I wrote the following comments recently. I’m proud of them.
Thanks so much for doing this. I love this book. I recently found a copy of it on the street in Brooklyn. I love it for a few reasons that I think address the first of your questions above. The first is genderized. After the VITA stats came out I looked at my bookshelf and counted the number of female authors there. It was 4 out of 65. That’s a clear injustice. So I decided to limit myself to only female authors. (I actually considered publicly boycotting DFW’s “The Pale King” for this reason. I’m doing it privately and I guess this makes it public.) When I found “Valley of the Dolls” I reveled in its critique of gender. The book stands as a monument to the terror of patriarchy and I’m pretty sure its entire genre does also, along with Peyton Place and others. These books must be re-read with this in mind. The second reason I love this book is political-economic. “Valley of the Dolls” might be the best literary critique of late capitalism I’ve ever read. About 20 pages into it I realized that the women in the story are just human beings and the men are capitalism incarnate. Reading it that way, the book provides a unique window into what our economic system does to personal relationships: every conversation is about contractual security and material gain, every sexual act is rape, and the only way to survive it tolerably is by addiction to pharmaceutical products. It echoes “Infinite Jest” in this way. For this reason–its critique of capitalism–the book deserves a lot of serious critical attention. I think Susann was aware of this facet of her work, but obviously–just judging from the way the book was marketed when it came out–nobody really understood what she was talking about. (The back cover of my edition introduces Susann by saying “This is the Doll that wrote ‘Valley of the Dolls’!” I think they missed the point.) Finally, as you’ve mentioned above, the book is well-written, compelling, and just plain riveting. It’s sexy, real, and heart-wrenching. My favorite scene is when Tony Polar shows up in the mental institution. I’m haunted by that still. It’s the only literary image that’s made me want to learn to paint just so I could paint what happens in my head in that scene. As to your other questions about celebrities, I’m not sure. I’d rather want to talk about how this book is really a statement about how we all relate to one another, particularly in New York City, the beating heart of the global hegemon. The book begs us to ask if we see ourselves and each other as commodities, as things that are bought and sold, or if we see one another as beings that deserve love and respect. Anne’s story is a tragedy for me. She comes to New York to escape the traditions of her small town, much like the founders of our nation under monarchy, looking for freedom and a good life. But better than the founding “fathers” Anne looks for love, which is different–dare I say better–than independence and private property. What does she find? A byzantine concrete jungle of humans distorting one another. And she falls prey to it, trying to “buy” Lyon’s love (which she could never have had even if she didn’t try to buy it) thereby succumbing, body and soul, to the inexorable force of late capitalism, of which Lyon is a perfect avatar. All she can do is take her pills and waste away. It brings me to tears just thinking about it. This is why I consider “Valley” a great American novel: it tells our country’s story perfectly. Is this how anyone read the book? I’m sorry to rant like this. I felt like the only person that was rereading it, so I’m ecstatic that you chose it for the book club.
i was talking to a friend about the stuff i blog recently and he rolled his eyes and asked me “why don’t you use that time to finish your second novel?” i still don’t have a good answer. he made me nervous because i spend so much time linking, blogging, tweeting, commenting, and not noveling. i wonder if these are a different kind of connectedness though. maybe. i think they can be done well, but it’s unclear if they get at the “noumena” mentioned here. maybe they do. i think so. maybe not. i don’t know. i think i’ve connected with tweets and blogposts and comments on essays and i think others have been in rhythm with my interiority from what are called “distractions” here. i wonder if the alphabet is the only way to compose a novel. like i wonder if being a good and peaceful person every day and just living and not writing anything could constitute a novel if one includes conversation (of any kind, maybe being is conversation) among the things that one does in this good and peaceful life. i don’t know. i think i’m beginning to distrust words and reading and “literacy.” i had the thought last week that part of the reason i read so much is that i hate reading deeply. that i just want to be read, and so i read and read and read and write and write and write just so others will read me in this kind of cycle of spiteful suffering. like when Allen Tate asks us to sit down at our hornet’s nests and love the people to whom we write–to commune, not communicate–do we really do this? am i really communing when i sit at my computer or my iphone and type type type all this alphabetic text? or am i communicating? am i commoditizing myself? do i just want to sell myself on a market of literary acceptance where wealth is measured not by my bank account but by hits counts and Google references and links and mentions and tweets containing my name? am i just an entrepreneur of myself? am i really committed to loving with my words? honestly i can’t tell. and i’m talking about myself and others here. maybe Tao Lin too, but not really. i think Tao Lin asks these questions with his writing as opposed to merely participating in the collective that blindly perpetuates them. this might be why people react so negatively to him: he’s reflecting something about themselves that they might not like so much. i don’t know. like for example i think this essay is communal, like in Tate’s sense. it’s communes. it doesn’t communicate. which is nice. there’s real love in it. especially the last paragraph. and i think people can feel that. it made me think about my own writing and whether or not i spend enough time loving or if i just sit down at this electronic hornet’s nest and hate. i don’t know. in any case, thanks. despite all the vitriol i’ve written and read and thought about in the literary world i think we should thank anyone that tries to do anything that counts as art under any definition of art. criticism could then just be one word “thanks.” so thanks.