Archive for October, 2011

Here’s an old advertising joke for you.

Question: How many creatives does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Fuck off, I’m not changing a thing.

I told this joke to a good friend of mine, whose professional background happens to be in the creative industries. I told him this joke as a comment on how unreasonable we can all be when our work is being critiqued by others – even though it ultimately leads to a far, far better result. As we say in Yorkshire, he looked at me gone out, and said, “No. Just – no. Don’t let them touch a word. They’re your words. You’re the expert. Your publisher’s job is to package and sell. Let them change the frame. But not the picture.”

I was touched by his faith in my work, but I’m convinced he’s dead wrong.

Editors are vital. When editors cease to matter, book quality drops. We all know this, but I think I have a case study which actually proves it. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King – of his sustained craftsmanship over an enormous, epic career, and of his frankly slightly scary work-ethic. But if I go back to the eighties and compare the books he wrote as Richard Bachman to the books he wrote, during the same time period, as Stephen King, the Bachman books are orders-of-magnitude better.

Also – Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” versus “The Love Machine” and “Once Is Not Enough”, and the camping chapters in “Deathly Hallows”.

I don’t know this for sure, but I have a theory that King, Susann and Rowling reached a point where they were so famous and successful they were able to resist the editing process. Or possibly their editors stopped trying quite so hard – because really, everyone was going to buy the book anyway. Whatever happened, the net effect was that, without brilliant editing, their books stopped being the genre-defining works of their generation, and merely became pretty damn good.

To offer a slightly frivolous analogy; I am, by a country mile, the person who spends the most amount of time dealing with my hair. I wash it; I blow-dry it; occasionally I even style it. But I know perfectly well that if I wander down the road to my hair-dresser, she will instantly have it looking twenty times better than I ever could. Sometimes what we need is not intimate knowledge, but professional expertise. Whose work doesn’t benefit from someone whose entire professional career is built on a deep and profound understanding of what good writing looks like?

Editing makes our books better. I passionately believe this.

But – having sweated blood to edit “New World Fairy Tales” down from its original 56,000 words to my closing position of just under 51,000, and having pressed “send” knowing fine and well that the brief was for collections “in the region of 45,000” – I’ll admit was still scared of the editing process.

I know my faults as a writer. Left to my own devices, I ramble and I over-punctuate. My own first edit always consists of fixing these two issues, at least as far as I can. But that’s always the sticking point, isn’t it? When you send off your manuscript, it’s as good as you can make it. You have reached the point where you, at least, can do no more. For it to get better, the only way forward is for someone else to take over.

I knew this right up to the moment when the edit file actually arrived in my in-box, at which point I instantly panicked about what I might find. I was assaulted by vivid memories of the many, many creative teams – oddly-dressed, eclectically-named, angry and defensive, treading the fine line between Saying What They Thought and Not Upsetting The Client – whose work I had cheerfully tweaked in my brand’s favour over a fifteen-year career in marketing.

Oh my God, I thought, staring madly at the email. I am now officially about to transform into that foldy-arms madwoman who won’t listen to reason.

Of course, as it turns out, Being Edited was exactly what my manuscript needed. Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt took my rampaging punctuation in hand, reining in my excessive love for ellipses (which I sort of knew about really) and my over-use of the Oxford comma (which I didn’t). She also deleted one entire story; a simple but brilliant solution to the fact that I was six thousand words over the limit. Instead of the death-by-six-thousand-cuts I had been dreading, I had a clean amputation, which leaves an economically-viable collection and maybe even a potential nucleus for a future follow-up. Here’s hoping, anyway.

The best part; my work has been turned from a manuscript into a book. It looks like a book. It’s in a proper book font (Bembo 12 and 13.5). I actually get chills down my spine when I read it.

My book is better for being edited. My book is better for being edited. I always knew it would be, but now I believe it as well. The difference between what your head knows and what your heart feels is personal experience.

Now, if I could only get over my fascination for commas, and ellipses…

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This was originally going in my homage to the magnificence of Hull Fair, but I thought it was so good it deserved its own post. Enjoy!

