Judith Krantz's 1978 novel Scruples was a surprise hit, bypassing critics' negative expectations to become a number one bestseller. Scruples remained at the top of the bestsellers' list for several months, despite much negative critical reception. Dismissed as "[all] ready-to-wear sex," and as a plotless, shallow example of escapism at its worst, Scruples nonetheless held wide appeal with readers everywhere. A story of fabulously wealthy, famous and good-looking people and their travels and sexual escapades, Scruples struck a chord with the imaginations and celebrity-curious minds of a mostly female audience. It is, paradoxically, the very shallowness of subject and obsession with material and sexual details condemned by critics that made Scruples such a popular novel.
Self-made millionaires and millionaires by marriage, the most beautiful socialites, and the most talented directors, all of whom engage in graphic sexual activities for each other, set the scene for Scruples. In addition to tracing the life of Billy Ikehorn, a socially inept, overweight, and poor girl from Boston as she transforms herself into a stylish beauty, the novel also follows Spider, a famous fashion photographer; Valentine, the head designer at Scruples; and Vito, one of Hollywood's top directors, who is up for an Oscar, among other high-class characters. All the characters have very high profile and lavish lifestyles. Billy and her husband, Ellis, are "the essence of what being in the great world of wealth and power is all about" (p. 113) and millions of people constantly "read about them and [see] the frequent newspaper and magazine pictures of the magnificently dressed, aristocratic, young beauty" and her older husband. Even before she opens Scruples, which is described as a "virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and truly famous," Billy has already established a name for herself as the young wife of one of the most wealthy men in California.. Even the title boutique is showered with generous descriptions of its fabulously expensive and beautiful furnishings and products, and its exclusive clientele. Indeed, Krantz's intriguing descriptions of the Beverly Hills glamour scene helped make Rodeo Drive famous throughout the world, especially after it was translated into twenty different languages.
Throughout Scruples we are constantly exposed to celebrity name-dropping and let into little society "secrets." By giving readers an inside peek into the world of the very rich and glamorous, Krantz attracts a feeling of intimacy from the regular, mostly female reading public. Indeed, Krantz's rather formulaic style of writing, which was repeated in subsequent novels such as Princess Daisy and Scruples Two, has often been compared to that of Jaquelynn Susann, author of the bestseller Valley of the Dolls, and Danielle Steele. All three authors have been noted for their similar literary styles and for their tendency to heavily market their novels to the reading public rather than cater to critics. In styling their novels, Krantz, Susann and Steele use flowery descriptions of beautiful people and exotic locales to attract their mostly female audiences, the majority of whom lead lives distinctly less glamorous and fast-paced than the characters in the novels. Scruples offers an escape into fantasy lifestyles that most people never get to experience. As one reader put it, in a review on Amazon.com, "One of the big attractions of the Krantz novels are the well-researched and absorbing 'inside details' of the settings," which include the Hollywood film industry, the Beverly Hills social scene, and the Paris fashion industry. And a Vogue magazine review acknowledges: "Under Krantz's fingers, real life has a way of becoming mysterious, glamorous, legendary, sequined."
It is Scruples' attraction as a "mindless read," especially to women, that has helped it become such a success. As a reader in a review on Amazon.com acknowledges: "Krantz is not an author you read for intellectual stimulation or spiritual enlightenment. . . but she is still one of the most entertaining mass-market novelists around, especially for women." Scruples became an instant hit with the female reading public, and although it remained on the bestseller lists for only a little less than a year, and is by no means a classic example of literature, Krantz's other novels continue to rise to the top of the bestseller lists thanks to her loyal female fan base. But why and how did Scruples manage such a staggeringly quick climb to the top of the lists? Perhaps partly because Scruples was able to attract readers through its modern, lavish treatment of the old rags-to-riches story in its tale of the rise of Billy Ikehorn. Starting life as an unhappy, fat, socially inept girl, Billy eventually loses enough weight and gains enough style and wordly wisdom to become one of the richest and most popular women in Beverly Hills, California. By taking a "normal" person and then elevating her to staggering levels of beauty, wealth, and privilege, Krantz appealed to a specific reading base-namely, middle class, suburban women, usually married, and often housewives. She also appealed to the American ideal of self-made success. True, Billy must marry into money, and only then does she gain the fame and wealth that comes with the Ikehorn name, but she only does so after actively molding herself into an attractive person, both physically and socially.
