Opening Pandora’s Box: On the Power of Popular Culture

Does it matter what writers look like? The politically correct answer is, of course, no. Yet this week I finished a book I picked solely because of the author photograph on the back. Were it not for the image of Grace Metalious, I would have ignored a story I would have been sad to miss.

The image, also known as Pandora in Blue Jeans, looks surprisingly modern despite being taken back in the 1950s. It shows Metalious sitting behind her typewriter with her legs pulled up for comfort, dressed in an oversized checked shirt and jeans. But it was her footwear that did it for me. In the picture, Metalious is wearing trainers. I own similar-looking trainers. No matter what this woman was writing about when the picture was taken, we had something in common.

Apparently Metalious was as unconventional as her outfit suggests. Even though she married and often wrote about family life, she was anything but a perfect housewife. Despite the phenomenal success of Peyton Place, her most famous novel, or perhaps because of that success, life was not kind to her. She died aged 39 in 1964, addicted to alcohol and in debt.

The name Peyton Place will, of course, ring a few bells even if, like me, you have never seen the TV series. The adaptation became the blueprint for countless other soaps after its last season finished in 1969. Because I’m no soap lover I began to read the novel reluctantly, expecting to be bored out of my mind.

I’m delighted to report that I was very, very wrong. When adapting the novel for TV, the scriptwriters managed to remove most of novel’s more controversial elements – which often turn out to be the elements that interest me. Metalious writes openly about sexuality in all its forms, believing that excluding it from fiction would be like “a window without glass”. 1960s TV people disagreed, it seems, and edited out every single reference to incest, masturbation, abortion, and good old-fashioned lovemaking.

Coming from a small town, albeit one not as small as the own that gives Peyton Place its name, I recognized much of the novel’s scenery. The gossiping and hostility towards anyone who doesn’t conform to the town’s strict living standards are familiar, an achievement particularly remarkable when considering that its story is set during the 1930s. Despite its often harrowing and angry scenes, however, Peyton Place is also a funny and tender novel. It has no mercy for people who pretend to be better than they are but unconditionally chooses the side of the underdogs.

For me, this novel demonstrates what I love about popular culture: its ability to combine accessibility with social criticism. Not every popular text does this, of course, but Peyton Place is a fine example of how well popularity can work if skilfully employed. Some may argue that success and literary value are mutually exclusive, but I disagree. Sometimes, a text becomes popular because it asks the questions no one dares to ask, even if it uncovers aspects of society that many would rather ignore.

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