Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls is often considered little more than a "period piece"--a novel whose public success simply indicated the prevailing attitudes of the mid-1960s. While this may be tru
e, Susann and her husband, television and film producer Irving Mansfield, transformed the field of book promotion. Further, Susann paved the way for such critically maligned authors as Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel by turning the "trash novel" into a
best-selling genre to be reckoned with. In a valiant attempt to gain fame in writing where she hadn't been able to find it in acting, Jacqueline Susann took a book of little, if any, literary merit and vaulted it to the position of one of the best-selli
ng novels of all time--without concurrently vaulting it to a position of timeless importance.
The progressive subject matter of Valley of the Dolls--specifically homosexuality and drug addiction--appealed to an American culture in the midst of a social upheaval. The 1960s brought such progressive programs as the Civil Rights Movement and P
resident Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It should come as no surprise then, that Valley of the Dolls found a popular home in the era it was written--an era when mass culture began to take stock of its core values.
"A growing gay and lesbian presence in literature, theater, and popular arts took many forms in these years (1964-1968). The celebration of gay desire by Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, the prevalence of homosexuality in William Burroughs's phantasmago
ric Naked Lunch, and the blunt but lyrical portrait of a homosexual underground in the newly translated writing of Jean Genet were all well known," writes Howard Brick (Brick 82). While the authors Brick mentions were more a part of a subculture t
han the mainstream, Susann was far more gentle in her treatment of homosexuality and was thus able to bring a bit of that subculture into mainstream media.
"Her hands stroked Jennifer's breasts lightly and endearingly. She leaned over and rested her cheek against them. ?You see, I love your beauty and respect it. A man would be tearing into it now" (Susann 196). Since this was as racy as any of the limit
ed number of lesbian sex scenes got, Susann intrigued a mainstream whose mind may have been opening slowly without putting it off by aggressively handling such a delicate issue. The manner with which authors like Burroughs and Ginsberg treated such mater
ial (far less delicately) prevented these authors from being runaway bestsellers--although it may account for the more lasting impression that they left.
Susann also placed quite a heavy emphasis on drug use?particularly addictions to stimulant and depressant pills suffered by several of the female protagonists. Even the title, Valley of the Dolls, is a veiled reference, as dolls was slang for pill
s in the time period described in the novel. The references certainly didn't stop on the cover.
". . . she went to the bedroom, pulled the blinds to shut out the daylight, shut off her phone and swallowed five red pills. Five red ones hardly did anything now. Last night she had only slept three hours with five red ones and two yellows" (Sus
The mid-1960s brought increased drug use (and acceptance of it) and Susann's treatment of it most likely fostered the novel's popularity. "Hippies" were hardly averse to drug use and, according to some sources, their parents weren't either. Most middle
class "hippies" had grown up in houses where nicotine and alcohol use were the norm and amphetamines and tranquilizers ("uppers" and "downers") were hardly out of the question (Boyer et. al. 997). That Susann's characters struggle with "uppers" and "down
ers" is no coincidence. Her characters were designed to be glamorous versions of real people and their addictions to similar drugs were another method for humanizing them. Whatever Valley of the Dolls was, glamour and glitz or dirt and grit, Sus
ann made no attempt to keep her book's existence quiet.
Aided by the timeliness and somewhat controversial nature of her novel, Susann managed to change the face of book promotion. Susann and her husband Irving Mansfield hit the television and radio circuits hard in an effort to gain publicity for Valley o
f the Dolls. In addition, the two were constantly touring bookstores (often befriending storeowners in the process) and even made a habit of waking at ungodly hours to supply pastries and coffee to the Teamsters whose job it was to deliver the books
to the stores. Susann was determined to ignore the status quo of book marketing, which precluded an all-out assault on the market. Rather, she viewed book promotion as similar to that of the promotion "any new product . . . a new detergent" (Harris 2).
Susann was certainly not bashful in the promotion of Valley of the Dolls, even by the standards of detergent. In fact, she embraced the "trash" label placed on her writing by critics and tried to put it to work for her. "The day is over when the
point of writing is just to turn a phrase that critics will quote. I'm not interested in turning a phrase; what matters to me is telling a story that involves people. The hell with what critics say" (Contemporary Authors 577).
Such an attitude made numerous writing careers possible. Danielle Steel and authors like her have built a steady, large audience by writing pieces with formulas similar to Valley of the Dolls Literary critic Nora Ephron described this formula as
follows: "Valley had a message that had a magnetic appeal for women readers: it described the standard female fantasy?of going to the big city, striking it rich, and meeting fabulous men" (Contemporary Authors 577). Not surprisingly, Valley of
the Dolls and books in the same genre are believed to be read and written predominantly by women.
Certainly, Susann was not the first to identify this formula as one that could breed success. Rather, through her tireless efforts at promoting Valley of the Dolls, she was the first to separate her book from the innumerable others written in a si
milar vein. Not only did Susann separate Valley of the Dolls, she separated herself as an author/celebrity rather than just another author. "Successes like Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls . . . demonstrated that hard hitting public
ity could help sell books like the proverbial hotcakes and establish an author's celebrity, probably for his or her lifetime" (Geiser, 167-168).
