My very early reading tastes were hardly exceptional, nor did they point in the particular direction of an authorial future. Once past simple picturebooks and easy readers—and I got past those at an early age, reading sixth grade readers early in third grade—I dived right into the Bobbsey Twins. I found their antics, adventures, and attitudes a bit too precious and cutesy, even though I wouldn’t have been able to express it in quite those terms at that time. But I was a voracious reader, and if my mother bought it for me, I read it. I had quite the full bookcase at an early age.
From the Bobbsey Twins I quickly progressed to Nancy Drew. I neither became a mystery reader as an adult nor became a mystery writer in my few forays as a novelist, but I made sure my mother bought me every Nancy Drew book extant. In that, I was not unlike many other girls of my time—and, from what I am aware, many of the generations after me as well.
Between the Bobbseys and Nancy there were an awful lot of other books. When I had clearly outgrown a book, my mother insisted on my giving it away unless I really treasured it. I don’t recall now who the beneficiary of this largesse was but suspect it was the thrift store operated by the charity organization of which my mother was an active member.
But the important thing was that, as we divested my bookshelf of outgrown tomes, she bought new ones to replace them.
And then there was the library. Now, their books I didn’t get to keep, as I could the ones my mother bought me, but I could read as many as I wanted without straining the family budget. As long as I returned them on time and didn’t incur an overdue fine, and as long as I handled them respectfully—which I did with all books—so there were no claims for waterlogged or otherwise damaged books, I could read all I wanted without it costing a penny. The library was just up the road from the elementary and junior high schools, about eight blocks from home, and I was a frequent visitor.
But, to get back to the girl detective so well beloved by not just me but my classmates, what was it about Nancy that drew (NPI) us admiringly to her? It wasn’t the fact that she owned her own car (still a “roadster” when I was reading the series—I understand it’s been updated since then). Certainly we didn’t wish to be motherless like her!
I think it was her spark, her sense of determination, her cleverness, her fearlessness, and her never-ending success. Was Nancy Drew a proto-feminist, before the word existed? (Keep in mind I was reading her adventures in the fifties.)
You want to know something funny? I’m about to say something that absolutely wasn’t in my mind when I started this essay. I so totally did not have this conclusion or connection in mind when I started writing this. I was just intending to riff on Nancy Drew and what can happen to voracious readers as their book-lust grows. But here’s what’s gnawing at me now: How did so many female readers grow up admiring the assertive, independent, bold, adventurous, take-charge Nancy Drew—and then morph into women who thrill to read about whatever her name is who lets herself be dominated by the now-famous Christian Gray? [Full disclosure: I have never read Fifty Shades or any of its sequels, so whatever prejudice I hold toward it comes from reading about it (and hearing about it), not from reading the books themselves. But still I think I have my facts about Fifty Shades straight.]
How did we grow from admiring the likes of Nancy Drew to being fascinated by the total subjugation of Gray’s captive? Why this seismic shift in our reading tastes, and what does it say about the women who are in thrall to Fifty Shades?
If you think I’m about to answer my own question with a profound revelation or insight into the female psyche, you’re wrong. I haven’t a damn clue as to what the answer is. I know that I myself have no desire to read any book in which a woman is dominated or victimized, even if she puts herself voluntarily into that position, as I understand the heroine of Fifty Shades does. I am a strong, self-determined woman, and while my reading tastes run much more to nonfiction than to fiction, even in nonfic I prefer my heroines strong and self-assured.
I know that when it comes to romance novels (something else I don’t read), in that genre, too, domination—in fact outright BDSM—is one of the most popular themes. Again, how did we get from admiring strong, confident, self-assured Nancy Drew to identifying with women in ropes and chains? A friend of mine—a fellow writer/editor—suspects hormones are the answer. I’m not so sure. I think it’s emotional/psychological. But beyond that half-an-idea, I really don’t have the answer.
If anyone reading this has a clue, I’d love to hear your thoughts.