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.
The Famous Schools are housed in a row of boxlike buildings at the edge of Westport ("It's Westport's leading industry," a former resident told me), which look from the outside like a small modern factory. Inside,, everything reflects expansion and progress. The spacious reception rooms are decorated with the works of Famous Artists, the parent school, and Famous Photographers, organized in 1964.
The success story, and something of the modus operandi, can be read at a glance. in the annual shareholders' reports and the daily stockmarket quotations (the schools have gone public and are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange as FAS).
Tuition revenue for the schools zoomed from $7 million in 1960 to $48 million in 1969. During this period the price per share of common stock rose from $5 to $40 (it has fallen sharply, however, in recent months)
The Schools' interest in selling as compared with teaching is reflected more accurately in the corporate balance sheets than in the brochures sent to prospective students. In 1966 (the last time this revealing breakdown was given), when total tuition revenue was $28 million, $10.8 million was spent on "advertising and selling" compared with $4.8 million on "cost of grading and materials."
The Famous Schools have picked up many another property along the way: they now own the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, Welcome Wagon, International Accountants Society (also a correspondence school), Linguaphone Institute, Computer College Selection Service. Their empire extends to Japan, Australia, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria. An invasion of Great Britain 1 is planned (the report warns) as soon as the English prove themselves worthy of it by stabilizing their currency situation. In the "market-testing stage" are plans for a Famous Musicians School, Business Courses for Women, a Writing for Young Readers Course.
Summarizing these accomplishments, the shareholders' report states: "We are in the vanguard of education throughout the world, the acknowledged leader in independent study and an innovator in all types of learning. We will continue to think boldly, to act with wisdom and daring, to be simultaneously visionary and effective." The schools mindful of "the deepening of the worldwide crisis in education" are casting predatory looks in the direction of "the total educational establishment, both academic and industrial." The shareholders' report observes sententiously, "As grave times produce great men to cope with them, so do they produce great ideas."
From Messrs. Lawrence and Carroll I learned these salient facts about Famous Writers School:
The cost of the course (never mentioned in the advertising, nor in the letters to successful applicants, and revealed only by the salesman at the point where the prospect is ready to sign the contract) $785, if the student makes a onetime payment. But only about 10 percent pay in a lump sum. The cost to the 90 percent who make time payments, including interest, is about $900, or roughly twenty times the cost of extension and correspondence courses offered by universities.
Current enrollment is 65,000, of which three quarters are enrolled in the fiction course, the balance in nonfiction, advertising, business writing. Teaching faculty: 55, or 1181% students per instructor. Almost 2000 veterans are taking the course at the taxpayer's expense through the GI Bill.
There are 800 salesmen deployed throughout the country (14% salesmen to every instructor), working on a straight commission basis. I asked about the salesmen's kits: might I have one? "You'd need a dray horse to carry it!" Mr. Carroll assured me. He added that they are currently experimenting with a movie of the school, prepared by Famous Writer Rod Serling, to show in prospects' homes.
I was surprised to learn that despite the school's accreditation by such public agencies as the Veterans Administration and the National Home Study Council, it preserves considerable secrecy about some sectors of its operation. Included in the "confidential" category, which school personnel told me could not be divulged, are:
•The amount of commission paid to salesmen.
•Breakdown of the "sales and advertising" item in the shareholders' report as between sales commissions and advertising budget.
•Breakdown of the income from tuition fees as between Writers, Artists, Photographers.
•Terms of the school's contract with Guiding Faculty members.
If Bennett Cerf and his colleagues haven't time to grade the aptitude tests, who has? Their stand-ins are two full-timers and some forty pieceworkers, mostly housewives, who "help you find out whether you can be trained to become a successful writer" in the privacy of their homes. They grade the tests at the rate of one every ten minutes. There are no standards for admission to FWS, one of the full-timers explained. "It's not the same thing as a grade on a college theme. The test is designed to indicate your potential as a writer, not your present ability." Only about 10 percent of the applicants are advised they lack this "potential," and are rejected.
