Reading With Authors #3: Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann; With Paul Magrs

So Paul only a day late, oops, blame the Transpeak (I actually almost got stranded in Matlock last night, not funny)…we’ve nicely invited ourselves (Savidge Reads and it’s readers) to your house, well your Summer house actually. Are Fester and Panda here? Can we get a nice cuppa we’ve brought biscuits (though no digestives or fig rolls), what would you like? 

Really, I think we need pink champagne for this one. And some sort of fancy nibbles. I’m amazed you went to such effort and dragged up again, Simon. You look fantastic, but mind your hem as you come trolling across the lawn. Come and sit on one of these garden chairs where all the neighbours can see. I’ve got some Dolly Mixture we can pretend are prescription drugs. Aren’t you a bit too warm in your beaver, by the way?

Oh yes, I must get rid of this thing, in fact seeing as you tricked me into fancy dress when you haven’t I might just pop and get changed… there that’s better. All normal now, well normal-ish. So Valley of the Dolls, why did we choose it again? 

I wanted an excuse to reread it. I love the old movie, and there’s a fantastic biography of Jacqueline Susann that makes me laugh and laugh. She had such a rackety life and career, and she was determined to make it. But she behaved so badly and was so tasteless and brilliantly vulgar. I love the movies about her, ‘Ain’t She Great’ with Bette Midler, and ‘Outrageous Me’ with the wonderful Michelle Lee. And, a number of years ago, I was completely gripped reading her novel ‘The Love Machine’ while on holiday in Paris. I wanted to go back to the first novel to find out why and how she’s so readable.

Did you enjoy it? Do you think Valley of the Dolls deserves its cult status?

I’m not sure! It was huge at the time, of course. Mostly because (if we are to believe biography by Barbra Seamann and the two biopics) Susann was such a whizz at self-publicity. She went on TV and book tours – but she also did things like taking breakfast and coffee to the lorry drivers who were transporting her books around the US. It has sold insanely well over the decades and I say, rather than a cult value, it has a kitschy one. It’s a pure product of its era – an absurdly outdated piece of pop culture. It’s camp, of course – but despite itself, rather than setting out to be self-consciously ironic and amusing. It’s too stodgy and earnest, I think, to be a true Cult classic. It terms of vintage tat, it’s the literary equivalent of one of those scary half-dolls with no legs and knitted frocks that sit on top of toilet rolls.

I’ve been a bit up and down with it, I loved it initially but Anne’s story seemed to go on a little bit too long, I was glad of the narrative change weren’t you?

Yes, I was – at the two hundred page mark, or whatever it was. It was heaven to get into the stories of Jennifer and Neely. Anne is too good to be true – she’s a bit winsomely perfect, and she drives me up the wall, really. My feeling is that Anne was Jacqueline Susann’s idealized version of herself. (Susann posed for adverts, and TV, etc – and knew that world.) And so the writer indulges herself in that strand of the story – Anne’s ever so slightly sanctimonious point of view. For me, though, it’s when Helen Lawson, the singing battleaxe comes on stage, that the book really lights up. She’s incorrigible and frightful and behaves quite justifiably like a monster throughout. The scene in the ladies’ lavs when Neely rips her wig off and shoves it down the loo is my favourite in the whole novel.

Did you have a favourite between the ‘Dolls’ out of Anne, Neely or Jennifer? I know I did, can you guess which?

I reckon you liked Neely best. Don’t know why. Oh yes, I do.

You might just be right there though I am intrigued as to why you think that, maybe that’s a conversation to have another time… it might have something to do with the scene you mentioned, maybe… 

As for me…well, if I can’t choose Helen, then I’d choose Jennifer, I think. I love how useless she is! She doesn’t even notice that her Italian crooner husband has a mental age of ten! She falls into a lesbian relationship because she quite likes skiing and getting stroked! She plumps up her breasts each night with cocoa butter and goes about in a haze of self-worshipping stupefaction! And she winds up in mucky French arthouse movies cause she can’t think of anything better to do! And then she winds up committing suicide because of something her STUPID second husband says at her near-deathbed – and Jacqueline Susann thinks we should worship her perfection. Amazing! 

I was surprised how moving, and slightly depressing, Jennifers story was. This to me was almost the heart story of the story if that makes sense…

Oh, I just answered that above. I thought she was a bit of a dope, but I was fond of her. Why do you think it’s her at the heart of the book? Because she pays the highest price for their lavish and extravagant lifestyles?

In part it is that, it’s the bit of the book that sort of hit me the most. I think it also felt like Susann was the most passionate about this part of the book. It read differently to the rest of the novel for me, well her third person narrative did. I think… In it’s day this novel was a sensation in part because it shocked so much, do you think it has dated? Did you think any of it was shocking still?

I believe it was the lesbianism and the oral sex that were eyebrow-raising back in the day. Also, the exposing of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. All of that is old hat to us now. What seemed shocking to me now was how the women’s dependence upon men and marriage is completely taken for granted. These are successful, independent women and they’re still desperate for a bloke to pop the question. To me, though, the most shocking thing is the casual homophobia. There’s all this derisory, dismissive talk of ‘fags’ as lesser beings, necessary but barely tolerated in this world of showbiz. It’s outrageously shocking to modern sensibilities. Were you surprised by it, or is it just something where you think – it’s part of the way the book has dated? Or do you think it still rings true?

