Sunday, December 18, 2011

Naked Came the Stranger

At some point during discussions of the viability or validity of independent publishing someone critical of the concept is bound to opine that traditional publishing houses act as quality filters, ensuring that only books worth reading get published. Which will usually cause someone on the other side of the fence to bring up Nicole "Snookie" Polizzi's "A Shore Thing." Fact is, you don't have to cite extreme market miscalculations like that one. The old Barnes & Noble in Wilmington was a few blocks from UNCW and had a café friendly to writers and college students, complete with wooden tables for four and a long counter with stools across the front where I did much of my early writing. (The new, trendier B&N is nearer the beach and its café features little round tables fit for two coffee cups and a biscotti; no counter.) One of the pleasures of writing there was that at any time I felt overwhelmed or discouraged, I could stroll through the racks and find a dozen books worse than anything I'd written published by major houses.

However, as bad as some traditionally published books are, in every case they represent a storyteller's sincere effort to master the craft and an editor's belief in the quality of that effort. (Or, in Polizzi's case, the belief that a tell-all book disguised as a novel by a TV reality show personality would be of interest to someone, anyone.) You might take it as a given that no one ever set out to write a bad book. And you would be wrong.

Back in the late 1960s the bestseller lists in the USofA were dominated by works by writers like Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, and Jacqueline Susann. Vapid novels about morally bankrupt people who would make the characters of Gossip Girl look like philosophical giants exploiting everyone around them, having sex at the drop of an innuendo, drinking and drugging to ridiculous degrees, and either coming to a bad end or finding eternal happiness as a result. This was the era of "Valley of the Dolls" and "Portnoy's Complaint." By the standards of today's more erotic romances, the sex was pretty tame, but it was shocking stuff forty-five years ago.

A newspaper columnist named Mike McGrady became so fed up with (or so alarmed by, depending on the source) the "sex sells" mentality he saw driving American culture that he decided to do something about it. He put together a team of twenty-four fellow journalists for the sole purpose of producing a horrifically bad novel with lots of sex and trying to sell it. The basic premise for "Naked Came the Stranger" was a husband and wife who are NYC celebrities with a morning radio talk show. The wife (Gilly) discovers her husband (Billy) has been cheating on her and decides to even the score by having sex with as many married men in their upscale Long Island community as possible. Her goal is to corrupt and seduce every archetype of civic and moral leadership she can find. Rules for writing were purple prose throughout (example: Gilly's breasts are "pendulums of passion swinging in the winds of lust") and two sex scenes in every chapter, with the sex act itself depicted mechanically but with awkward euphemisms for the clinical details. None of the writers knew anything about what the others wrote and McGrady required rewrites if he detected any literary merit whatsoever. Gilly's appearance and body type change with every chapter, though she is consistently beautiful. (There's a scene wherein the sight of her naked breasts causes a homosexual man to become heterosexual.)

In 1968 a relative of McGrady's posed as new author Penelope Ashe marketing "Naked Came the Stranger" as her first novel. The book sold to the first major house she
approached and was published in 1969, becoming an instant bestseller (the picture of the naked woman on the cover probably helped). Book reviewers in major markets, including Stern, Le Monde, and the New York Times, used phrases like "sizzling" and "thought-provoking" and compared the ersatz Penelope Ashe to John Updike and Philip Roth. She appeared on talk shows, was interviewed about sexual liberation in women's magazines, and advised aspiring writers to impale themselves on their typewriters. After a few months the authors appeared en mass on the David Frost Show, explaining their reasons for the hoax and expressing some embarrassment that their intended pillory of "sex sells" novels was now outselling its competition. The revelation of the hoax actually triggered a jump in sales fueled by widespread speculation the novel was in fact a roman-a-clef and that the adulterous men in the Long Island community were nationally known public figures.

Naked Came the Stranger is more fun to read about than it is to read. In fact, reading it is a chore. Not only are the mores of the period awkward by today's standards, the book itself is deliberately and methodically awful. Oh, there are moments. Like when Gilly asks a pornographer where he gets all his kinky ideas and he replies: "Like every other writer, I draw from the human condition." But on the whole, McGrady did a thorough job of eradicating anything of value from the manuscript.

Naked Came the Stranger was a bestseller not because of its excellence, but because people will read what they want to read despite what any arbiters of literary taste say or gatekeepers of excellence do. And "gatekeepers" includes the band of hoaxers who were sounding the alarm about the degeneration of American literature. The trend they were protesting matured, outgrew its "look what we can get away with" stage, and diversified into the spectrum of spicy, sensuous, and erotic romance novels that today makes up the lion's (lioness's?) share of the world fiction market. All of which says a lot about the role of traditional publishers, and the potential future of independents.

(More about Naked Came the Stranger in Museum of Hoaxes and Wikipedia)


Lynn Emery said...

I laughed hard. The joke was on the authors. People read what they want to, so right. Low brow, high brow and in between. Trouble comes when we try to figure out who gets to define "quality". I'm pretty sure Snookie's book ain't it though LOL

Liane Spicer said...

This certainly made me chuckle. Only a terrifically misinformed person would claim that the 'gatekeepers' ensured only books fit to be read were published; I've seen too much dross produced by the big houses and read of too many great books turned down by the majority of them.

Charles Gramlich said...

In turn, disgusting, hilarious, upsetting, disturbing, insane, bizarre, etc. etc.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Hard to react to this. Is it comforting to think that lesser works receive unjust recognition and sales, or disturbing to think that market forces can tamper with our taste?
I'm going indie! Ciao cat

KeVin K. said...

Lynn -- At 18 I bought the first paperback edition of NCtS (which at 95-cents cost twice the standard pb price in 1970). Talk about let down, it was so boring I was soon skimming looking for "good parts." There were no good parts. (Sure I could do better, I briefly considered a career in writing porn.) I don't have a problem with writers parodying or satirizing trends or specific works. I was invited to take part in Peter David's round-robin Potato Moon project, a send-up of the Twilight series inspired by Lady Sybilla's "Russet Noon" fiasco. (My chapter is here. But the collective behind NCtS was taking itself way too seriously.

Liane -- Many people find comfort in the belief that somewhere someone is making these decisions.

Charles -- I'me sticking with bizarre and hilarious; any deeper thought is too disturbing.

Cat -- Indie is the way to go for now (with novels, short story markets are still good). Checked your blog. Fun stuff. My brother also translates (Italian/Latin/English) and loves Italy. Though he's an instructor at Catholic University of America & lives in DC, so not so exciting.

KeVin K. said...

Okay, the link to my Potato Moon chapter above doesn't work. I was chapter 32 out of 84.

Anonymous said...

Naked Came The Stranger is the Piltdown Man of porn!

I hear what you're saying, but unless a writer is already famous and/or rich, would anyone really turn town a traditional publication deal?

William Doonan

KeVin K. said...

William, rather than cover all the changes the publishing industry has gone through in the last two years, I'm going to direct you to this series of articles on the subject by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Jewel Amethyst said...

Very funny indeed, KeVin. Sometimes it's hard to judge what would be bestsellers or not. However, a big enough name would get a bestseller writing total crap and a lot of publishing houses bet on that. They would happily publish any old crap if that person is famous for some current thing.

William, sometimes the contract from the traditional publishing houses suck so badly, you may choose to turn it down and go Indie.