Peyton Place and the roots of reality entertainment

[8 May 2008]

By Rob Horning

For a long time, I have wanted to read Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, a notoriously lascivious book about the seamy secrets of a small town in New England. This grand ambition of mine was fueled not only by my academic interest in “commercial novels” (i.e., novels interesting primarily for their commercial success) and my fascination with Twin Peaks, which seems deeply influenced by Peyton Place‘s core idea, but by the line on the cover of the edition I bought at an Astoria junk store: “The best-selling paperback novel of all time.” Surely something so popular would yield some sort of insight into the American reading public and the nature of the mass market of the Eisenhower era. A 2006 Vanity Fair article about Metalious’s own sordid life offered this about the novel:

Fifty years ago, Peyton Place helped create the contemporary notion of “buzz,” indicted 1950s morality, and recast the concept of the soap opera, all in one big, purple-prosed book. It would spawn a sequel, a smash film nominated for nine Academy Awards, and television’s first prime-time serial. A week before it hit bookstores, on September 24, 1956, it was already on the best-seller list, where it would remain for half a year. In its first month, it sold more than 100,000 copies, at a time when the average first novel sold 3,000, total. It would go on to sell 12 million more, becoming one of the most widely read novels ever published. During its heyday, it was estimated that one in 29 Americans had bought it—legions of them hiding it in drawers and closets due to its salacious content.

Clearly it was widely bought, but whether it was widely read can’t really be known. Having just slogged through it, I figure most readers skimmed it, looking for plot points and dirty parts.

On the whole, the book is shoddily constructed, veering from one “shocking” event to another with apparently only a sense of how outraged people would be guiding Metalious as she proceeded. This leads her to be radically frank for her era about the reality of familial sexual abuse, but it also leads her to create such ludicrous scenes as the one where a minor character loses an arm in a carnival-ride catastrophe. Though it seems now to be populated with Main Street caricatures, Peyton Place was heralded at the time as an expose of small-town hypocrisy and breakthrough for freedom of expression about the kinds of problems that were probably pretty endemic in town life, and probably still are. And some scholars regard it as a feminist work, probably for its handling of female sexuality (though like most romances, the only woman who has a positive sexual experience has to basically be forced into it, have her animal nature awakened by a brute show of force by her mate) and its efforts to call into question domestic pieties. Mostly, though, the book seems animated by the spiteful sullenness that marks the main character, wanna-be writer Allison McKenzie, who, interestingly enough, in the novel mines small town life for material for her own frank stories. It’s like the novel depicts its own creation within itself, so maybe it’s a self-mythologizing postmodern classic. It is certainly chaotic enough to be postmodern, shifting registers and genres and eschewing careful development of characters in favor of lurching from mini-plot to mini-plot haphazardly like the soap operas that would come in its wake. No effort is made to explain events; they happen simply because of an evil destiny settling on the land. Unlike Twin Peaks, which with its Lodges and feints at mysticism, tried to cook up a cosmogony to explain why events unfolded and where the submerged small town evil came from, Peyton Place revels in the unexplained evil, takes superstitions as given, and offers by way of spiritual subplots an unintegrated story about a Congregationalist minister who decides to become a Catholic basically because he is Irish.

If anything unifies the hodge-podge of the novel’s incidents other than their calculated potential to outrage, offend, and titillate, it’s the development of Allison as writer, with her ethical quandaries worked out by the novel’s form as it unfolds: basically the novel’s structure seems to be in dialogue with Allison, showing her that the way to get a novel written is simply build every chapter around some secret someone wouldn’t want told, whether it’s secret drinking parties, oral sex, or a mother’s getting off on enemas and breast feeding. Secrecy becomes the essence of what makes for plot, all other possibilities for development are foreclosed—so there is no bildungsroman organized around Allison, or Selena Cross, the working-class girl “from the shacks.” Instead, the novel just jumps in forward in time at arbitrary intervals and makes no effort to develop themes linking the two characters’ development at any but the superficial ways their lives intersect. We can do the work on the novel’s behalf and come up with ingenious comparisions, but that is not what was expected of the original audience for this book. That audience, as the marketing campaign detailed in the Vanity Fair article suggests, was meant to be salaciously enticed and afforded a delicious chance to wax righteously indignant while thrilling at the sexual perversity.