The instructors guide the students from cheerful little cubicles equipped with machines into which they dictate the "two-page letter of criticism and advice" promised in the advertising. They are, Gordon Carroll told me, former free-lance writers and people with editorial background: "We never hire professional teachers, they're too dull! Ph.D.'s are the worst of all!" (Conversely, a trained teacher accustomed to all that the classroom offers might find an unrelieved diet of FWS students' manuscripts somewhat monotonous.) The starting salary for instructors is $8500 a year, falling a bit short of the affluent and glamorous life dangled before their students in the school's advertising.
As 1 watched the instructors at work, I detected a generous inclination to accentuate the positive in the material submitted. Given an assignment to describe a period in time, a student had chosen 1933. Her first paragraph, about the election of FDR and the economic situation in the country, could have been copied out of any almanac. She had followed this with "There were breadlines everywhere." I watched the instructor underline the breadlines in red, and write in the margin: "Good work, Mrs. Smith! It's a pleasure working with you. You have recaptured the atmosphere of those days."
Although the key to the school's financial success is its huge dropout rate ("We couldn't make any money if all the students finished," Famous Writer Phyllis McGinley had told me in her candid fashion), the precise percentage of dropouts is hard to come by. "I don't know exactly what it is, or where to get the figures," said Mr. Lawrence. "The last time we analyzed it, it related to the national figure for high school and college dropouts; let's say about two thirds of the enrollments."
However, according to my arithmetic, based on figures furnished by the school, the dropout rate must be closer to 90 percent. Each student is supposed to send in twenty-four assignments over a three-year period, an average of eight a year. With 65,000 enrolled, this would amount to more than half a million lessons a year, and the fifty-five instructors would have to race along correcting these at a clip of one every few minutes. But in fact (the instructors assured me), they spend an hour or more on each lesson, and grade a total of only about 50,000 a year. What happens to the other 470,000 lessons? "That's baffling," said Mr. Carroll. "I guess you can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink."
These balky nags are, however, legally bound by the contract whether or not they ever crack a textbook or send in an assignment. What happens to the defaulter who refuses to pay? Are many taken to court? "None," said Mr. Lawrence. "It's against our policy to sue in court." Why, if the school considers the contract legally binding? "Well—there's a question of morality involved. You'd hardly take a person to court for failing to complete a correspondence course."
Mrs. Virginia Knauer, the President's special assistant for consumer affairs, with whom I discussed this later, suspects there is another question involved. "The Famous Writers would never win in court," she said indignantly. "A lawsuit would expose them—somebody should take them to court. Their advertising is reprehensible, it's very close to being misleading." Needless to say the debtors are not informed of the school's moral scruples against lawsuits. On the contrary, a Finnish immigrant, whose husband complained to Mrs. Knauer that although she speaks little English she had been coerced into signing for the course by an importunate salesman, was bombarded with dunning letters and telegrams full of implied threats to sue.
A fanciful idea occurred to me: since the school avers that it does not sue delinquents, I could make a fortune by advertising in the literary monthlies: "For $10 I will tell you how to take the Famous Writers course for nothing." To those who gent. in their $10, I would return a postcard saying merely, "Enroll in the course and make no payments." 1 tried this out on Mr. Carroll, and subsequently on Bennett çerf. Their reactions were identical. "You'd find yourself behind bars if you did that" Why? Whom would I have defrauded?" A question they were unable to answer, although Bennett Cerf, in mock horror, declared that the inventive mail-order industry would certainly find some legal means to frustrate my iniquitous plan.
Both Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Carroll were unhappy about the case of the seventy-twoyear-old widow when I told them about it—it had not previously come to their attention. It was an unfortunate and unusual occurrence, they assured me, one of those slipups that may happen from time to time in any large corporation.
On the whole, they said, FWS salesmen are very carefully screened; only one applicant in ten is accepted. They receive a rigorous training in ethical salesmanship, every effort is made to see that they do not "oversell" the course or stray from the truth in their home presentation.
Eventually I had the opportunity to observe a presentation in the home of a neighbor who conjured up a salesman for me by sending in the aptitude test. A few days later she got a printed form letter (undated) saying that a field representative of the school would be in the area next week for a very short while and asking her to specify a convenient time when he might telephone for an appointment. There was something a little fuzzy around the edges here—for she had not yet heard from the school about the results of her test—but she let that pass.
