CLOSE

The Famous Writer Who Brought Down Famous Writers School

Image Credit: Alec Nevala-Lee

Jessica Mitford used a typewriter the way others would a sniper rifle. An investigative journalist who exposed the seedier underpinnings of the funeral industry and sounded alarms over medical impropriety, nothing seemed to escape her attention. She even outed her own sister as a Nazi sympathizer.

In the late 1960s, Mitford met a client of her lawyer husband who was in significant distress. The woman, 72, had given over every last dollar of her savings to a salesman representing Famous Writers School, a mail-order correspondence business that peppered magazines and paperback books with ads promising aspiring writers personalized guidance.

Famous Writers was so named for its “guiding council” of established and celebrated authors including Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone, Max Shulman, and Faith Baldwin. Bennett Cerf, a key publishing figure at Random House and well-known for his appearances on television, co-founded the school. Several of these faces appeared in promotional material, encouraging would-be authors to enroll in the program they had designed.

The claims, Mitford found, were difficult to believe: that writers would receive personalized guidance, that “aptitude” tests would weed out those unworthy of their attention, and that success awaited those who adhered to their lesson plan, which could cost upwards of $900. After learning the woman was refused a refund for the $200 she had spent as a down payment, Mitford decided to investigate.

The result, “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” appeared in the July 1970 issue of The Atlantic, and it was not flattering. Mitford described how one consumer advocate, Robert Byrne, submitted a poorly-worded essay for their no-obligation writing assessment. In return, he received a glowing endorsement of his skills:

"Dear Mrs. Burns, Congratulations! The enclosed Test unquestionably qualifies you for enrollment...only a fraction of our students receive higher grades...”

Mitford sought comment from the Famous Writers themselves, who appeared aghast that anyone would think they had any personal involvement in the school’s operations. "Anyone with common sense would know that the fifteen of us are much too busy to read the manuscripts the students send in,” said Faith Baldwin.

The parent company, Famous Schools, was a staggeringly lucrative venture, bringing in $48 million in revenue in 1969. The writers helped prepare textbooks and appeared in advertising, acting as spokespeople. In return, they received a share of profits.

Like his authors, Cerf professed to have no direct involvement with how the business was run. Nevertheless, he welcomed Mitford into his office and proceeded to cram his foot in his mouth. When Mitford inquired whether Random House had ever signed a contract with an author trained via mail order, he replied:

"Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg—no person of any sophistication, whose book we'd publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write...The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible. Of course, once somebody has signed a contract with Famous Writers he can't get out of it, but that's true with every business in the country."

Milford also observed a salesman making an in-home pitch for the course:

During his two-hour discourse he casually mentioned three books recently published by students he personally enrolled; one is already being made into a movie! "Do tell us the names, so we can order them?" But he couldn't remember, offhand: "I get so darn many announcements of books published by our students."

The Atlantic was initially reluctant to publish Mitford’s expose, wary of alienating Famous Writers School after having accepted a substantial amount in advertising money from the company. But Mitford’s story was compelling enough for the magazine to cancel the contract. It became their highest-selling issue up to that point.

Readers were intrigued—writers (and would-be customers) were appalled. Famous Writers School saw a radical drop in enrollment. In 1972, Famous Schools underwent bankruptcy reorganization, evaporating their Famous Writer program from ad pages and dissolving partnerships with their spokespeople.

"I'm only a figurehead,” one of the writers, Phyllis McGinley, had told Mitford. "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."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Why Reading Aloud Helps You Remember More Information
iStock
iStock

If you're trying to commit something to memory, you shouldn't just read the same flashcard over and over. You should read it aloud, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The research, published in the journal Memory, finds that the act of reading and speaking text aloud is a more effective way to remember information than reading it silently or just hearing it read aloud. The dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly, the study reports. The new research builds on previous work on the so-called production effect by Waterloo psychologist Colin MacLeod, who is also one of the current paper's authors.  

The current study tested 95 college students over the course of two semesters, asking them to remember as many words as possible from a list of 160 nouns. At one session, they read a list of words into a microphone, then returned two weeks later for a follow-up. In some situations, the participants read the words presented to them aloud, while in others, they either heard their own recorded voice played back to them, heard recordings of others reading the words, or read the words silently to themselves. Afterward, they were tested to see how much they remembered from the list.

The participants remembered more words if they had read them aloud compared to all other conditions, even the one where people heard their own voices reading the words. However, hearing your own voice on its own does seem to have some effect: it was a better memory tool for participants than hearing someone else speak, perhaps because people are good at remembering things that involve them. (Or maybe, the researchers suggest, it's just because people find it so bizarre to hear their own recorded voice that it becomes a salient memory.)

The findings "suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component," the researchers write. "This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering: We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

The message is loud and clear: If you want to remember, you should both read it and speak it aloud.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Courtesy of MICRO
arrow
science
The Brooklyn Public Library is Now Home to a Tiny Mollusk Museum
Courtesy of MICRO
Courtesy of MICRO

The Brooklyn Public Library is one of America’s largest public libraries—and now, its lobby is home to what’s being billed as the world’s smallest mollusk museum (and its first, no less). The vending machine-sized installation contains 15 different educational “displays,” all of which highlight fun facts about bivalves, snails, octopuses, and other soft-bodied creatures, according to The Washington Post.

Installed on November 10, the mollusk museum is the brainchild of Amanda Schochet, a computational ecologist, and media producer Charles Philipp. In 2016 they co-founded MICRO, a nonprofit organization that makes and distributes compact science museums.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

“Science museums are amazing,” the duo said in a video about their company, which is supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. “There’s just not enough of them. They’re all in wealthier neighborhoods. It’s fundamentally important for everyone to have access. So we decided to reinvent the museum, taking everything that we love about museums and putting it inside a box that can go anywhere.”

The factory-made museums are designed in collaboration with scientists, and created using 3D printing techniques. They’re easily reproduced, and can be set up anywhere, including libraries, airports, or even the DMV.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The BPL’s Smallest Mollusk Museum is MICRO’s first public project. Why mollusks, you might ask? For one thing, they survive in every habitat on Earth, and have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Plus, a mollusk museum of any type—large or small—didn’t exist yet, as Schochet learned after she once misheard Philipp say he was going to the world’s “mollusk museum.” (He was instead going to the “smallest” one, located inside a Manhattan elevator shaft.)

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The Smallest Mollusk Museum is “packed with exhibits including miniature movie theaters, 3D-printed sculptures of octopus brains and leopard slug hugs, optical illusions showing visitors what it’s like to experience the world as mollusks, and a holographic mollusk aquarium,” Schochet tells Mental Floss. “We've identified nearly 100,000 species of mollusks, but there could be as many as 200,000—they’re all around us, all the time. Every one of them is a lens onto a bigger universe.”

Librarians have also joined in on the mollusk mania, prepping an accompanying series of books for kids and adults about the many creatures featured in the museum's exhibits.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The Smallest Mollusk Museum will gradually circulate through several of the library system’s branches. Meanwhile, MICRO’s next public offering will be a second mollusk museum, which will open in the Ronald McDonald House in New York City in December 2017. Additional locations and projects—including a small physics museum called the Perpetual Motion Museum—will be announced soon.

[h/t The Washington Post]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios