Through Patrix’s blog, I discovered a fascinating article in the Washington Post on the author behind the Hardy Boys series. Franklin W. Dixon (or at least the first Franklin W. Dixon), it turns out, was really someone named Leslie McFarlane. The first few dozen Hardy Boys books were churned out by Leslie, and later the baton got passed on to other ghostwriters masquerading as Franklin W. Dixon.
Leslie McFarlane, the author of the article tells us, was a fine writer, and could write really well. The syndicate who paid him to write the Hardy Boys novels, though, wanted formulaic stories and poor Leslie felt completely demeaned writing the stuff they wanted. He knew he was above this garbage, he could write much better, he admired F. Scott Fitzgerald and he was as fine a writer as Fitzgerald was. In his diaries he complains about writing the Hardy Boys books – “the ghastly job appalls me” and refers to the first book as “accursed”. Clearly, he hated the books.
He also wrote other short stories on the side, works where he was free to write as he chose. Unfortunately, though, no one else seemed to appreciate his better works, and poor Leslie, in order to put food on the table during the great Depression, had to continue writing the Hardy Boys books.
If this was really Leslie McFarlane’s attitude (and his diaries do seem to indicate that it was), I have three problems with it :
First, what about the legions of teenagers (and precocious pre-teens) who read the Hardy Boys books? They hadn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and they didn’t know what “good writing” was supposed to be. The Hardy Boys, pedestrian writing and all, were among the first books these kids read, and what led them to a lifetime of reading. As the author himself mentions, it wasn’t until he went back and read the Hardy Boys books as an adult that he realized how bad they were – as a teenager, he was oblivious.
Second, while I can see that the syndicate must have had rigid strictures on story lines and what characters can and cannot do, I am not sure how they can actually make anyone write badly. As the WaPo article author himself mentions, there are portions of text where McFarlane really comes alive (like when he describes Aunt Gertrude). So what prevented Leslie from showing his writing skills in the rest of the book ?
Third, the Hardy Boys’ books’ storylines may have been intellectually undemanding, and none of the works will ever be compared to Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. But if it is being remembered as a good writer that one cares about, writing serious, intellectually demanding fiction is not essential. There will always be two kinds of authors – those whose books sell in the mass market, and those who achieve critical acclaim but sell much fewer books. To say that critical acclaim is more important than mass appeal does indicate a certain level of snobbery. I love my P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett as much as I love those Nobel winning authors, and sometimes the Nobel winning authors turn out to be sad disappointments. Critical acclaim is not everything.
The sad fact is, Leslie McFarlane as Franklin W. Dixon made more of an impact of millions of lives than F. Scott Fitzgerald did, but he never realized the true worth of what he was writing.