Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 18, 2011.
By Kevin Killiany
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
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)