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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

When You Can't Keep Your Mouth Shut

Carolyn Disagrees with Author and Essayist Katherine Ashenburg

Have you ever read a book that made you want to start a conversation with the author? You know, when you want to jump out of bed where you've been reading propped up on a goose down pillow, forgetting to take care not to knock over your reading lamp, run to the phone and say,

"Yes, but…."

"You reminded me of the time…"

You know chatting, as if you were good buddies with the author and they'd be ever-so-pleased to hear you tell your story? That's what happened to me (over and over again) as I read Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman for Farrar Straus Giroux.

This column isn't long enough to accost all seventeen of Fadiman's essayists, so I choose you, Katherine Ashenburg, because I am passionate about any discrimination and that includes inequities against women and girls and that includes women authors and girl protagonists. I also choose you because I doubt there is a single MyShelf reader of the feminine persuasion (at least from my era) who didn't devour the Nancy Drew mysteries. And, because many women who came after me may be utterly and hopelessly lacking a stalwart role model in literature like Nancy. Harry Potter's sidekick, Hermione, is--after all--only a sidekick.

So, Katherine, you preferred the Sue Barton books and seemed grateful to your librarian for disparaging Nancy Drew books because "They don't have enough literary merit." She may have been right and you may be right to agree with her. I can't speak to the literary merit of works I read as a child. All I wanted then was the pure joy of reading, of turning those pages, smelling that printers ink, getting high on the fact that I could read a Nancy Drew in a single hot August day and go back and fill my bike's basket with ten or twenty more exciting mysteries with Nancy in every one of them. Literary merit? Pshaw. I didn't give a hoot about literary merit until I read Shakespeare and that first bout with him ruined the reading of romances and mysteries for the rest of my life. Still, I'm happy to have had that light-hearted experience of just reading without caring a whit about anything else.

But literary merit is not at the crux of what I wanted to tell you. Rather I wanted to let you know that I share the remorse you feel when you open a library book deprived of those lovely little time-yellowed pockets for hand stamped cards (the more crooked and colorful the better). I wanted to tell you that I too had a favorite reading chair in my bedroom, upholstered chartreuse -- I suppose to cheer up the gray days of Utah's winters. I wanted to tell you that I had a knack for ignoring my mother's call to dishwashing duties and had her convinced that it was because I was so deeply immersed in whatever it was I was reading. I wanted to ask you if you did that, too.

But mostly I want you to know I am mad at you--and that librarian. Putting aside literary -- which I now agree should count for something -- I want you to know Nancy Drew was a better role model for a girl in my generation than your Sue Barton. I grew up, you see, being told:

"You can't be a nurse. Your ankles aren't strong enough."

"Be a teacher. You'll be home with your children when they return from school."

Worse still, I grew up not even realizing that it was possible to "be a doctor." Not because women doctors didn't exist. It's just that I never saw one. And, no matter how much present day nurses may object to this (and who can blame them), nurses were perceived as subordinates to MDs, nurse practitioners had not come into their own and midwives had long ago faded into the annals of early American lore. I knew no women -- nurses or otherwise -- who held Ph. Ds or any other degree equivalent to a doctor's and there I was, needing Nancy.

She was a girl who went against all odds. No one could tell her she couldn't. She wasn't afraid to do the scariest things and she didn't need a man or boy (father, brother, companion or otherwise) to do them for her or with her.

I'm glad that Sue inspired you and I'm glad that in your rereading, you picked up on so many prejudices of the day including what might have been a code for gay. I just wanted to encourage you -- woman to woman, author to author, and reader to reader -- to go back and take a sip of what Nancy offered. No, I didn't turn out to be a P.I. or a coroner but I'll tell you, my life may have been different without Nancy.

If you decide to revisit Nancy, let me know. Maybe you'll write another essay for the American Scholar and, if so, I'd love to see it. If you should decide to do that, I promise to go back and reread Sue Barton. Then we can compare notes.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: You'll learn a lot from Patrice-Anne Rutledge's The Web-Savvy Writer: Book Promotion with A High Tech Twist (Pacific Ridge Press, 2006) It makes a great companion to my book that also helps writers, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't. Find it and a plog (yes, that's spelled right. See more on it below) on

Readers' Tip: Did you know that you can get acquainted with many authors up close, not only by reading Rereadings but by going to and checking out what Amazon is calling plogs or AuthorsConnect ™. This feature is a kind of blog where authors share. Just like a real blog, each entry includes a place for you to comment. Although Amazon doesn't share their lists of book buyers, you'll be sent this plog automatically by Amazon. They will give you this chance for intercourse with authors along with a place for you to disconnect (unsubscribe) if you wish.

For those who haven't purchased a book on Amazon but would like to connect with an author, you can sign up for any given author's plog by clicking on a button that says "Add to Your Plog." It's gold and appears off to the left side of the screen after you scroll down a bit. On my Amazon page for This Is the Place, you'll find plog entries on why poetry and the military do mix, a recipe for Mormon potatoes and a rill on why Utahans celebrate the 24th of July as strenuously as they celebrate the 4th. You'll find lots more, too. Go to:

2006 Past Columns

Carolyn Disagrees with Author and Essayist Katherine Ashenburg
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