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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Girls' lit and real lit

This essay about ghostwriting the Sweet Valley High series (surprisingly not a part of Miss Self-Important's childhood trash reading landscape but nonetheless familiar) while in English grad school is wonderful (via Emily Hale). The author seems to want to cast her grad school experience in a dim light, but it ends up sounding vaguely romantic to me:
I was a graduate student because I wanted to be, but there was a part of me that grew tired of the drabness and the drizzle, the black gowns, the bluebooks, the endless one-upmanship of academia. The people I studied had been dead for centuries. Once in a while—skulking around the edges of a period that ended hundreds of years before I was born—I wondered why I cared so much about people who lived and died in the 1600s. I read alone, I wrote alone. Sometimes I ate dinner alone at a vegan restaurant I liked and I’d look at people—other people, laughing and sitting together—and wondered if they could even see me. I suspected not...

In one version of myself, I was a twenty-something, Jewish, academic version of Elizabeth Wakefield. In that life—the earnest, responsible one—I was a resident tutor, writing fellowship letters for cream-of-the-crop seniors in exchange for room and board; a graduate student in seventeenth-century British literature, taking comps and Orals and picking a dissertation topic. After my coursework was done, I worked as a TA for one professor after another—running discussion sections and grading bluebooks and papers and sitting in the back of the hall while my professors lectured. Elizabeth-Wakefield-as-PhD-student, I saw why the real credit for Sweet Valley High belonged to Francine Pascal and not to me. Graduate students understand behind-the-scenes work. One semester, I was a TA for three different courses, teaching fifty or sixty students at a time, grading so many papers and bluebooks that the third finger of my right hand developed a funny ink-stained bump where my ballpoint rested. I didn’t complain—I was grateful for the work... 
Partly, I think I kept ghostwriting for the same reason I kept signing on to be a TA. I was afraid of becoming dispensable. If I stopped—even for a few months—someone else would grab my place. The editors would stop needing me. They’d forget how quickly I wrote, how dependable I was, how few corrections my manuscripts needed. Just like being a teaching assistant, “more” for me meant “better.” If I taught three sections a semester, that meant I was in demand. Eight books a year meant they wanted me. Me. The OED says the word “ghostwriter” was first used in the 1920s to mean a “hack” hired to write another person’s story. OK, hack, then. So be it. But a hack-in-demand. A hack they wanted. A type-A hack, the Elizabeth Wakefield of hackdom! ...

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.
This is academia as seen through in the dreamy vision of girls' books, in which an educative period of trudging through the snow with armfuls of books is a romantic adventure which ends by a domestic hearth (and indeed, Boesky is now a professor at BC, and lives in cozy Chestnut Hill with husband and children), all of which I mean as no slight against her. This story arc is in all the best girls' books, and has resonated for at least two centuries. Girls have to be built somehow, and good girls' books, of which the SVH books are only a banal derivative, are as good a construction material as any. Boesky doesn't answer the first question she poses - why is she bothering to study centuries-dead English poets? - but I get the sense that some years spent reading Alcott and Montgomery and their modern incarnations may have played a role in that. This woman was clearly a natural for the ghostwriting job.

3 comments:

Withywindle said...

When she said she had written on early modern utopias, I immediately went to look up the book ...

Miss Self-Important said...

And what did you find?

Withywindle said...

I think I've glanced at it already, and it's not quite what I'm interested in.