“It’s hard to write good bad writing.” – Harvey Aronson
Till the 1960s, writing did not pay well. Hemingway, one of the finest novelists and a Noble laureate, had a total Literary Income of $179,135 on his death July 2, 1962. Other renowned writers had a similar income. Albert Camus Noble laureate 1957, net worth $1– $5 Million, John Steinbeck laurate 1962 worked at a number of jobs to support himself and met his wife at his job in a fish hatchery, Saul Bellow laurate1976 received a salary of $ 20,000 a year from University of Chicago and earned about $ 500,000, Allen Drury, Pulitzer Prize winner, and an acclaimed novelist had a net worth of $1-5 Million.
Compare that to the net worth of today’s top writers. Elisabeth Badinter $1.3 Billion, J.K. Rowling $1 Billion, James Patterson $ 560 Million, Stephen King $ 400 Million. When did this sea change in writer’s earning come about?
Valley of Dolls
In 1966, American writer Jacqueline Susann published her first book, Valley of the Dolls, a dishy mix of drugs, sex, and general escapades. Publishers Weekly called the novel “poorly written.” New York Times called it BAD as a book. Time magazine called it the “Dirty Book of the Month,” and said, “it might more accurately be described as a highly effective sedative, a living doll.” Gore Vidal said, “She doesn’t write, she types.” Truman Capote announced that Susann looked “like a truck driver in drag.” In 2020, New York Post called it the “very best worst book of all time” quoting Stephen Rebello, “It had everything. It WAS everything. Boozers! Pill-heads! Lesbians! Sex! Heartbreak! More sex! Homosexuals! Catfights! Incurable disease!”
Despite the scathing reviews, the book was a commercial juggernaut. It remained #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for twenty-eight consecutive weeks, remained on the list for sixty-five weeks, and was the bestselling novel of 1966. By 1974, it was Guinness Book of World Records bestselling novel in publishing history, with more than seventeen million copies sold. By 2016, it had sold more than thirty-one million copies.
In 1967, the book was made into a film. The reviews were scathing. Jacqueline Susann hated the film, called it “a piece of shit.” But the film was an enormous box-office hit, made $ 44 million at the domestic box office.
In 1961, Harold Robbins published The Carpetbaggers, a roman à clef. The New York Times said: “It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.” And that the plot is a mere “excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex—and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.” But the book climbed to #9 in New York Times bestseller list. It has sold eight million copies. Harold Robbins novels, with themes like that of The Carpetbaggers, have sold 750 million copies. At the peak of his writing career, Harold Robbins was making $ 10 million a year and had an estimated personal worth exceeding $50 million. The Carpetbaggers was made into a film in 1964. About the film, Bosley Crowther said in New York Times that the protagonist “is an outright synthetic fabrication of a character designed to conform to a popular legend or myth. He is a thoroughly mechanical movie he is a contemptible hero, conforming to the myth of the heel.”
Naked Came the Stranger
With the likes of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins dominating the bestseller lists, American literary culture had become base and mindlessly vulgar. Sex sells, and shocking sex sells even better. To test that thesis, Mike McGrady, a “Newsday, the Long Island Newspaper” columnist, decided to enact a literary hoax. Write a sexually explicit novel with no literary or social value whatsoever.
He collected a team of twenty-four Newsday colleagues, nineteen men and five women, and other collaborators which included four Pulitzer Prize winners, to write a novel that was an inconsistent hodgepodge, each chapter written by a different writer. The challenge was “to write, as poorly as possible, a chapter of prose so engorged, so oozing, so tantalizingly brimming with sex that any other concerns — plot, character development, redeeming social value — were essentially moot. An unremitting emphasis on sex. Steamy, sordid, outrageous, page-turning sex.” And ” true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion,” he said.
He gave the authors “a basic storyline and a central character: Gillian Blake, co-host of a morning radio show with her husband, learns that he is cheating on her and decides to get even — and then some. Each chapter would chronicle another in her series of suburban sexual conquests.” He gave one week to the authors to submit a 2,500-word chapter. George Vecsey, later a New York Times sports columnist, was the fastest. He wrote his chapter in about one hour. Bob Mayer, a reporter, wrote his chapter in four hours. Some of the chapters were too well written and had to be edited to debase them to bad writing. The chapters were written, edited, and slung together, in just eighteen months, and ‘Naked Came the Stranger’ was ready.
Search for a woman to act as the author was mounted. Billie Cook, McGrady’s sister-in-law, a 38-year-old mother of six who worked as a reporter at a small Long Island newspaper and had written an unpublished novel of her own was selected. She was presented to the publisher as the author Penelope Ashe, a Long Island housewife determined to become the next Jacqueline Susann.
‘Naked’ with the photo on its cover of a kneeling nude woman with very long hair down her back, photographed from behind was published in 1969. The photo was appropriated from a Hungarian nudist magazine. ‘Naked’ soon made it to the New York Times bestseller list, confirming the authors’ thesis that “sex sells, and shocking sex sells even better.” The New York Times reviewed the book, August 3, 1969, not aware that it was a hoax. At this point, the authors revealed the hoax. And ‘Naked’ climbed even higher on the list, rising to No. 4. It was the seventh best-selling novel of 1969. It was eventually reprinted in thirteen languages. And was made into a movie in 1975 — a “disgusting” hard-core porn movie.
What happened to the main architects of the ‘Naked’ hoax? The editor of ‘Naked,’ Mike McGrady, completed a book on an opera singer-spy but could not find a publisher for it. Bob Mayer took five years to get his first novel, Superfolks, published. He wrote some more but could not get published. Harvey Aronson left Newsday to write books. But these did not do well, and he returned to the newspaper. McIlwain wrote another novel but was unable to get it published. George Vecsey became a successful writer. He penned nineteen books and one of these was made into a movie. Billie Cook, nom de plume Penelope Ashe, became a yacht broker in Florida. About the hoax, she said, “It proved that if you go about it the right way you can sell anything to anybody.”
When these writers did deliberate bad writing and produced a worthless mishmash of a novel, it became a bestseller. When they did their best writing and produced their best work, books that they thought were worthwhile, they could not even get these published. What an irony!