Spotted on a side-stall in Grifter’s Alley

...and promptly gets strung up.

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Only People Who Come From Hull And Know About The Awesomeness That Is Hull Fair, Are Allowed To Point And Laugh At Hull Fair…

…and this is because Hull Fair is awesome. Every year in early October, Europe’s biggest travelling fair arrives on the backs of lorries and trailers, unpacks itself and opens for business. It stays for eight days, opening from dusk until midnight. For those eight days, a normally horrid patch of tarmac and chip-wrappers becomes an authentically magical place of wonders. And then, in a freakishly short space of time, it packs itself back up again and disappears off to…somewhere…and is not seen again until next October rolls around.

Seriously. It’s not just the biggest travelling fair. It’s an objectively big travelling fair. In fact, I’ll go further; it’s an objectively big fair. Even if it never moved an inch, it would still be massive. The fact that the whole thing arrives on the back of a lorry and assembles itself in about nine hours flat is simply the cherry on the top.

Also: borderline-libellous airbrush pictures of celebrities!

Katie Price has built an empire on the fierce exploitation of her own image, so I doubt she’d be all that happy to discover she’s endorsing a travelling Cyclone ride. Fortunately I don’t think she goes to Hull Fair. Or reads this blog.

I doubt Beyoncé will be any happier:

Peter Andre, on the other hand, might be a bit more forgiving. He always seems nice on the TV.

“Undead serial murderer” to “fairground ride operator” is a tough leap to make, but I think Freddy Kreuger seems to have pulled it off quite nicely –

Does he build the ride with those claws on?

You can say a lot of things about the charmless antics of Mel Gibson*, but I don’t think anyone’s yet accused him of what this particular ride-owner seems to be implying:

Then again, I suppose the essence of the artistic endeavour is to see the things others don’t. I particularly like this parallel-universe picture of Demi Moore, which clearly shows how she should look these days, minus the Botox and the treatments and the ludicrous quantities of plastic surgery:

Older, greying, and beautiful; she could have been the American Helen Mirren. But instead, that honour has gone to Meryl Streep, and Demi Moore is just another plastic clone trying to achieve an impossible ideal. Boo.

Getting back to my original point – let’s not forget that Hull Fair is awesome. Remember – less than twenty-four hours ago, this was in pieces on the back on a truck:

And if that doesn’t astound you, then you really aren’t paying attention.

But, on the other hand; that giant ride you’re about to get on?

This one here?

This one that’s so big…

…that I can’t actually get far back enough…

…to get the whole thing in one shot…

…this also was in pieces on the back of a truck.

Is that a good thought, do we think?

To be fair to the people who run Hull Fair, accidents are rare. Not unheard of, obviously. But rare. And they genuinely do make sure you know what you’re in for before you get on:


Damn it, this is all getting a bit heavy, isn’t it? After all, the fair is about fun! Laughter! Thrills! Excitement! Happiness!

As long as we're defining "happiness" as "shitting your pants".

Maybe we ought to go and see the kiddy’s rides. They’re bound to be non-scary.

Or – or – or maybe not.

But just what the hell is this animated-house guy looking so worried about? If you’re a house, what is there to be frightened of?

Oh, hang on a minute – I think I’ve spotted the problem;

He’s just realised he’s got a malevolent madman living in his attic.

Or maybe he’s afraid the hunters will come and kill him with their tambourines –

He never even knew what hit him.

One blow to the back of the neck and you’re a goner.

Then again, he could also be frightened by the sight of the mad carnivorous clown who looms over passing punters, inviting children inside with his promises of sweet, sweet bouncing goodness:

Get in mah belleh...!

Okay, maybe that’s enough of the kid’s rides. Let’s get some food instead.

Pleasingly honest.

As well as its rides for all ages and its alarming tendency to strange Hollywood homages, Hull Fair is also famed for its sideshows. Until a few years ago it had the last working Wall Of Death attraction in the country. Although that’s sadly gone now, it still has some pretty cool stuff for you to fritter away your money on.

Where else in the world can you still enjoy the ancient and noble sport of Zombie Horse-Racing?