The "field representative" (like the cemetery industry, the Famous Writers avoid the term "salesman") when he arrived had a ready explanation: The school had telephoned to notify him that my neighbor had passed the test, and to tell him that luckily for her there were "a few openings still left in this enrollment period"-it might, be months before this opportunity would come again!
The fantasy he spun for us, which far outstripped anything in the advertising, would have done credit to the school's fiction course.
Pressed for facts and figures, he told us that two or three of the Famous Fifteen are in Westport at all times working with a staff of forty or fifty experts in their specialty, evaluating and correcting student manuscripts . . . . Your Guiding Faculty member, could be Bennett Cerf, could be Rod Serling depending on your subject, will review at least one of your manuscripts and may suggest a publisher for it...there are 300 instructors for 3000 students ["You mean, one teacher for every ten students?" I asked. "That's correct, it's a ratio unexcelled by any college in the country," said the field representative without batting an eye]...hundreds of university professors are currently enrolled...75 percent of the students publish in their first year, and the majority more than pay for the course through their sales...there are very few dropouts because only serious, qualified applicants (like my neighbor) are permitted to enroll...
During his two-hour discourse he casually mentioned three books recently published by students he personally enrolled; one is already being made into a movie! "Do tell us the names, so we can order them?" But he couldn't remember, offhand: "I get so darn many announcements of books published by our students."
The course itself is packaged for maximum eye appeal in four hefty "two-toned, buckram bound" volumes with matching loose-leaf binders for the lessons. The textbooks contain all sorts of curious and disconnected matter: examples of advertisements that "pull," right and wrong ways of ending business letters, paragraphs from the Saturday Evening Post, This Week, Reader's Digest, quotations from successful writers like William Shakespeare, Faith Baldwin, Mark Twain, Mark Wiseman, Winston Churchill, Red Smith, an elementary grammar lesson ("Verbs are action words. A noun is the name of a person, place or thing"), a glossary of commonly misspelled words, a standard list of printer's proof-marking symbols.
There is many a homespun suggestion for the would-be Famous Writer on what to write about, how to start writing: "Writing ideas-ready-made aids for the writer-are available everywhere. In every waking hour you hear and see and feel ...." "How do you get started on a piece of writing? One successful author writes down the word 'The' the moment he gets to the typewriter in the morning. He follows 'The' with another word, then another. (But the text writer, ignoring his own good advice, starts a sentence with "As," and tangles himself in an unparsable sentence: "As with so many professional writers, Marjorie Holmes keeps a notebook handy...”)
Throughout the course the illusion is fostered that the student is, or soon will be, writing for publication: "Suppose you're sitting in the office of a magazine editor discussing an assignment for next month's issue." The set of books includes a volume entitled How to Turn Your Writing into Dollars, which winds up on a triumphal note with a sample publisher's contract and a sample agreement with a Hollywood agent.
In short, there is really nothing useful in these books that could not be found in any number of writing and style manuals, grammar texts, marketing guides, free for the asking in the public library. (Or, for under $20 a writer can assemble his own textbook library. Everyone has his preferences; among my own favorites, sources of endless pleasure and instruction, are Fowler's Modern English Usage; The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr, and E. B. White; Roget's Thesaurus; Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.)
Thrown in as part of the $785-$900 course is a "free" subscription to Famous Writers magazine, a quarterly in which stories written by students appear under this hyperbolic caption: "Writers Worth Watching: In this section, magazine editors and book publishers can appraise the quality of work being done by FWS students." According to the school's literature, "each issue of the magazine is received and read by some 2,000 editors, publishers and other key figures in the writing world." However, Messrs. Carroll and Lawrence were unable to enlighten me about these key figures—who they are, how it is known that they read each issue, whether they have ever bought manuscripts from students after appraising the quality of their work.
