Imagine this: You're on a plane before takeoff, spellbound by a book, when suddenly you realize that the woman sitting down next to you is your former English professor. And she's not just any English professor; she's the one who read Canterbury Tales aloud in class with an authentic Middle English accent.
What magnum opus would you like to be seen reading? Ulysses? Swann's Way? How about Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls? That's the guilty pleasure I was caught with.
The English professor stared at the book's hot-pink cover, making me feel like it was pornography. I don't suppose it's much of a rationale to say it's only soft porn.
Valley of the Dolls is a zipper-ripper that has been called trashy, tawdry, glitzy, lusty, sordid and seamy — and that's just the beginning of its appeal.
When it was first published in the 1960s, Time magazine branded it "the dirty book of the month." Susann was accused of "typing on a cash register," and Truman Capote called her "a truck driver in drag." She threw a drink at Johnny Carson, a punch at a critic and a chair at a wrestler, before jumping into the ring. All of it sold books.
The critic John Simon was apoplectic about her success. On television, he said he'd rather "see dogs fornicate" than read her story. He cited every literary misdemeanor in the book, and when the audience came to Susann's defense, Simon reminded them that he had a Ph.D. in comparative literature. And when that failed to impress them, he blew a gasket and had to be bleeped. This was book-gate.
While it's true that the novel is woefully short on style, character development, subtlety, complexity and phraseology — oh, does it have plot. And it doesn't hurt that the characters in the book are thinly veiled versions of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Judy Garland.
Their goals are fame, fortune and men — not necessarily in that order — and they're in a rush, since Susann says a woman's looks fade irreversibly in her 20s, and the ones who marry for love age fastest. Meanwhile, the book's heroines fall from such great heights that they could have invented gravity. On their way down, they start popping pills, aka the "dolls" of the title.
Susann thought the 1960s would be remembered for three things: The Beatles, Andy Warhol and her. She may turn out to be right.
Back on the airplane, after the English professor settled in, she pulled Beowulf out of her briefcase, but not before I spied what was hiding under it — it looked like Valley of the Dolls to me. Thirty million readers share my guilty pleasure.
"My Guilty Pleasure" is edited and produced by Ellen Silva