Desecrating the graves of famous sportspeople since 1293.

Maybe we should just go home.

My daughter. Asleep. And not traumatised at all. Just asleep. Honest.

Now, I just know that having read this post, you will desperately want to come to Hull Fair. Unfortunately, you have to wait almost a whole year before you can do so. In the meantime, here’s a link to the Hull Fair page on Hull City Council’s website, so you can learn more about exactly what you’re missing by not living in Hull. And you thought we were just a bunch of codheads.

*at least, I hope you can. If I get my ass sued over this blog, I guess we’ll all have learned something useful.

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In Which I Voice My Suspicions That Orwell’s Automatic Porn-Writing Machine May Have Become A Reality

It’s good manners to start with a positive, so I think I’ll begin by saying that “Denial” is not absolutely the worst book I’ve ever picked up. That honour unquestionably goes to “the Lair of the White Worm”, which is one of only two books I’ve found myself compeletely unable to finish. (Fortunately my friend Heidi managed to make it over the finish-line, thus saving all of us from having to; you can read her brilliantly acerbic review here.)

Unfortunately, that’s as positive as I can manage to be, because “Denial” is definitely the worst book I’ve ever got to the end of.

I was given this book by my mother-in-law, who has the odd but endearing habit of buying me unexpected sequels as Christmas presents, on the grounds that I have probably already read and digested the first book. In the interests of fairness, I suppose I should accept that my hatred of “Denial” may have come about because I didn’t read “Envy” first, and therefore don’t quite understand what’s going on. Perhaps if you’ve read “Envy”, some sort of literary alchemy takes place which makes “Denial” a brilliant, funny, trashy romp through the world of daytime television and –

Oh, what am I saying; that has nothing to do with it. The problem isn’t that I’m not quite clear what’s going on. The problem is that everything that’s happening is crap. “Hate” is an ugly word, and I don’t enjoy using it; but sometimes we are forced to do things we don’t enjoy.

My hatred of this book begins before the story even begins, when a page headed “Meet The Stars” gives the skinny on the five female presenters of the not-Loose-Women programme, “Girl Talk”. Personally I always think this is a bit of a red flag, since it’s basically the author admitting “All my characters are undifferentiated and hard to keep track of. Here’s a list instead”. I have heard it said that authors of particularly complex epics are the exceptions to this rule, since they have casts of hundreds to manage. Erm, no. No, you’re not. If you think your readers will be unable to cope without a list, you can read the works of JRR Tolkien and Margaret Mitchell, and then go away and think hard about what you’ve done.

Also, this book is not a complex epic.

First on the list is Karen King, who has “a soft-heart [sic] and a weakness for Pop Tarts”. I thought at first this meant she liked sex with X-Factor contestants, but no; it actually means…Pop Tarts. Seriously; her liking for pre-baked toaster pastries is one of the most important things we need to know about Karen. Also, she has a new boyfriend. Important facts to know about new boyfriend are that he’s much younger, sexy, and called Dave. I’d like to say there is more to Dave when you get into the story, but unfortunately there isn’t.

Next up is Julia Hill, who is obsessed with losing her looks, and likes shoes and cosmetic surgery. Apparently these facts are more significant to her character and personality than the fact that she’s been through gender-reassignment surgery, the insultingly banal treatment of which I will come back to later. She’s in a coma following a car-crash. Her waking self does not make me glad she made it through the coma.

Lesley Gold has big hair, a “drop-dead-gorgeous” husband called Dan (like Dave, his name and his cock size are about all we ever get to know) and is “never seen without her lipgloss”. (What, never? This is an actual choice she’s made? To never, ever, ever be seen without lipgloss under any circumstances whatsoever?) It’s not clear why she’s prioritised lipgloss over, say, mascara, or foundation; or whether in an emergency she might choose to put on only lipgloss, leaving the rest of her face bare, or if the lipgloss is merely the signifier of a whole world of immaculate grooming and presentation. It is clear that it’s going to be hard to care.

