Hello and welcome to this week's podcast.
Here's the transcript:
Let’s start with some hot sex action:
'He unhooked her brassiere and this time Gillian offered no resistance. He removed it and bit softly at her breasts. They waved at him, pennants in the wind of lust, and he bit deeply into the acid of her dugs. Then he pulled off the black net panties – there was a cellophane sound as they were peeled past her thighs. What he hoped (and prayed) would be a smooth operation was spoiled as he had to fumble about her knees and she arched to let him finish slipping them off.
Turnbull rose from the bed and then, clad only in his beard, rejoined her.
‘Not yet Joshua’ she said, ‘Not yet. Kiss my knees first.’
'Would you prefer the caps or the hollows?’
That was an extract from Naked came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe, justifiably said by many the worst book ever published by a mainstream publisher. The story of how the book came to be is fascinating.
Back in 1969, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary and artistic taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States. Successful authors like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann were riding high in the book charts and it seemed to McGrady that any book, no matter how badly written, would sell as long as it was full of sex. So he decided to prove it. He got together with a group of his colleagues from Newsday - five women and 19 men - to write a collaborative novel that would be the absolute epitome of the sexually explicit dross that filled the bookshop shelves. It would have an almost non-existent plot, no social insight, a complete lack of character development and no redeeming features whatsoever. But it would be filled with kinky sex - at least a minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. He gave the resulting novel the deliberately suggestive title of Naked Came the Stranger.
The book was heavily promoted and given an appropriately provocative cover. McGrady’s sister-in-law was enlisted to play the role of the book’s fictitious author, Penelope Ashe, and she appeared for interviews in low-cut dresses and dutifully sang the praises of sexual liberation and the permissive society.
And McGrady proved his point. The book sold and sold and sold. In fact, it did so well that McGrady started feeling guilty about the amount of money he and his confederates were earning. So they exposed the hoax. And the resulting publicity just made the book an even bigger seller.
McGrady had failed. He had been hoping that his experiment would convince American readers to change their ways. They didn't. Which just goes to show that quality and good taste don't always match the public's appetite.
The story of Naked came the Stranger was one of the inspirations for another famous hoax book. The difference in this case, however, was that the book was created to expose possible wrongdoing.
The story centres around a company called PublishAmerica. It happily billed itself as the USA’s ‘number one book publisher’ and claimed to be a traditional publisher, offering all the services you would expect such as selectively screening submissions, assigning an editor to work with the author to bring a book to publication, and handling publicity and distribution. However, authors who had signed with the company began to point out that this wasn’t happening; that PublishAmerica was actually just a ‘vanity publisher’; something that the company strenuously denied.
Then, in December 2005, author Philip Dolan, who had spent between US$7000 and $13000 promoting his own book, took the company to court claiming that no book stores were able to get hold of his book. He was awarded an unspecified amount in compensation and his contract was rescinded. However, PublishAmerica remained unrepentant – it was not and never had been a vanity publisher.
Things might have ended there had the company not been so scathing about science fiction and fantasy writers. In the Autumn of 2004, a company representative issued a series of statements that included:
‘As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction... ‘
‘[science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home with a publisher.’
The comments were sufficiently inflammatory for a group of such writers to decide to test PublishAmerica’s claims that they were a ‘traditional publisher’ that only accepted high-quality manuscripts. PublishAmerica’s own website at the time boasted that they received over 70 manuscripts a day, read every single one and rejected most of them.
The 30-odd authors, led by James D MacDonald, collaborated to produce the worst novel possible and took just one weekend to write it. They called it Atlanta Nights. It’s horrible. Here’s an example of the style:
‘Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday …’
But there was more … The book had two chapter 12s and a missing chapter 21.. Chapters 13 and 15 were written by two different authors but told exactly the same story. Going one further, chapters 4 and 17 are exactly the same, word for word. My favourite chapter is 34 which consists of words randomly generated by a computer programme. Here’s a snippet:
'Let me look black with him, especially the creak of his mind. He had his mind. He fitted into Bruce’s jacket and tie, his hand up hit, he discovered his name was too small for Friday, said it’s not open for such a call from a commie round he told himself. She surely loved those huge mosquitoes . . . Oh, yes.'
The whole book was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Characters changed sex and colour and died before reappearing later in the book without explanation. The finale was particularly special; firstly, it is revealed that the entire story was a dream but then the book carried on for several more chapters. Oh, and the initials of all the named characters in the book, when properly arranged, made up the sentence: ‘PublishAmerica is a vanity press.’
The completed book, supposedly penned by one Travis Tea, was sent to PublishAmerica … who accepted it without reservation and offered the author a contract on the 7th of December 2004. At this point the hoax was revealed.
PublishAmerica responded by retracting its acceptance on the 24th of January 2005, stating that the novel failed to meet their standards after ‘further editing’. However, they later accepted another author's manuscript which featured the same 30 pages repeated ten times.
PublishAmerica is still trading (their website) and still claim to be 'the nation's number one book publisher'. It may be that the issues they had in the past are now resolved so all I can do is repeat the facts about their previous trading practices.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Nights can still be bought in paperback or as an e-book and all proceeds go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund charity. You can also find Naked came the Stranger quite easily and cheaply on sites like Amazon, ebay and Abebooks. I did. And I haven’t stopped laughing since.
This is sexy Stevyn Colgan saying ‘Yeah Baby. Thanks for listening.’