So the whole novel feels very cynical, mainly because it is prurient but also because none of the characters are very sympathetic from a contemporary perspective. When they are not mouthing some hypocritical idea about not wanting to be talked about, they seem like puppets contrived to act out preconceived sensationalistic tidbits. Because Metalious seems to have decided from the outset that readers would only be interested in juicy scenes full of the seemingly unsayable, she makes little attempt to supply anything else, aside from the odd awkward poetic passage.

The book pretends to reveal the secrets of small-town life as if these reflect some core truth, as if these would dispel hypocrisy, but instead it partakes of that same hypocritical spirit, the refusal to grant people their private lives, and it comes across as a gossip dump, with the effect of making the story feel unverified and exaggerated despite purporting to be fiction (and despite the fact that much of it was drawn from Metalious’s life and her home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, apparently). And though the characters are obsessed with being talked about, as if this were their worst fear, it reads more as though its what give them an identity—the fear of being watched seems more like a secret wish to be noticed. The idea that you become an indvidual when you are noticed, hailed by your society in the way it has settled on offering recognition—à la Althusser’s argument in the “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay: “Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ “) It’s not the police who do the interpellating in Peyton Place, it’s the town’s network of gossip, occasionally dramatized by the chattering in the diner or on the street by various yokel characters, or by Metalious simply attributing certain views to the town, as if it were a character itself. It’s out there, giving each person it notices some internal coherence in its eyes.

One can construct noble reasons for Peyton Place to have existed and become popular after the fact; one can argue for a liberating effect it may have had on its female readership and so on, but that requires a blinkered reading of the text. In the novel itself, the most palpable motive for what it exposes about small-town life is that it will boost the book’s sales, the lesson Allison seems to learn in the book and a lesson proven by the novel’s marketing campaign and its subsequent success across several media platforms. For though Peyton Place seems like a critique of small-town gossip’s regulatory function of enforcing a moral and traditional code of conduct—and it certainly indulges the juvenile fantasy of being the herald who broadcasts all the secrets that structure the repressive code and thus brings down the walls of Jericho—the novel is just that gossip served up for consumption by strangers with nothing invested in the code. It doesn’t destroy the code’s power, it just amplifies the code so it has power on a bigger stage, transforming it at the same time so that its prohibitions become provocations. On the small town level, gossip is like a confession carried out by townsfolk that serves to solidify the individuality of its subjects, but on the level that Peyton Place as media phenomenon promises, being talked about just makes one famous and interesting, to those who have no reason to want to see you disciplined according to the local mores.

Thus the novel supports an ideological framework that has become omnipresent now: that you want to be gossiped about, as that is what makes you exist in a way that transcends friends and family. Being the subject of gossip is the pathway to fame, and media creations like Peyton Place will spread your notoriety. The novel can be seen as a guide to what sorts of behavior counts as exciting scandal, thus updating for the mid-20th century the information supplied by scandal novels since the invention of the genre. Peyton Place is a bourgeois version of Delarivière Manley‘s romans à clef from the early 18th century that tracked and popularized aristocratic scandals of the time, helping forge the very definition of what was to be considered scandalous. (Incidentally, her books—The New Atalantis is the most notable—are as unreadable as Metalious’s.) Being talked about no longer individuates one simply to impose disciplinary control, instead it calls one into being for a mass audience, on a level where personality traits are irrelevant compared with the sensations one can transmit vicariously for captivated observers. In other words, one goes from being a shameful internal exile in a small town to becoming a celebrity who is beyond moral judgment.

The lesson of Peyton Place as a phenomenon is that on the level of mass popularity, being interesting trumps being moral. And a new set of values is born that applies not to communities (and is unenforceable by communities) but instead applied to individuals participating in a mass culture that isolates them from community with a promise of larger-than-life notoriety. Thus “being a slut” is bad when it is restricted to the eyes of your neighbors; on The Real World though, it is awesome. What makes you scandalous locally makes you fabulous nationally. Hence the impulse to disclose all sorts of embarrassing personal incidents are on TV that one would other wise keep private. And when they are disclosed, they are shared in the manner that Peyton Place exposes them, with a ruthless bluntness that presumes that secrets are always best exposed, for everyone’s sake—that anything less than full disclosure an exposure is some form of prudish hypocrisy. The shallowness of the novel’s characters is now the shallowness we aspire to, for it seems to promise the most widespread recognition we can hope for. We can spread ourselves thin across all the media available for us to disseminate our image and maybe if we are lucky disappear into a sublime ubiquity.

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