Faye Cole is pregnant, had an affair with her co-presenter Cheryl West and has, therefore, been left by her husband. In parallel with this, Cheryl West is mostly selling the story of her affair with Faye, which will apparently get her career back on track somehow (words fail me). Finally, James Nolan is their boss and fired them all because, because, well, just because really, and is currently suing a Sunday tabloid for splashing the story that he enjoys dressing as a giant baby for sexual gratification.

That’s the end of the cast list. Great. They all sound lovely. Now we can get on with the story, which is as follows. In the previous book, James Nolan cancelled the show “Girl Talk”. Why, I really can’t say. It sounds as if it was a wild success, and James is the head of Channel 6; so his motives for randomly binning off the programme seem mysterious. However, he did it. The women then took their revenge on him by discovering his sexual kinks and sharing them with the newspapers. Again, I’m struggling to see what they were trying to achieve here, since James liking to be bottle-fed by his lover doesn’t really seem to have much relevance to whether or not their programme makes it back onto the air.

The novel opens on the ensuing right-to-privacy court case, which James wins, and which somehow means that doesn’t go to jail, and he gets to keep his job with added extras, and the five presenters are all unemployable. (Again; no unifying principle to this chain of events, but I simply can’t be bothered to unpick all the logical flaws, since doing so would require me to read the thing again. And frankly, I’d rather eat my own head. However, I would like to ask why the only two possible outcomes from this court-case are “James gets to keep his job and all the women lose theirs” versus “James goes to jail and all the women get their jobs back”, when the central issue of the case is the right to privacy.) About two-thirds of the book are about the fall-out from this, with each of the women’s lives unravelling in a strangely predictable and deeply unlovely manner.

Karen eats a lot of Pop Tarts, puts on some weight and becomes convinced that sexy Dave is having an affair. Julia wakes up from her coma to discover she has sustained terrible injuries to her feet and may never walk again, and far more importantly will never again be able to wear sky-scraper heels. She runs away to the country and passes the time being pointlessly spiteful to the other women, and lusting after some random gardener person who inexplicably keeps bringing her moussaka. Faye goes into labour in the courtroom, has her baby, wonders what happened to her marriage (some might say it collapsed because she made the choice to have an affair, but maybe that’s just me), and becomes an alcoholic. Cheryl has no agent, and wants an agent, and cannot find a decent agent. And hangs around a lot of agent’s offices. And fancies women. But not her prospective agents. Finally, Lesley obsesses over whether it’s okay to have a career without the other four women, and has sex with her husband.

There is no mutual support, and no female solidarity, and no-one helps anyone else with their problems. Then, when we’ve sufficiently established how hateful and desperate everyone is, there’s a mahoosive Channel Six party, and Someone Kills James. And it could have been any of the five women. Dum dum duuuuummmmm…..

The rest of the book is the unravelling of Who Did It and the knitting up of everyone’s personal lives. This can work (Jilly Cooper did a decent job of it in “Score!“), but only if you like and / or care about the characters. Since none of the characters are likeable, this trick does not come off. Reading this book actually made me sad and angry. I felt like I was a worse person by the end than I was at the beginning.

There’s so much that I hate about this book, but in the interests of putting some form and structure to my foaming-at-the-mouth rant, I’ll try and organise it under useful headings. First, I hate its nasty, reductive view of relationships. In Denial-world, relationships seem to work on a points system. You score points for being thinner than your partner, younger than your partner and better paid than your partner, and lose points for being fatter, older or poorer. You’ll notice that there are zero points awarded for shared tastes and pleasures, shared history, family ties, common goals, sexual chemistry, promises made and kept, mutual support mutually given or, you know, anything else that makes a proper, functioning relationship. I hate that no-one in the book ever communicates with their partner about what’s worrying them, and always assumes the worst of the people they apparently love.

Next, I hate the book’s portrayal of the non-hetero characters. Julia, who is trans-gendered, is written as a sort of horrible screeching drag-queen, obsessed with shoes and glitz, spiteful and horrid and mean. Thus missing the point of the drag-queen persona: it’s a performance. Real people, of any variety, are not like drag-queens any more than they are like pantomime dames. I hate that whoever wrote this book (I seriously doubt it was Coleen Nolan) spent no time whatsoever learning about gender dysmorphia, or the process of gender-reassignment, or the agonising physical and mental journey the sufferer endures, or the physical limits of what the gender-reassignment operation can achieve.

