#3. A Best-Selling Romance Novel Was Intended to Trash Romance Novels
Jaded with vulgarity in literature, in June of 1966 Newsday reporter Mike McGrady sent a memo to a few of his writer friends that stated: "As one of Newsday's truly outstanding literary talents you are hereby officially invited to become the co-author of a best-selling novel. There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion."
His aim: To create a parody of the poor writing that lined modern bookstore shelves, and hopefully point a mirror at the culture that would inspire it to reach a little higher. Twenty-four people responded, and they all collaborated on the most exploitative, obnoxious, sex-filled romance novel ever written: Naked Came the Stranger.
Censored because '60s asses are weird-looking.
And, of course, by "collaborated" we mean they wrote each chapter on their own, having no idea what the others were doing. There was a basic synopsis that they all agreed on (a woman named Gillian Blake wants to get back at her cheating husband by boning a lot), but each writer got to make up the rest as he went along. So while one guy was talking about Gillian having wacky fun with crushed ice and an abortion doctor, another was writing a later chapter where she uses her hypnotic super-boobs to cure a gay man of his sinful lust for cock.
The book doesn't make a lot of sense, is our point.
And neither does the world.
Still, its release saw some initial success, so McGrady hired (or coerced, it's not clear) his sister-in-law to do the talk show circuit as the book's fictitious author, Penelope Ashe. By all accounts she had a blast with the role, slutting it up, wearing low-cut shirts and spouting nonsensical pieces of writing advice like "A writer's got to impale his guts on the typewriter."
You know where this is going: The book eventually wound up on the New York Times bestseller list.
We're actually surprised they didn't claim that the dog was Penelope.
Eventually, the authors outed themselves after they began feeling guilty about the piles of money they were making. It didn't matter -- it kept selling (publicity over the "hoax" actually helped). The book inspired an entire series of spinoffs and established the "collaborative novel" as a new genre. It would even be made into a 1975 X-rated movie. Nearly 50 years after its release, romance novels are in no danger of extinction; in fact, smutty romance novels are the most popular form of erotica for women.
#2. Frank Zappa Accidentally Invents the Valley Girl
Slang is one of the great mysteries of human history. It can be tracked and recorded, but no one ever really knows how it's going to spread or what exactly is going to catch on. No one can predict what nonsensical terms kids are going to be saying to each other in the future -- and once we know what they're saying, no one can really say why, or how it got started.
"It was horrible, I totally caught him kuxling the neighbor's dog."
Except in one case: valley girl slang. That is, the manner of speech in the '80s and most of the '90s when girls liked to say "Like, no way!" and "As if!" and "Grody to the max!" Apparently, that was substantially Frank Zappa's fault.
In 1982, Frank Zappa recorded a new song with his teenage daughter, Moon Unit, who improvised dialogue over the top of it while making fun of people at her school she didn't like. When the slang subsequently exploded across the country, Good Morning America hit an all-time high in investigative journalism and managed to trace the movement back to its source.
The interview is clearly an exercise in impatience. Moon is embarrassed and kind of awkward, and Frank himself absolutely couldn't care less about participating. All he has to say about the song specifically is that its success was an "accident" and that the slang itself is "cultural pollution."
"I was a journalist once. Now we turn to a teenager named Moon Unit, who's going to tell you why her classmates are stupid."
Still, the cultural impact was so huge that film producers approached Zappa to make a film based entirely on the slang terms, called Valley Girl. Zappa refused, because he was a legitimate artist thank you very much, no matter what he names his children. Of course, said producers went on to make that movie anyway.
The movie ended up being a huge success, making a ton of money, and holding a respectable 83 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. That's higher than Dances With Wolves, which beat Goodfellas for the Oscar, in case you're looking for something else to be pretentious and angry about.
Yep, that's Nicholas Cage with rainbow hair. You can punch something now.
#1. Critics Can't Identify Intentionally Bad Poetry and Art
Not everyone realizes that before the turn of the 20th century, most poetry and art was pretty much created with the intent of being, you know, understood. It wasn't until the advent of modernism that these things became more about the personal journey and identity of its creator.
Enter James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two poets in the Australian Army during World War II who decided to play a prank on the whole medium. They created a fictional poet named Ern Malley, who they decided had recently died at a tragically young age. They assembled 17 poems that they credited to the completely fake Malley, intentionally nonsensical bullshit created by pulling quotes from whatever they had, like a report on mosquito breeding grounds. They then mailed the work to a modernist poetry journal called Angry Penguins that they particularly detested.
Not to be confused with We'll Print Literally Anything magazine.
The editor of Angry Penguins, a 22-year-old named Max Harris, was totally blown away. He published an entire issue devoted to Ern Malley -- even though the poems contained some less-than-subtle hints as to their true nature, like:
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writing
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark.
Seriously, Max, how could they have made it any clearer?
Then everything went to hell. The hoax was quickly exposed, and the already hurting Angry Penguins was driven out of business by the bad publicity. For a while, it looked like the hoaxers had dealt a terrible blow to an artistic movement.
Well, no, not really. Angry Penguins did fold, but for mostly unrelated reasons, and Max Harris never actually recanted his opinion that, regardless of what McAuley and Stewart had tried to do, they had accidentally written some badass poetry. Today, "Ern Malley" poetry remains substantially respected. And in a twist of fate that must particularly sting, none of the "real" poems the hoaxers went on to write have ever exceeded their hoaxes in popularity.
If the world of pretentious poetry was ripe for satire, though, then pretentious art was overripe. In 1924, a struggling novelist named Paul Jordan Smith, like the poets we were just talking about, was getting a little sick of the bullshit in contemporary art. He was convinced that "the modern critic in literature and art was a coward, so afraid of being out of step with his generation that he hesitated at giving honest opinion concerning art values."
To prove his point, he decided to play a prank. He created a series of paintings, called "The Seven Deadly Sins," with old brushes that he had borrowed and canvas he pulled out of the trash. Concocting an alter ego named "Pavel Jerdanowitch" and giving him a crazy back story filled with international travel and disease, he unleashed the paintings on the art world. But, again, because stupidity is just too damn hard to fake, Smith's paintings were widely heralded and sold for substantial amounts (for the 1920s). Even today, the dumb things are remembered as brilliant pieces of modern painting. Enjoy:
For more awesome parodies, check out 9 Foreign Rip-Offs Cooler Than The Hollywood Originals. Or check out an article by the parody master, Weird Al: The 9 Most Underrated Funny Songs (According to Weird Al).