CURIOUS TO KNOW WHAT WAS selling these days I gleaned a selection of popular paperback books from such unbookish places as airports, supermarkets, drugstores, and 7-Elevens. There were ten books, among them Chariots of the Gods, The Late Great Planet Earth, The Crazy Ladies, The Executioners #16, and they had sold an average of 2 million copies each. The Lord must love cheap paperbacks, he made so many of them.
I began with The Crazy Ladies by Joyce Elbert. The cover blurb said, “The first really great dirty book. COSMOPOLITAN.” It seemed like something they would know. I bought the other books rather impulsively, too, since paperback distributors told me that most people buy the books in convenience stands on impulse. “I put out as many different titles as I can and change them often as I can,” one distributor told me, “because that increases the chances of striking that hidden chordthe one that makes people buy a book they didn’t know they were going to buy when they walked in the store.” A book that doesn’t sell enough to pay its keep is seldom around longer than two weeks.
If the book I chose impulsively also seemed to fulfill my taste requirements, I bought it if it was either a current best seller or a past best seller that was still selling well and if it was an original paperback publication or had become a paperback best seller without the benefit of a hardcover reputation. No The Best and the Brightest; no I’m O.K., You’re O.K. And (evidently I had as much fun making up rules as reading the books) I tried to choose examples of the most persistent strains of popular literature. I came up with some friends and relations of the hard-boiled detective novel, historical romances, classy porn (remember The Crazy Ladies?), and two expressions of popular paranoid fantasies.
I chose no westerns. None appealed. I chose no science fiction. None of it appealed either. (A distributor in Austin told me he loads the stands around The University of Texas with science fiction since students and professors buy it proportionately more than the population at large; a distributor in San Antonio told me he did the same thing around military bases for the same reason.)
Now, about The Crazy Ladies. It was a pretty dirty book, all right. On the other hand I didn’t think it was either a great book that was dirty or a dirty book that was great, but it does have an ingenious structure for floating characters through bedroom after bedroom. There are two revolving circles—one, a group of women who are more or less friends; the other, their men. The circles slowly revolve bringing this couple together, then that, until 477 pages later the body mingling ends.
We’re told all this from the point of view of four girls living in New York in the late Sixties. They are aware of only three things: They are aware of men; they are aware of other women who are aware of the same men; and they are aware of products. They are the kind of young women who, dressing for a party, weigh in on a pink Detecto scale before languishing in Relaxor bath oil. Then from a W & J Sloane chest of drawers they pull a pair of Van Raalte bikini briefs and a Hollywood Vassarette bra, later a touch of Germaine Monteil’s strawberry lip dew just before slipping into Roger Vivier crocodile pumps, checkng the Pepperidge Farm Lobster Bisque on the stove and wondering,as they wait for their guests, which man will later slip between their flowered Porthault sheets. In other words, they are upper-middle class office girls in the big city who’ve made enough money (W & J Sloane chest of drawers) by now to feel both independent (Van Raalte bikini briefs) and aggressive (strawberry lip dew) but still middle class enough (flowered Porthault sheets) to be worried about finding a man before it’s too late (pink Detecto scale).
These are not the young women of yesterday’s popular fiction who came to the big city well warned by mother of the wickedness they would find and enjoined by father against soiling their ideals. The Crazy Ladies are tough customers, experienced in a variety of sexual oddities and endities, manipulative, sometimes mean, only kind when it’s easy, and always dissatisfied either with their lives or with…you know, dissatisfied. And they’ll try anything to get satisfied. Since coming to New York one girl had had 12 lovers including a midget, a dental assistant who stuttered, a series of men wielding hotdogs, electric toothbrushes, and candles, and the “literary” Mr. E. L. Kuberstein who kept her captive for six days. After all that, this same girl, just before a date with a foreign gentleman, reflects that tonight “she might even have her first orgasm in this life—in Spanish”; though I understand these are generally considered inferior to the Flemish. Reading The Crazy Ladies teaches, and teaches well, “how frequently one person’s exoticism turned out to be another person’s Woolworth.”
The Crazy Ladies is cut from the same cloth as Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls, a book that broke some previous assumptions about popular fiction. Before then, romances written by women and read generally by women, were reticent about sex. Valley attracted a whole motherlode of readers who relished reading a woman writing about women who get it on. Gwen Davis (The Pretenders, etc.) is of the same school. Joyce Elbert, who has three or four books besides The Crazy Ladies, is of the school’s second generation. So successful has the idea been that there is now a third generation of lady sex writers, among them Cheryl Nash, author of the cloying The Ms. Girls which, with a bow to its forbearee, is billed as “The first really great dirty book since The Crazy Ladies!”
This doesn’t mean that the sentimental, chaste popular romance is dead or even in poor health.