Books That Last – The Nancy Drew Model

Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years. So the take-charge Nancy still resonates.

Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy, captured and tied up. How will she escape this time? Will she find the note in the base of the clock? Can she rescue her friends in time and still stop the thief?

The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what her goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month.

Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike the Chronicles of Narnia, no one will be buying them forty years later.

The added dimension that long-lasting books have is depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page.

Back to the beginning. Some writers aren’t aiming to create the Great American Novel. They want to entertain, much as I’m sure the Carolyn Keen ghost writers did. But what would these writers think if they knew young girls today still read their work? Would they be pleased, wishing only that their relatives were pocketing a royalty check? Or would they cringe in horror, wishing they had included depth in their stories?

Probably some of both.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. You know, Becky, sometimes it’s hard to figure what the real objectives are in all of this publishing biz.

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  2. If they are still being read today, then why do you think they haven’t lasted like Narnia?

    The truth is probably that they aren’t really being read today. I did buy them forty years later. And the Hardy Boys. Desperately trying to give my kids some books they would love to read. Neither kid bothered.

    Then I tried to read one. And I couldn’t believe I’d ever liked them. I have read Narnia several times as an adult and still loved it. Nancy Drew…not so much.

    I think you’re right in your assessment. It’s not just the hackish writing. It’s the shallow, cookie-cutter stories.

    So I think the books are still around because mother’s and grandmother’s are buying them for their kids. But I wonder if anyone is really reading them these days.

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  3. Oh, I loved Nancy Drew. I still do. Those books helped shape my love for adventure and mystery, and they provided a great role model.

    I don’t think any of us can guess how our work will endure. But I don’t think the Nancy Drew books suffered from a lack of depth, either.

    I didn’t read Narnia as a child and I’ve never been able to get into it as an adult. But I have a collection of Nancy Drew books and, honestly, those stories still pull me in.

    from a die-hard Nancy fan,
    Merrie

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  4. Nicole, it is hard, which is why I keep studying. 😉

    Becky

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  5. Sally, I’ve seen Nancy Drew books on the shelf at Borders and I’m pretty sure kids are still reading them. Not as much maybe, but the Nancy Drew movie probably sparked some new interest.

    Becky

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  6. Merrie, I loved the adventure and the mystery, too. I loved that Nancy was smart enough to figure things out. I suppose I even admired her guts and her independence. A role model? I never thought of her in those terms. I don’t know how my life would be different if I’d never read a ND mystery. Except, I think I really fell in love with reading when I dove into those books.

    Now I think I need to re-read some so I can find the depth you mention.

    Becky

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  7. Well, Merrie, I may heve to take another look. When I read Island Stallion, I was surprised at how poor the writing was, but the story still sucked me in. Nancy Drew’s story didn’t, but I might not have given it enough time. I’ll try again.

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  8. Sally, I suspect any number of books we loved as kids may not be so well written, mostly because we know more about writing now. That’s why it intrigued me that here was a commercial series that is still on shelves in book stores. I would have thought that the commercial would all be here-today-gone-tomorrow. That’s mostly true. But not for these books. So what’s the difference? Not the writing. I think it’s the character all the way. She was unique and the traits that made her so still have appeal.

    Becky

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