It was Susann's exhibition of the possibility of establishing celebrity before literary merit that has enabled "Steel-style" authors to put out numerous bestsellers year after year. For the most part, authors such as Steel and Jackie Collins rely on thei
r status as celebrities/authors to push their works to best-seller status on a pretty regular basis. None of the authors in this genre are critically acclaimed?rather, their continual flooding of the book market with novels that entertain without enlight
ening keep their popularity at a high level. Susann, with Valley of the Dolls, was the groundbreaker for this type of genre and book selling.
Though the end result of Susann's writing and promotional inroads were large in the book publishing industry, the original motivations behind them were extremely self-centered. Susann had spent the first 25 years of her adulthood as a fledgling actress,
skipping from small role to small role without ever garnering the national renown she so desired. By exposing the seedy side of the famous in Hollywood?the pills, the sex, the general philandering and debauchery?Susann managed to propel her career into s
uper-stardom by writing about exactly the kind of people she had always wished she could be. In doing so, she managed to please the public to such a degree that her novel remains one of the all-time bestsellers. However, critical assessments of the lit
erary merit of her work were nowhere near as kind. "For the reader who has put away comic books but isn't ready for editorials in The Daily News, "Valley of the Dolls" may bridge an awkward gap," wrote Gloria Steinem (Book Week, April 24, 1966).
This was one of the more generous reviews that Susann received for Valley of the Dolls. Some critics were far more harsh. "She may not be very good, but she is indefatigable, and, like
a nightclub performer eager to please, she delivers," wrote Joseph Kanon (Saturday Review of the Arts, April 1973). She definitely did deliver a book that the masses craved as shown by the incredible sales, but the question remains whether
it was at the expense of literary merit. The critics seem to feel that it was.
Nonetheless, if Valley of the Dolls was a period piece, it was a period piece to match all period pieces. The novel was on The New York Times bestseller list for 65 consecutive weeks and had 8 million English copies in print by 1968. It sp
awned a film version, also titled Valley of the Dolls, and translation into at least eight different languages. No matter what critics thought of it, Valley of the Dolls was a sensation with unmatched public success during the first several
years following its release. As popular as it was, however, its flame was short-lived and information on the novel or its author is scarce at best over 30 years later.
Though Valley of the Dolls has maintained a cult following among "queens and other ?camp' followers," its mass popularity has waned since that late-1960s ("The Jacqueline Susann Story," Feb. 16, 1998). When it was re-released in October 1997, crit
ic Daniel Harris had the following to say: ". . . while Valley of the Dolls is fascinating as a cultural artifact, as a piece of literature, it is a cliché-ridden potboiler that was slapped together during collaborative sessions between Susann and
a team of editor-surgeons who carved out of her sprawling manuscript a readable if somewhat fragmented story" (Harris, Oct. 19, 1997). It's doubtful that the relatively timeless works of John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway were ever said to have been "sla
It is this lack of timelessness that has haunted Susann's legacy since her death in 1974. Before Grove Press re-released Valley of the Dolls in 1997, the novel had been out of print for over fifteen years. This is hardly the track record of a boo
k that did anything more than make an enormous splash and an equally rapid exit. It was the splash of Valley of the Dolls and not the book itself, however, that has made it a lasting piece?if only in the eyes of those in the book publishing and pro
Susann, despite the short-lived popularity of her writing, has remained a cultural icon. The subject of a 1997 biography, a 1998 made-for-TV movie, and a major motion picture set for an October 1999 release, Susann's status as a major figure in pop cultu
re is unarguable. As previously mentioned, her ability to turn the author into an occupation worthy of pop celebrity was previously unmatched and left the door open for a number of "trash novel" authors to do the same.
Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls may not be the type of work to be pored over for generations to come as a literary masterpiece, but the place Susann carved out for it remains a large one in the publishing industry. Additionally, Valley
of the Dolls still ranks among the top bestsellers of all time?clearly an accomplishment worthy of at least some mention. Whether this public success was due to the fact that the author had her "finger on the pulse" of American culture or the simple
fact that she pushed the book harder than any book had been pushed before, its immense popularity in its time remains. Nevertheless, the book has fallen by the wayside in the eyes of the public and lasts only as a model upon which much in the world of pu
blishing is still based.
(those with an asterisk were retrieved through Contemporary Literary Criticism--vol. 3, pp.475-476.)
Boyer et. al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. D.C. Heath and Company: Lexington, Mass., 1996.
Brick, Howard. The Age of Contradiction, American Thought and Culture in the 1960s. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1998.
Contemporary Authors, vol. 65-68, pp. 577-78.
Geiser, Elizabeth A., editor. The Business of Book Publishing. Westview Press: Boulder, Colo., 1985.
Harris, Daniel. "Oh, Susann!" Pioneer Press. 19 Oct.1997. http://www.special.pioneerplanet.com/columnists/docs/GROSSMAN/docs/02361.doc
*Kanon, Joseph. Saturday Review of the Arts. April 1973.
*Steinem, Gloria. Book Week. 24 April 1966.
Susann, Jacqueline. The Valley of the Dolls. Bernard Geis Associates: New York, 1966.
"The Jacqueline Susann Story." The Austin Chronicle. 16 Feb. 1998. http://weeklywire.com/ww/02-16-98/austin_books_feature1.html