Equally, I hate the portrayal of Cheryl. Cheryl is gay, and her sexual orientation is apparently the sum total of all she is, and all she gets to be. Her sexuality is the beginning, middle and end of everything that happens to her in the book. I hate the moment when Faye, regretting her affair with Cheryl, looks at the androgynously-styled photo of her ex-lover and wonders (and I’m quoting) “how she could ever have fancied that“. At this point, I began praying for Faye’s downfall and destruction, because no-one, ever, anywhere, in any context, should get away with describing a fellow human being as “that”. I sort of want to accuse this book of homophobia, but then it’s equally horrible in its portrayal of straight women.

I hate how pointlessly shallow everyone is, and yet how even the ultimately-not-very-satisfying pleasures of shallowness are absent. It’s normal for chick-lit books to have an above-average quotient of shoe-lust and handbag-porn. But it’s not normal for even the chick-iest book to be filled with characters whose entire inner world revolves around their appearance. Everyone judges, and is judged, by how much they weigh, how well their dress fits, how well their hair is styled and how expensive their shoes are. Even though they all have money to splash on frivolities and lots of parties to go to, no-one seems to take any pleasure in anything. I hate this book for its lack of joy.

I hate how much the person who wrote this book appears to hate their own work, and everyone contained within it. It’s badly plotted and badly written. It insults straight women, and gay women, and trans-gendered women, and the fetish community, and men with older partners, and men with younger partners, and men in general, and older people, and younger people, and all people everywhere. There are literally no characters in this book who it’s possible to feel warmly towards. It feels lifeless and mechanical, like one of those machine-generated porn novels from “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this book actually was written by a machine.

Most of all, I hate the contempt this book’s existence expresses towards us, its readers. I’d love to be able to end with a dramatic flourish – “How did this novel ever get published???!!!” – but the fact is, I know perfectly well. It got published because a famous female celebrity put her name to it, which in turn persuaded enough of us to buy it for it to become a paying proposition. It’s not the publisher’s fault; they’re just satisfying an audience they know fine and well is out there. We have brought this horror upon ourselves. This honestly makes me question the future direction of the human race a little bit.

Most of the time, it’s really not in me to send books to charity shops, even when I’m sure I’ll never read them again – or put them in the bin, even when they are held together with sellotape and wishful thinking. I hang onto my books until they’re practically crumbling into dust and I’m more or less reading them from memory. But when I look at my copy of “Denial” sitting on my dining-room table, I actually wonder if it would be so very, very wrong to burn it.

Just this one book. Just once.

If you’ve read all this and you still want to read “Denial”, let me know, because I’d be delighted to send you my copy. Alternatively, if you absolutely must buy your own in order to feel complete, you can get it in paperback from Amazon for £4.58, or as a Kindle edition for £4.35. But if you do, I may never want to speak to you again.

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…and the mysterious flavour of “M”.

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My publishers*, Salt, posted this fabulous poster for National Poetry Month on their Facebook newsfeed. It’s part of a gorgeous, funny, clever campaign that the creative team clearly had loads of fun with. I would personally like to buy the t-shirts of pretty much all of them.

I wasn’t the only person to feel compelled to post a reply in verse. But I’m pretty damn sure mine was the worst.

Vampires used to be bad
A fantastic Victorian fad
But then Edward and Bella
Became a best-seller
And now the whole thing makes me sad. 😦

*If I live to be a hundred and ninety-eight million billion years old, it’s faintly possible that I may finally get tired of the phrase “my publishers”. But it won’t happen before that.

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Even I Am Quite Ashamed Of This One

My kids get through a lot of lunch-boxes. This is the inevitable consequence of their disgusting habit of bringing home their sandwich crusts, apple cores and mostly-empty yoghurt-pots for me to deal with (I mean, they have bins at school. They do. I’ve seen them. Furthermore, I’ve seen other people’s kids emptying their packed-lunch rubbish into them. But not my kids. My kids bring that stuff straight back home again, because apparently that’s just how we roll in the Parkin household), and my disgusting habit of never remembering to empty out the contents until the night before I need to make their next packed lunch.

