Once upon a time, way back in the late ’60s, there was a group of writers for New York Newsday who got a little sick of seeing trash fiction at the top of the bestseller lists. And so, they concocted a scheme to deliberately create the worst possible book ever and see if it would sell. And, guess what? It did.
An isolated incident? Think again. Another couple of writers with the same kind of bad-writing fatigue just pulled off the same trick – with similar results. The more things change in publishing, the more they stay the same.The first incident happened during the heyday of Jacqueline Susann, whose Valley of the Dolls was basically sexed-up real person fanfic of the life of Judy Garland with the serial numbers filed off – and a lot of bad writing.
The Newsday scribes concocted a piece of Susann-inspired dreck called Naked Came the Stranger, to which they assigned the pseudonym “Penelope Ashe.” Each participant in the project took a chapter, and they threw in as many cliches and as much purple prose as they could – some sections of the book had to be rewritten because they were too good!
Not only did the reporters find a publishing company willing to put out their trashterpiece, the damn thing actually hit the New York Times bestseller list. Eventually, the perpetrators went on TV to explain what they did and how they did it – their ringleader, Mike McGrady, eventually wrote a book of his own about the experience. They had made their point – even though America wasn’t really listening, since Jaqueline Susann (and her latter-day spawn like Jackie Collins) continued to have bestsellers.
(The ultimate irony of all this? Art-porn director Radley Metzger used Naked Came The Stranger as the basis for a full-blown X-rated film. The writers’ protest against porn had bred, well, porn.)
Fast-forward to today, where another book widely deemed to be poorly written is sitting on top of the bestseller lists. Like Valley of the Dolls, Fifty Shades of Grey is fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off – only this time, based on a fictional property, Twilight.
And, like the Newsweek scribes, the presence of Fifty Shades and its imitators all over the bestseller list annoyed a pair of humorists. Brian Brushwood and Justin Robert Young. And so, they concocted their own imitation of the book’s style, called it The Diamond Club, and attached the female pseudonym Patricia Harkins-Bradley.
However, with the wonders of modern technology, they didn’t have to pound pavement to find a publisher – they utilized Vook, the cloud-based E-publishing platform. Shortly after it was released in late June, The Diamond Club began turning up on iBooks’ best-seller list. And, liked “Penelope Ashe” before them, they’ve come clean with their ruse.
So, what does this say about publishing both yesterday and today? Well, the obvious thing is that the public will, alas, go for anything with sex and sensationalism, no matter how poorly written. But it also says that there is the potential for public interest in works that handle romance and sexuality in a well-thought-out manner.
There’s no better lab for that sort of thing than fanfiction, which is, after all, the biggest community of romance writers in the world. And with all the public attention being paid to Fifty Shades, publishing companies may look more kindly now on writers whose background is in fanfic – or former fanfics with the serial numbers filed off.
If publishers and readers are happy to get hold of anything that meets their needs for sex and romance portrayed on the page – or on the Kindle – then they will be doubly happy if the work is of high quality. And maybe, just maybe, it might raise their standards just a little.
So if you think your fanfic masterwork has a shot out there with a little retooling? Go to it. The door has been kicked open. And if you’re a humorist who thinks you can do a truly funny parody of Fifty Shades and its ilk? Go to it as well. That door was opened a long time ago. – Bonnie Walling