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.)