So, as these things go, I’ve probably spent more than the average amount of time hanging around the Toys’R’Us lunch-box display, examining zip quality and debating the merits of the tetra-pak shape versus the classic overbalancing oblong, before giving in and buying the ones with the coolest pictures on them.

For years and years, every time I bought a new lunch-box, I’d do the same thing. I’d hand over the extortionate amounts of money required, take them home, snip off the tags, take out the matching drinks bottles and store them in the cupboard, take out the matching sandwich boxes and throw them away, and vow that this time, I would remember to empty out the rubbish before a colony of ants moved in and began building a weekend home for themselves out of yoghurt residue and rotting banana-skins.

Hey, did you see what I did there? I’m so embarrassed about admitting my stupidity that I’m trying to distract you with entertaining images of anthropomorphic ants. But there’s really nowhere to hide, is there? As a matter of course, and without even thinking about it – just doing it entirely on auto-pilot, as if this was the only possible course of action any sensible person would take – I threw away every single matching sandwich box from my kid’s lunch-boxes.

I have no idea why the drinks bottles didn’t succumb to a similar fate. For some reason, in my head, drinks bottles were important and worth saving, but sandwich boxes were extraneous crap that belonged in the bin. Throwing them away felt almost like a virtuous act, as if I was somehow contributing to a healthier, less cluttered future for all.

(Do you think the fact that I kept the drinks bottles means I’m only fifty per cent irredeemably stupid? Is it even possible to have a percentage of stupidity? Or is “stupid” a binary condition, like “unique”, or “pregnant”, or “married”?)

Instead of using the sturdy, re-usable, matching boxes provided, I would instead put their sandwiches in disposable plastic sandwich bags. Which I would periodically run out of. And get stressed about. And have to improvise with tinfoil or cling-film instead. Also, sometimes the only sandwich bags I could find were blue, which made me think of forensics officers and body-bags. But still I did it. For every single packed lunch I made them. For about six years.

Finally, one particularly stressed morning, we had new lunch-boxes which I hadn’t got round to “de-cluttering” yet, and we had no sandwich bags, and no cling-film, and no tin-foil. I was actually unwrapping the bread so I could recycle the wrapper into sandwich-preservers when I had a blinding, road-to-Damascus-style revelation: I could use the sandwich boxes to put the sandwiches in. Closely followed by another even more world-shaking realisation: I could always have put the sandwiches in the sandwich boxes. In fact, this would have been a better solution in every way.

Last week, I went to Toys’R’Us to scope out a couple of new lunch-boxes, and discovered that lunch-box manufacturers are no longer including a sandwich box as standard. Just as I finally wake up to the true worth of these added-value items, they are no longer available to me. This is probably a result of the banking crisis or something. Yeah, that’s definitely it.

Stupid bankers.

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The Ur-text For All Chick-Lit Everywhere

So, after previously apologising for using the word “trash” in the context of some of the great books I’ve had the chance to review, let me first say this; “Valley of the Dolls” is trash. “Valley” is uber-trash: the novel that defines the very concept of trash, the first – and surely the greatest – contribution to that ultimate in trashy, disposable literature, the giant-sized Bonkbuster.

I first came across “Valley” as a falling-apart paperback in a charity-shop. When that one finally crumbled into its constituent parts of cheap paper and worn cardboard, I went out to another charity shop, and instantly found another copy. Since it’s sold north of thirty million since it was published, this probably isn’t too surprising. But when my fourth copy fell to pieces and I decided it was time to upgrade to an edition that would withstand repeated re-reading, I thought I’d have a look on Amazon – where, to my surprise, it turned out to have been re-issued as a Virago Modern Classic. For the record, this puts Susann’s debut novel on the same list as Angela Carter, Marilyn French and Nora Ephron. Just saying.

