body. What of students who show genuine promise, those capable of "mastering the basic skills" and achieving a level of professional competence? Will they, as the school suggests, find their way into "glamorous careers" and be "launched on a secure future" as writers?

Robert Byrne gives a gloomy account of the true state of the market for "good prose" and "trained talent." He says that of all lines of work, free-lance writing is one of the most precarious and worst paid (as who should know better than Bennett Cerf & Co.?). He cites a survey of the country's twenty-six top magazines: of 79,812 unsolicited-article manuscripts, fewer than a thousand were accepted. Unsolicited fiction manuscripts fared far worse. Of 182,505 submitted, only 560 were accepted. Furthermore, a study based on the earnings of established writers, members of the Authors League with published books to their credit, shows that the average free-lance earns just over $3000 a year, an income which, Byrne points out, "very nearly qualifies him for emergency welfare assistance."

What have the Famous Fifteen to say for themselves about all of this? Precious little, it turns out. Most of those with whom I spoke were quick to disavow any responsibility for the school's day-to-day operating methods and were unable to answer the most rudimentary questions: qualifications for admission, teacher-student ratio, cost of the course. They seemed astonished, even pained to think people might be naïve enough to take the advertising at face value.

"If anyone thinks we've got time to look at the aptitude tests that come in, they're out of their mind!" said Bennett Cerf. And Phyllis McGinley: "I'm only a figurehead. I thought a person had to be qualified to take the course, but since I never see any of the applications or the lessons, I don't know. Of course, somebody with a real gift for writing wouldn't have to be taught to write."

One of the FWS brochures says, "On a short story or novel you have at hand the professional counsel of Faith Baldwin . . . all these eminent authors in effect are looking over your shoulder as you learn." Doesn't that mean in plain English, I asked Miss Baldwin, that she will personally counsel students? "Oh, that's just one of those things about advertising . . ." she replied. "Anyone with common sense would know that the fifteen of us are much too busy to read the manuscripts the students send in."

Famous Writer Mark Wiseman, himself an adman, explained the alluring promises of "financial success and independence," the "secure future as a writer" held out in the school's advertising. "That's just a fault of our civilization," he said. "You have to overpersuade people, make it all look optimistic, not mention obstacles and hurdles." Why does the school send out fleets of salesmen instead of handling all applications by mail? "If we didn't have salesmen, not nearly as many sales would be made. It's impossible, you see, to explain it all by mail, or answer questions people may have about the course." (That is to say, the school that claims to be able to impart the techniques requisite to becoming a best-selling author by mail, cannot explain the details of its course to prospects and answer their questions in the same fashion; but perhaps that is just another fault of our civilization.)

Professor Paul Engle, a poet who directed the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, is the only professional educator among the fifteen. But like the others he pleads ignorance of the basics. The school's admissions policy, its teaching methods and selling techniques are a closed book to him. "I'm the least informed of all people," he said. "I only go there once in a great while. There's a distinction between the guiding faculty, which doesn't do very much, and the teaching faculty, which actually works with the students—who've spent really quite a lot of money on the course!" Professor Engle has met only once with the Guiding Faculty, to pose for a publicity photograph: "It was no meeting in the sense of gathering for the exchange of useful ideas. But I think the school is not so much interested in the work done by the guiding faculty as in the prestige of the names. When Bennett Cerf was on What's My Line? his name was a household word!"

How did professor Engle become a member of the Guiding Faculty in the first place? "That fascinated me!" he said. "I got a letter from a man named Gordon Carroll, asking me to come to Westport the next time I was in New York. So I did go and see him. He asked me if I would join the Guiding Faculty. I said, 'What do I guide?' We talked awhile, and I said, well, it seems all right, so I signed on." How could it come about that the Oakland widow and Louella Mae Burns were judged "highly qualified" to enroll? "I'm not trying to weasel out, or evade your questions, but I'm so very far away from all that."

Bennett Cerf received me most cordially in his wonderfully posh office at Random House. Each of us was (I think, in retrospect) bent on putting the other thoroughly at ease. "May I call you Jessica?" he said at one point. "I don't see why not, Mortuary Management always does." We had a good laugh over that.

He told me that the school was first organized in the late fifties (it opened for business in February, 1961) as an offshoot of the immensely profitable Famous Artists correspondence school, after which it was closely modeled. Prime movers in recruiting Famous Writers for the Guiding Faculty were the late Albert Dome, an illustrator and president of Famous Artists, Gordon Carroll, sometime editor of Coronet and Reader's Digest, and Mr. Cerf. "We approached representative writers, the best we could get in each field: fiction, advertising, sports writing, television. The idea was to give the school some prestige."

Like his colleagues on the Guiding Faculty, Mr. Cerf does no teaching, takes no hand in recruiting instructors or establishing standards for the teaching program, does not pass on advertising copy except that which purports to quote him, does not supervise the school's business practices: "I know nothing about the business and selling end and I care less. I've nothing to do with how the school is run; I can't put that too strongly to you. But it's been run extremely cleanly. I mean that from my heart, Jessica." What, then, is his guiding role? "I go up there once or twice a year to talk to the staff." The Guiding Faculty, he said, helped to write the original textbooks. His own contribution to these was a section on how to prepare a manuscript for publication: "I spent about a week talking into a tape machine about how a manuscript is turned into a book—practical advice about double-spacing the typescript, how it is turned into galleys, through every stage until publication." How many books by FWS students has Random House published? "Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg—no person of any sophistication, whose book we'd publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write."

However, the school does serve an extremely valuable purpose, he said, in teaching history professors, chemistry professors, lawyers, and businessmen to write intelligibly. I was curious to know why a professor would take a correspondence course in preference to writing classes available in the English department of his own university—who are all these professors? Mr. Cerf said he did not know their names, or at which colleges they were presently teaching.

While Mr. Cerf is by no means uncritical of some aspects of mail-order selling, he philosophically accepts them as inevitable in the cold-blooded world of big business-so different, one gathers, from his own cultured world of letters. "I think mail-order selling has several built-in deficiencies," he said. "The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible. Of course, once somebody has signed a contract with Famous Writers he can't get out of it, but that's true with every business in the country." Noticing that I was writing this down, he said in alarm, "For God's sake, don't quote me on that 'gullible' business-you'll have all the mailorder houses in the country down on my neck!" "Then would you like to paraphrase it?" I asked, suddenly getting very firm. "Well-you could say in general I don't like the hard sell, yet it's the basis of all American business." 'Sorry, I don't call that a paraphrase, I shall have to use both of them," I said, in a positively governessy tone of voice. "Anyway, why do you lend your name to this hard-sell proposition?" Bennett Cerf (with his melting grin): "Frankly, if you must know, I'm an awful ham—I love to see my name in the papers!"

On the delicate question of their compensation, the Famous ones are understandably reticent. "That's a private matter," Bennett Cerf said, "but it's quite generous, and we were given stock in the company, which has enhanced a great deal." I asked Phyllis McGinley about a report in Business Week some years ago that in addition to their substantial stock holdings each member of the Guiding Faculty receives 1.6 percent of the school's annual gross revenue, which then amounted to $4400 apiece. "Oh?—Well, I may have a price on my soul, but it's not that low; we get a lot more than that!" she answered gaily.

With one accord the Famous Writers urged me to seek answers to questions about advertising policy, enrollment figures, costs, and the like from the director of the school, Mr. John Lawrence, former president of William Morrow publishing company. Mr. Lawrence invited me to Westport so that I could see the school in operation and meet Mr. Gordon Carroll, who is now serving as director of international Famous Writers Schools.

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