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Jacqueline Susann and the “Sex-Boiler”

Today is the 94th birthday of the late Jacqueline Susann, whose Valley of the Dolls (1966) was one of the most notorious examples of a uniquely American literary genre — the “sex-boiler.” In the publishing trade, these novels used to be called “bodice rippers.” As the trade name implies, some of them are historical romances (women haven’t worn bodices, after all, since the 18th century). And indeed, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), set in what Fanny Butcher called “that lustiest of all English history’s periods, the time of Charles II,” may have been the first of its kind. But later examples of the genre discarded the trappings of history for contemporary stomping grounds. Think here of Peyton Place (1956), Grace Metalious’s saga of lust, lechery, adultery, and alcoholism — but mainly lust and lechery — in a small New England town. Nor are sex-boilers “women’s pornography”; nor are all of them written by women. Harold Robbins wrote some of the biggest-selling sex-boilers of all time, especially The Carpetbaggers (1961).

A sex-boiler is a novel, more often than not a roman à clef, which is written to capitalize upon the reading public’s taste for sex. This is a surprisingly recent fashion, at least in literary history, and what with internet pornography and looser production codes in movies and on TV, it may already be passing out of fashion again. As I have written elsewhere, the very use of the word sex to refer to the sex act is recent. It is not much more than a century old:

Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children — once it was narrowed to genital strife — [sex] ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The sex-boiler is the popular novel in which human intrigue and striving are almost entirely for the sake of the sex act. That’s what all the intrigue and striving culminates in. Human experience boils over with sex, and the novelist makes a nice fat killing.

Consider the history of bestsellers in America. In 1943, The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas’s historical novel about the Crucifixion, topped Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling fiction. The next year — the year Forever Amber was published — Lillian Smith’s “social-problem” novel about miscegenation and interracial romance, Strange Fruit, grabbed the top spot. As Bruce Clayton writes, Smith’s novel “was denounced in many places for its ‘obscenity,’ although sex is barely mentioned.” It is just possible that the hint of sex, and not the earnest inquiry into a social problem, was the novel’s greatest selling point. At all events, Forever Amber finished fourth in sales that year. By 1945, it had climbed to the top of the list, although The Robe clung to second place. This is a significant moment in literary history. Looking back, you can watch sex and religion struggling for supremacy in American readership.

Religious novels continued to sell hugely into the Fifties: Russell Janney’s The Miracle of the Bells, Douglas’s The Big Fisherman, Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, and Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice all achieved the status of No. 1, with The Robe returning to the top in 1953, more than a decade after its original publication. The religious novels were pressed by historical romances, especially by Daphne du Maurier, and a growing number of social-problem novels like Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, which examines advertising, and Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which examines anti-Semitism. But it was probably the success of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), with its four-letter soldiers’ words and its frank treatment of a deeply erotic adultery, that loosened the taboos more than any single American book.

Peyton Place followed five years later, although it was edged out of the top spot on the bestsellers’ list by James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, a novel about adultery that was the polar opposite of a sex-boiler. Cozzens’s book made you never want to have sex again. The title was the hottest thing about it. Thousands upon thousands of readers were tricked into reading it by the title alone. The unexpurgated Grove Press edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ended the Federal government’s long history of postal censorship in 1959. The “serious” novelists were slow to take advantage — Couples and Portnoy’s Complaint broke down the last prohibitions on sex in “serious” fiction in the late Sixties — but by then, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace and Terry Southern had thoroughly sexualized American fiction. Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1962) was an attempt to adopt the popular sex-boiler to serious literary purpose. Its very title suggests an important feature of the genre. The sex-boiler is a group chronicle of desperate sex-seekers.

Valley of the Dolls was the first sex-boiler to attain first place on the bestsellers’ list, nosing out Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers (another of the kind). Both of them returned to near the top in 1969, but Portnoy’s Complaint outsold them that year. So did The Godfather, which has a strong whiff of the sex-boiler about it. Mario Puzo introduced a great many boys late in the Baby Boom to the steamier facts of life. Judith Kranz, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins perfected the invention in the Eighties, but except for Steel, they had passed from the literary scene by the end of the century. By the time E. L. James appeared with Fifty Shades of Grey, the sex-boiler had to get kinky to attract new readers.

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