The plot, like all bonkbusters, is twisty and complicated, but the basics are these. In 1945, three women – Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Neely O’Hara – arrive in New York. Anne is a classically beautiful New Englander, fleeing a privileged and buttoned-up existence back home. Jennifer has a sex-bomb good looks, a show-stopping figure and a poverty-stricken family to support. Neely is one third of a ropey cod-Mexican act playing seedy clubs and trying to break into the big-time. They are brought together by a new Broadway show “Hit the Sky”, a showcase written for aging Broadway Queen Helen Lawson, and masterminded by her agent Henry Bellamy. Anne gets a job as Henry Bellamy’s secretary, Jennifer is added to the cast as a beautiful but talentless piece of animated scenery, and Neely lands the spot of understudy to the second female lead. From this springboard, each of them launches a stratospheric career in Showbiz. Over the next twenty years, they achieve everything they ever wanted. And then, just as they’re closing in on the classic happy, Trashy ending…it all starts to go wrong.

Anne’s story begins when she turns down marriage to a millionaire to embark on a brief, blissful but doomed romance with Lyon Burke – the tall, dark and handsome Heir Apparent to Henry Bellamy’s empire. We can all see Leon’s a player and a bastard, but Anne is wild for him, because he’s literally the only man she’s ever laid eyes on who she wants to have sex with. After Anne accidentally talks him into trying to be a writer, Leon disappears to some unspecified place in the North of England (a place where the sun never shines! And where Leon will live in a few rooms of a large family mansion! Which has no central heating! The horror!!!) for the next fifteen years. A heartbroken Anne becomes the face of Gillian Cosmetics, and the long-term girlfriend of the crumbly owner Kevin Gilmore. Just as Anne’s on the verge of marrying an impotent, post-heart-attack Kevin (why? WHY? Surely there must have been other choices…?), Leon comes back to New York and rekindles their romance. They marry, Leon takes over Henry’s business, Anne has a baby, it’s all simply marvellous…and then Leon starts sleeping around, and Anne turns to sleeping-pills to cope with the pain.

In parallel, Neely’s career goes stellar before her eighteenth birthday, and she’s soon under contract to a major Hollywood Studio. The studio decide she needs to slim and provide the amphetamines to make this happen, plus the sleeping pills to help her sleep. By the time she turns twenty, Neely’s on the treadmill of uppers, downers, back-to-back projects and yo-yo diets. She burns through two marriages and is dropped from her contract; but after a traumatic trip to rehab, Leon relaunches her career to huge critical acclaim. Neely has the world at her feet, and is finally in control of her life and her talent…and then she starts an affair with Leon, starts taking drugs again, and is last seen clearly heading for another almighty crash.

Jennifer is twenty-four at the start of the novel, but pretending to be nineteen through the brilliant expedient of not mentioning her five-year relationship with Maria, a girl from her exclusive Swiss finishing school who she has handily left behind in Europe. She’s desperate to cash in on her physical assets so she can save her parasitic mother from poverty. First, she marries the singer Tony Polar and falls pregnant with his child. When Tony turns out to be mentally disabled with some unspecified hereditary and degenerative condition (Susann is characteristically vague on the details), Jennifer divorces him, aborts his baby and makes a fortune in European art-house movies by baring her magnificent breasts. (Incidentally, I’m really quite taken with Susann’s vision of Europe. Apparently we have plenty of lesbians, rude films, drugs, snow and finishing schools, but no sunshine, central heating or decent-sized flats. So, that’s nice). Jennifer is the sex goddess of the arthouses, but all she wants is marriage and babies; and it looks as if she’s about to get her wish when, just before her fortieth birthday, she falls in love with US Senator Winston Adams. Two weeks before their wedding, she discovers she has breast-cancer. She’s devastated, but ready to accept life post-mastectomy…then, Winston (who, to be fair, doesn’t yet know about her diagnosis. Nonetheless, he’s still a knob) accidentally reveals that he’s completely obsessed with her magnificent tits and wouldn’t want to be with her if she didn’t have them. A heartbroken Jennifer duly takes a lethal overdose of barbiturates.

