On Midcentury American Literature’s Preoccupation with Scandalous Sex
The Lit Century Podcast Rereads Valley of the Dolls
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, Catherine and Sandra discuss Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 mega-bestseller Valley of the Dolls, looking at how it treats women’s bodies, sexuality, success, and glamour purely as sources of misery. In this book (nominally a cautionary tale about drug addiction), the only real joy comes from pills.
From the episode:
Sandra: The other thing that’s really interesting from the point of view of this era in literature is to think about how books like Valley of the Dolls exist in the same literary universe with books being written at roughly the same period by people like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. There’s a similar consciousness of sexuality in a kind of scandalous way, that you can manipulate that scandal and the interest in sexuality and the prurience. There’s a lot of prurience or an awareness of prurience in all of these books around this time, and how you can use that in order to get attention.
But also it genuinely is that feeling that sex is being invented and that people are discovering it for the first time, and a combination of a knowingness that is being projected by the author, which to us—and maybe even to people at the time—is just not convincing. There’s this weird kind of naivety. You read the works of Norman Mailer, and it’s absolutely ridiculous; he’s prating about sexuality, and it feels like he has never had sex.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.