I didn’t think anything of the ‘fag’ stuff, I might have slightly arched an eyebrow at it, but that was just the time of the novel. I agree with you totally on the whole ‘need a man theme’ I couldn’t believe all these women, well apart from Anne, thought all they needed was to be a wife and life would be ok. In that aspect, and a few others I do think this novel is so much more than just a trashy shocker isn’t it…

I’m not sure it is, on this reading!

Really I am surprised, whilst I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to do, it’s no ‘Peyton Place’ in my mind – which is true genius and is in part a trashy shocker and also a wonderful tale about a time in America’s past and the history of women and their rights (and gossip) at the time. This didn’t quite hit the nail on the head for me, but I did think it had weight.

It’s not wittily or cleverly constructed…

Oh some of it did make me laugh a lot, occasionally for the wrong reasons…

It reiterates the prejudices and mores of the society is depicts – there’s no clever, ironic critique going on. The characters are all clearly types. It doesn’t step outside the genre, create an ironic counterpoint to it, or exceed its bounds in anyway. It’s stodgy and overlong and points out the bleeding obvious. BUT… it also feels like the invention of a genre. It’s the genesis of what would, by the 80s, be called a bonkbuster. With a glitzy spot-laminate paperback cover, an ensemble cast of deeply-flawed sexy monsters brimming with ambition, revenge, etc etc.

I would agree about the stodgy aspect of the books, it needed to be about 100 pages shorter I thought. Initially I wanted to give Susann the benefit of the doubt when Anne just went on and on at the start, I thought it was building to ‘the fall’ and it was but not really enough to warrant that never ending opening narration. I don’t think I ever liked Anne. You can see how it’s influenced novelists of today can’t you, I am not just thinking of Jackie Collins etc…

And it becomes Dynasty and Dallas on TV. I think Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives’ is maybe the ultimate expression of the type. Or, if you’re looking for the innocent entering the big city, commerce and the sexual economy and eventually winning through – Barbra Taylor Bradford and ‘A Woman of Substance.’ Or even Shirley Conran’s wonderfully stupid ‘Lace’ (‘Which of you three bitches is my mother?’) As time moves on it becomes less about our heroine ‘finding herself’ as it as about becoming a brilliant business woman.

As the novel goes on there is a sense of impending doom throughout, well there was for me anyway, did this make you want to read on, as it did me, waiting for awful things to happen or were you worried for our femme fatales? 

Yes – terrible sense of doom. Any novelist worth their salt puts their characters through the wringer. But in the glitzy bonkbuster there is even more impetus to create victims. My favourite doom-sequence in Valley of the Dolls is Neely getting shoved in the nuthouse by Anne. I love the fact that she gets fat and gets out and becomes a huge star again, stealing Lyon from under Anne’s prim nose. I wish we’d seen more of Neely reveling in her revenge. Maybe it’s too early in the genre to make one of the lead characters an out-and-out villainess?

I would have liked ‘nuclear’ Neely, I kept thinking that. There was a bit too much simmering and being a bit cross and not enough utter villainy.

I wonder if ‘Vanity Fair’ is the true beginning of this genre? Or even ‘Moll Flanders’? Or ‘Fanny Hill’? Or the ‘Wife of Bath’?  Has the scandalously enjoyable fuck-book always been with us, do you think?

Hahaha, I think they should have that as a new genre in the bookshops, can you imagine? I think maybe Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ or ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon could have been the start of it actually. They were the true shocking ‘sensation’ novels filled with murder, incest and all sorts of shenanigans.

So – thanks for coming round, Simon. Will you read any more Jacqueline Susann, do you think? ‘The Love Machine’ is a wonderful saga about the world of US TV in the 60s. Then there’s the book about her poodle and one about Jackie O, or there’s her crazy science fiction novel…

Thanks for having us all round Paul. I might give Susann another go, I expected to run after another of her novels, well maybe walk swiftly, after reading ‘Valley of the Dolls’ but I wasn’t quite as hooked, gripped or even scandalized as I had hoped. Right let’s hand over to everyone else who has popped by. I only hope we have enough pink fizz…

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2 Comments

Filed under Jacqueline Susann, Paul Magrs, Reading With Authors 2011

2 responses to “Reading With Authors #3: Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann; With Paul Magrs

  1. gaskella

    Hi chaps. I really enjoyed VotD – while I agree it’s not in the same league as Peyton Place which was utterly brilliant, I did enjoy it a lot – good summer reading! I didn’t realise it started post-war, I was expecting it to be after Peyton Pl somehow.
    Of the girls, I think I liked Jennifer best – Anne had it too easy, and Neely was too much of a monster for me, although I agree her comeback was great.
    I note you didn’t really mention any of the men! I’m sure I would have fallen for Lyon too, but he was so self-centred, and long term Anne’s plan to keep him was bound to go wrong. I did love Henry, the surrogate father figure – it was a shame it never worked out for him.

    • Definitely good summer reading Annabel, Peyton Place just blew me away,this one sadly didnt. I think it just didnt set me alight like I hoped it would, I felt like there was nothing new here and it wasnt as unputdownable as I hoped, that said i enjoyed it alot. I liked following these women around.

      You are right about the men, weird that. I think they all just seemed like much of a muchness, what say you Paul… if you are still there?

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