Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pulp Friction

I have four paper-and-ink books available for sale and have one more online for free, but Stephen King has no cause to look worriedly over his shoulder. I am not gaining on him.

That is OK (sort of). I’ll never refuse a royalty, but my fiction would exist if there were no readers at all. I write to scratch an itch, as nearly all writers do. Some writers have more remunerative itches than others, of course. Many successful authors write with grace, depth, and quality (even many potboiler authors: Koontz and Ketchum, for example, write not just commercially but well), but others are not so handicapped by talent.

A friend of mine, who regularly and cheerily reminds me of my absence from the bestseller list, recently (for no particular reason that I could see) pondered aloud what I was "doing wrong." Using his fingers, he counted off well-known titles by authors of dubious talent, and then asked me what I thought were the elements of a commercially successful novel. I countered that I obviously didn't know, and changed the subject. Yet, the question stirred something in my memory. It seemed to me that a hypothesis about this had once been proposed and put to the test. I did a little research and soon stumbled upon the experiment that I recalled from my schooldays.

One day in 1966, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady picked up The New York Times book review section and looked at the bestseller list. He was irritated by what he saw, and concluded "inept writing held the key to success." He was convinced he could write as badly as any author on the list, and that many of his colleagues could, too. Inspired by the thought, he playfully wrote a memo and sent it to 24 members of the Newsday staff.

"You are hereby invited to become the co-author of a best selling novel," he wrote. "There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex and true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion."

The staff responded enthusiastically. They devised a simple plot: a woman discovers her husband is cheating on her, so she takes revenge by indulging in one lurid sexual escapade after another. That is the whole plot. Her lovers are sophisticates and ruffians from all walks of life. The staff divvied up the writing in appropriate fashion: Newsday's crime writer wrote the chapter about her fling with a gangster, the sports writer the one about an affair with a boxer, and so on. They invented an "author" and named her Penelope Ashe. McGrady's sister-in-law agreed to play Penelope on the talk show circuit. Released in 1969, the novel was a stunning success. Naked Came the Stranger soared to 4 on The New York Times bestseller list, elbowing aside Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine. Hollywood came knocking and bought the movie rights for a large sum (yes, the movie was made, and it, too, was successful by the standards of low-budget x-rated films). The revelation of the hoax by McGrady did nothing to diminish sales.

I don't think tastes have elevated in the 40 years since, so McGrady's formula probably still has legs. So, all my scrawling friends out there, perhaps together we too can tap out something truly awful.

One of my books, Trash & Other Litter, by the way, actually has a few elements of the formula. Sales nonetheless are modest. I prefer to suppose this is because Mike would have taken his blue pencil to it.

1 comment:

  1. LOL - I've actually heard of that little experiment, but had forgotten about it. You know every once in a while I read some of the popular fiction out there and get really annoyed. But hey, to each their own, right? Still, if I had to pick between reading Dan Brown or Stephen King - I'd pick King every time.