At the time, most people were fascinated by “Valley” because of its tantalising air of roman a clef. Helen Lawson is really Ethel Merman! Tony Polar is Dean Martin! Neely O’Hara is Judy Garland! The Head is Louis Meyer! Jennifer North is Carole Landis, or maybe Lana Turner, or even an out-of-time Jean Harlow…hell, one of those Hollywood blondes, anyway! Henry Bellamy is Jacqui’s husband Irving Walsh!

Because Jacqui lived most of her adult life on the margins of showbiz, there was a sense that “Valley” was somehow an insider’s tale. There’s no doubt this is part of the fun, even now. But I think what makes Valley a stand-out in its genre is the unrelenting bleakness of its story. Susann follows each of her heroines to what looks like a happy ending. Anne marries the man she’s been hung up on for nearly twenty years; Jennifer finds a man who seems to love her for herself, not for her body; Neely’s career is hitting new heights and she finally seems at peace with her demons. Most trash novels stop exactly here. But Susann, with terrible inexorability, takes it all away again. It’s trash, Jim. But not as we know it.

The sheer unrelenting rage of this book is really something to behold. Susann’s analysis of pre-Feminist America is far from intellectual, but it makes up for that with its utter ferocity. A woman’s life, as Susann sees it, is inevitably shit. If you’re born beautiful, you’ll be valued only as long as you stay looking young, which is shit. If you’re born talented, you’ll end up exploited, which is shit. Being beautiful and talented is doubly shit. Marriage? Either your husband will be boring and having sex with him will make your skin crawl, or he’ll be a player who sleeps around; so sorry, but that’s also going to be shit. Concentrating on your career? You’ll end up alone, which is shit. Being ugly and / or talentless? Also shit. Lesbianism? Shit. Celibacy? Shit. Whatever cards life deals you, however hard you try to escape, whichever way you turn, your life is going to be shit. And then you’ll die. Probably from an overdose.

It’s fair to say there’s quite a lot wrong with this book. It’s equally fair to say that I am not the first person to notice. Critics have been pointing out examples of clunky dialogue (entire pages of poorly-constructed expositional speech, poured out nore or less unprompted to whoever needs to know), clumsy description (New York personified as an “angry concrete animal” was particularly reviled at the time), implausible events (Jen marrying Tony Polar without realising he has a severe mental disability? SRSLY?) and dubious “shocker” moments (although I do quite like that Susann managed to sneak in the world’s first mainstream anal sex scene without her editors realising until it was far, far too late). In the summer of sixty-six, Susann-bashing was something of a national sport. Her rather magnificent response was to lampoon her enemies in her next two books, “The Love Machine” and “Once Is Not Enough”, and then get on and enjoy spending her royalties.

In its time, “Valley” was considered shocking – certainly shocking enough to be banned from a number of libraries, and to be ostentatiously Not Sold in bible-belt bookshops. Although these days you can probably read more about sex and drugs in a teenage magazine, there’s still a sense of shame attached to this book. Reviewers consistently describe it as a “guilty pleasure” – as if admitting to liking Susann’s novels is something to be embarrassed about. However, I’m hoping that its appearance on Virago’s list is a sign that it’s in the process of rehabilitation.

It’s about time we stopped being ashamed of wildly successful female writers. Susann entertained a generation on a scale that had literally never been seen before. It’s not exaggerating to say that she changed the face of modern publishing. And frankly, that’s a record any writer should rightfully be proud of. “Valley” isn’t great literature; but so what? What is so shameful about entertaining people, anyway? Buy this book, I say! Buy it and read it, in public and without apology. You won’t regret it.

“Valley of the Dolls” is available from Amazon for £6.49. Alternatively, thirty million copies says it’s almost certainly available from your local charity shop, for a price ranging between 30p and £1. If you do get an old copy, could you do me a favour and check out whether Helen Lawson describes Terry King as “fucked-out” or beat-up”? The original version was clearly expurgated and I’m trying to work out when. Thank you in advance.

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It was bound to happen eventually.

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People buying this offer will be sent to the Alien Meat-Packing Factory for permanent deletion from the gene-pool.

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