The student sales department of the magazine is also worth watching. Presumably the school puts its best foot forward here, yet the total of all success stories recorded therein each year is only about thirty-five, heavily weighted in the direction of small denominational magazines, local newspapers, pet-lovers' journals, and the like. Once in a while a student strikes it rich with a sale to Reader's Digest, Redbook, McCall's, generally in "discovery" departments of these magazines that specifically solicit first-person anecdotes from their readers as distinct from professional writers: Most Unforgettable Character, Turning Point, Suddenly it Happens to You.
The school gets enormous mileage out of these few student sales. The same old successful students turn up time and again in the promotional literature. Thus an ad in the January 4, 1970, issue of the New York Times Magazine features seven testimonials: "I've just received a big, beautiful check from the Reader's Digest..." “I've just received good news and a check from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine . . ." "Recently, I've sold three more articles . . ." -How recently? Checking back through old copies of Famous Writers magazine, I found the latest of these success stories had appeared in the student sales department of a 1968 issue; the rest had been lifted from issues of 1964 and 1965.
As for the quality of individual instruction, the reactions of several former FWS students with whom I spoke were varied. Only one, a "success story" lady featured in FWS advertising who has published four juvenile books, expressed unqualified enthusiasm. Two other successes of yesteryear, featured in the school's 1970 ad, said they had never finished the course and had published nothing since 1965.
An FWS graduate who had completed the entire course (and has not, to date, sold any of her stories) echoed the views of many: "It's tremendously overblown, there's a lot of busy work, unnecessary padding to make you think you're getting your money's worth. One peculiar thing is you get a different instructor for each assignment, so there's not much of the 'personal attention' promised in the brochures." However, she added, "I have to be fair. It did get me started, and it did make me keep writing."
The staggering dropout rate cannot, I was soon convinced, be laid entirely at the door of rapacious salesmen who sign up semiliterates and other incompetents. Many of those who told me of their experience with the school are articulate, intelligent people, manifestly capable of disciplined self-study that could help them to improve their prose style. Why should adults of sound mind and resolute purpose first enroll in FWS and then throw away their substantial investment? One letter goes far to explain:
"My husband and I bought the course for two main reasons. The first was that we were in the boondocks of Arkansas and we truly felt that the Famous Writers School under the sponsorship of Bennett Cerf etc. was new in concept and would have more to offer than other courses we had seen advertised. The second was the fact that we had a definite project in mind: a fictionalized account of our experiences in the American labor movement.
"I guess the worst part of our experience was .the realization that the school could not live up to its advertised promise. It is in the area of the assignments and criticism that the course falls down. Because you get a different instructor each time, there is no continuity. This results in the student failing to get any understanding of story and structure from the very beginning.
"My husband completed about eight assignments, but felt so intensely frustrated with the course that he could not go on. He couldn't get any satisfaction from the criticism.
"While the school is careful to advise that 'no one can teach writing talent, they constantly encourage their students toward a belief in a market that doesn't exist for beginning writers. For us, it was an expensive and disappointing experience."
Another frequently voiced criticism: "The school attempts to indoctrinate its students with a universally palatable style geared strictly to the closest farm and garden market. They don't expect, or accept, experimental work. Forty years ago the sort of bland writing they encourage might have found a home in the mass circulation family magazines—I doubt if it would today."
I showed to an English professor some corrected lessons that fell into my hands. One assignment: "to inject new life and color and dimension into a simple declarative sentence." From the sentence "The cat washed its paws," the student had fashioned this: "With fastidious fussiness, the cat flicked his pink tongue over his paws, laying the fur down neatly and symmetrically." The instructor had crossed out "cat" and substituted "the burly gray tomcat." With fastidious fussiness, the lanky tweed-suited English professor clutched at his balding, pink pate and emitted a low, agonized groan of bleak and undisguised despair: "Exactly the sort of wordy stuff we try to get students to avoid."
The phenomenal success of FWS in attracting students (if not in holding them) does point to an undeniable yearning on the part of large numbers of people not only to see their work published, but also for the sort of self-improvement the school purports to offer. As Robert Byrne points out, what can be learned about writing from a writing course can be of great value in many areas of life "from love letters to suicide notes." For shut-ins, people living in remote rural areas, and others unable to get classroom instruction, correspondence courses may provide the only opportunity for supervised study.
