The Madmen Legacy: Women and the Big Sexy Novel

Nostalgia works like Photoshop—it smoothes out all the rough edges and unwanted wrinkles. So as we look back at an era, even if it’s one we’ve lived through, we can’t help but see it through a kindly filter.

Take the Sixties. This was a time of overt gender discrimination, sexual harassment, racial tension, political corruption and, in addition to daily media reports of body counts in a remote Asian war, the very real fear of world-wide nuclear annihilation. But it was also the era of miniskirts, the Rolling Stones, LSD, Women’s Lib, contraception, celebrity models, the Boogaloo, the Jet Set, and the birth of the Big Sexy Novel.

It was the age of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, and it was captured not through social analysis, but through fiction. Novelists like Harold Robbins, Grace Metalious, and Jacqueline Susann picked up where writers like John O’Hara and Kathleen Winsor left off, to usher in the era of Big Sexy Novels—now somewhat pejoratively labeled “women’s fiction”—that were notable for their depiction of women as sexual beings rather than romantic paragons. For the first time in “legitimate” contemporary literature (i.e. excluding erotica), female fictional characters got down and funky, indulging in illicit affairs, exhibiting untrammeled ambition, and feeling guilty for things they’d done, enjoyed, and would probably do again.

Who could help but feel guiltily aroused when Jacqueline Susann’s innocent January in Once Is Not Enough submits to a drug-induced sexcapade while surrounded by onlookers exhorting her to ever more debauched (and public) acts? And who didn’t laugh out loud when Jackie Collins’s dead-eyed movie star in Hollywood Wives declared, by way of foreplay, “I want to be on top”?

Oh, we all pretended to be above such salacious foolishness, and denigrated the readers of such drivel: They only read these books for the sex, insisted the high-minded among us. Well, excuse me, but that just ain’t, and has never been, so. Adult bookstores, now gone the way of the dodo, were stocking dirty books long before the advent of the Big Sexy Novel. We didn’t read Jackie, Jacqueline, or Judith (Krantz) just for the juicy parts; but those parts made the novels more fun to read. Fiction became less about literature and more about amusement. At last, perhaps to the dismay of the erudite but to the delight of the average reader, we had hardcovers that were as addictive and easy to read as pulp paperbacks, only longer.

Here’s another criticism that was oft repeated: It’s not the sex I mind. I’m as open-minded as the next guy. What I object to is gratuitous sex. Oh, right. Gratuitous sex, which means what? Sex scenes that aren’t necessary to the plot? If so, doesn’t that mean that the only non-gratuitous sex would be in what used to be known as “left-hand books”, in which sex is the plot?

And finally: Aren’t there any stories about nice girls?

Yes, I suppose there were, but publishers weren’t producing them. This was the era of big author advances and million-copy print runs. Thanks to the Big Sexy Novel, which followed closely on the heels of the Big Historical Novel (tomes of between six hundred and a thousand pages of very loose history—seventeenth century London was probably the front runner here—and lots of improbable romance), publishers were, perhaps for the first time since the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, virtually guaranteed to make a buck, and a good one. In fact, I’d say the era of the Sixties and Seventies could well be called the Golden Age of Publishing, at least in the realm of popular fiction.

Alas, those days are no more. At present, both publishers and authors seem to be trying fervently to keep up with the demands of teenagers (aka Young Adults), who—talk about strange—have somehow taken the driver’s seat in the arena of contemporary fiction. Now here are your nice girls, folks. No orgies shall be countenanced for our new favorites—witches, vampires, kids with cancer, and brave teens who save the dystopian future while the adult characters look on in mute admiration.

Ah, springtime has come. We don’t want to read sexy novels anymore. At least we say we don’t. And the publishers listen, even though they’re going bankrupt.

But don’t we miss—just a little—those yummy, cynical, world-weary tales of girls gone bad—and loving it?

I do, for sure. That’s why I wrote MIREILLE. Why I’m proud to have produced a novel that even my friends will claim they’d never read. I did it for old times’ sake. For fun. For Jackie and Jacqueline and the rest of the grown-up girls’ club who celebrated a time before AIDS scared our pants back on, when sex was neither responsible nor mature, and reading about it was almost as much fun as doing it.

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