Another aspect of Scruples that helped make it popular with the general, rather than critical, public, is its emphasis on sex. Following, again, in the path of such novels as Jaquelynn Susann's Valley of the Dolls, Scruples contains graphic, involved accounts of its characters' sex lives. Critics especially have noted the novel's use of sex as a selling point: Publisher's Weekly criticized the "mostly kinky" sexual activities that fill a large number of the novel's pages, and the New York Times Book Review refers to it as "all ready-to-wear sex." However, it is this very characteristic of Scruples-its emphasis on sex-that has also been one of its main selling points with the public. The consequence-free, uninvolved sex that exists for the characters of Scruples is another example of unrealistic fantasy that readers can nonetheless experience, albeit vicariously, through Krantz's novel. The attraction of the type of explicit sexual acts that are present in Scruples has also been noted by its presence in other bestsellers. According to Amazon.com, readers who read Scruples were also inclined to read novels by such authors as the aforementioned Susann and Jackie Collins, two novelists who also utilize detailed sexual themes to sell their novels. Readers also listed Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, as another novel that they read and enjoyed. Peyton Place itself became a bestseller largely due to its somewhat revolutionary employment of sexual themes in its story of a small New England town. Although it is not quite as sexually graphic as Krantz's or Susann's novels, Peyton Place still attracted large numbers of readers who were intrigued by its treatment of sexual subjects, which was somewhat taboo in the 1950's. People were still captivated enough by the "naughtiness" of sex by the late 1970's that they were attracted to Scruples, a novel that was somewhat shocking in its descriptions of kinky sex, even for its time.
Although the novel's own subject matter and style of writing appealed to many readers, another reason it became so popular was the large amount of publicity generated by Krantz's own name and by her connections to famous family and friends. Judith Krantz is married to Stephen Krantz, a film director who is perhaps best known for his movie "Fritz the Cat", a popular adult cartoon film. Krantz also lists among her friends such people as Helen Gurley-Brown, a famous New York City socialite and original editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. Thanks to her wealth and powerful personal connections, Krantz was able to organize an extensive, cross-country tour to promote Scruples. The tour included book signings and appearances on radio and television talk shows. Eventually, through her dedicated promotional work, and also through the controversy over the novel's popularity, Scruples became a popular choice of "light reading" with audiences who cared little about what critics had to say. Krantz herself acknowledges that she is "not a literary writer" but defends her position by saying "what I do is entertainment and I do it as well as I can." Krantz's self-defense and the backing of friends such as Gurley-Brown helped Scruples remain popular in the face of scathing critical reviews. Some of Krantz's later work, such as Princess Daisy, was serialized in Cosmopolitan, thanks to Gurley-Brown, and helped Krantz sustain her reputation as a women's writer.
Scruples debuted as a prime example of an unexpected, runaway bestseller despite its large share of detractors. Its appeal extended across the U.S. to millions of readers, striking a particular chord with female readers. Its immense popularity dumbfounded most critical reviewers, who almost unanimously wrote it off as superficial fluff. However, readers were attracted not to any particular literary qualities of the book but to its fairy tale characters and their posh, extravagant, often hedonistic lifestyles. Scruples gained Judith Krantz a devoted fan base, many of whom continued to defy critics by remaining loyal to Krantz over the years, interested in entertaining escapism rather than in intellectual enrichment. Krantz's fans, and even Krantz herself acknowledge Scruples' lack of literary merit, yet continue to champion it as an example of the guilty-pleasure novel. As one fan puts it: "Who cares if it doesn't win any awards? It's pure, unadulterated fun!"
Gale Literary Database of Contemporary Authors: www.galenet.com
Krantz, Judith. Scruples. Crown Publishers Inc., New York City 1978.