Recognizing the need, some fifteen state universities offer correspondence courses that seem to me superior to the Famous Writers course for a fraction of the cost. True, the universities neither package nor push their courses, they provide no handsome buckram-bound two-tone loose-leaf binders, no matching textbooks, no sample Hollywood contract.
Unobtrusively tucked away in the Lifelong Learning bulletin of the University of California Extension at Berkeley are two such offerings: magazine-article writing, 18 assignments, fee $55, and short-story theory and practice, 15 assignments, fee $35, ($5 more for out-of-state enrollees). There are no academic requirements for these courses; anybody can enroll. No danger here of the Oakland widow or Louella Mae Burns getting sucked in, for those who in the instructor's opinion prove to be unqualified are advised to switch to an elementary course in grammar and composition.
Cecilia Bartholomew, who has taught the short story course by correspondence for the past twelve years, is herself the author of two novels and numerous short stories. She cringes at the thought of drumming up business for the course: "I'd be a terrible double-dealer to try to sell people on it," she said. Like the Famous Writers instructors, Mrs. Bartholomew sends her students a lengthy criticism of each assignment, but unlike them she does not cast herself in the role of editor revising stories for publication: "It's the improvement in their writing technique that's important. The aim of my course is to develop in each student a professional standard of writing. I'll tell him when a piece is good enough to submit to an editor, but I'll never tell him it will sell." Have any of her students sold their pieces? "Yes, quite a few. Some have published in volumes of juvenile stories, some in Hitchcock Mysteries. But we don't stress this at all."
In contrast, Louise Boggess, who teaches magazine-article writing by correspondence in addition to her classes in "professional writing" at the College of San Mateo, exudes go-ahead salesmanship: she believes that most of her students will eventually find a market for their work. The author of several how-to-do-it books (among them Writing Articles that Sell, which she uses as the text for her course), she points her students straight toward the mass writing market. In her streamlined, practical lessons the emphasis is unabashedly on formula writing that will sell. Her very first assignment is how to write a "hook," meaning an arresting opening sentence. What does she think of the word "The" for an opener? It doesn't exactly grab her, she admitted.
During the eighteen months she has been teaching the correspondence course, several of her 102 students have already sold pieces to such magazines as Pageant, Parents', Lady's Circle, Family Weekly; she has had about six drop-outs, an enviable record by FWS standards.
My brief excursion into correspondence-school-land taught me little, after all, that the canny consumer does not already know about the difference between buying and being sold. As Faith Baldwin said, most advertising is sometimes misleading; as Bennett Cerf said, the crux of mail-order selling is a hard pitch to the gullible. We know that the commission salesman will, if we let him into our homes, dazzle and bemuse us with the beauty, durability, unexcelled value of his product, whatever it is.
As for the tens of thousands who sign up with FWS when they could get a better and cheaper correspondence course through the universities (or, if they live in a city, adult-education extension courses), we know from reading Vance Packard that people tend to prefer things that come in fancy packages and cost more.
There is probably nothing illegal in the FWS operation, although the consumer watchdogs have their eye on it.
Robert Hughes, counsel for the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Deceptive Practices, told me he has received a number of complaints about the school, mostly relating to the highpressure and misleading sales pitch. "The real evil is in the solicitation and enrollment procedures," he said. "There's a basic contradiction involved when you have profit-making organizations in the field of education. There's pressure to maximize the number of enrollments to make more profit. Surgery is needed in the enrollment procedure."
There is also something askew with the cast of characters in the foregoing drama which would no doubt be quickly spotted by FWS instructors in television-script writing ("where the greatest market lies for the beginning writer," as the school tells us).
I can visualize the helpful comment on my paper: "Good work, Miss Mitford. The Oakland widow's problem was well thought through. But characterization is weak. You could have made your script more believable had you chosen a group of shiftyeyed hucksters out to make a buck, one step ahead of the sheriff, instead of these fifteen eminently successful and solidly respectable writers, who are well liked and admired by the American viewing public. For pointers on how to make your characters come to life in a way we can all identify with, I suggest you study Rod Serling's script The Twilight Zone in the kit you received from us. Your grade is D-. It has been a pleasure working with you. Good luck!"
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