Arguably, Looking for Mr. Goodbar could be assigned to many different categories of bestsellers: those whose movie rights were bought before or immediately after their publication; those that garnered negative reviews initially but eventually became hailed as their authors' best work; those that contain extensive foreshadowing (Goodbar opens with the confession of the man that eventually murders its heroine); those whose protagonists are not entirely sympathetic; those with graphic cover art; those that contain (or are at least purported to contain) graphic or shocking depictions of sex; and those that fit in nicely with the literary environment at the time of their publication. Although all of these categories are interesting and worth examining, it is the last three that will be discussed in the most detail here.
It is not at all difficult to compile a collection of 20th century American bestsellers that, either in their original editions or in later ones (especially the mass-market, airport-novel variety), attempt to grab potential readers with their cover art. The original edition of Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life, for example, is emblazoned with a close-up photo of two people kissing passionately. Although Michael Crichton's Disclosure is not actually primarily about sex, the paperback version of it published after the movie release shows Demi Moore whispering provocatively into Michael Douglas's ear. Anaïs Nin's volume of erotica, Delta of Venus, has a dimly lit photo of a nearly nude woman on the front cover. And, even more obvious in its sexual content, Naked Came the Stranger, by the fictional author Penelope Ashe, features a rear view of a naked woman on her haunches, accompanied by a tally written in lipstick (presumably of the woman's recent conquests). By these standards, Goodbar's cover photo seems almost tame. Although it depicts a woman lying in bed with no indication of clothing, there's also nothing particularly sexual about the picture. Of all the aforementioned cover photos, though, Goodbar's is uniquely ambiguous. It alone can be interpreted either as sexual or as violent. [See the cover images for hardcover and paperback editions of the book in Assignments 1 and 2 above.]
If Looking for Mr. Goodbar's cover art was intended to allude to the protagonist's death (which seems almost obvious after reading the book), it is in good company among books that wear their violence on their sleeves (as it were). The first edition of Peter Benchley's Jaws features a solitary swimmer looking down at the huge white shark looming below her; the mass market paperback in print as of May 2000 shows an even more graphic closeup of a shark with its mouth wide open, staring out from the cover. The Deep, Benchley's follow-up to Jaws, depicts another female swimmer, this one drowning. Robin Cook's Fatal Cure illustrates its title with a dead body covered with a sheet, its flatlining heart rate superimposed on the image. And the most direct of this group is undoubtedly the first edition of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice. In case potential readers are not familiar with the standard James Bond plot, Fleming's publishing company clears things right up with the cover image: a solitary splotch of blood.
It's clear that cover art that is sensationalistic is good for catching a customer's eye in the display-oriented environments of airport newsstands, supermarket paperback aisles, and warehouse-style bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. But cover art can also illuminate where titles are obscure. By title alone, there's no way to know that K is for Killer and To Kill a Mockingbird aren't two books in the same series. But after looking at the covers (K is for Killer's title emblazoned in an ominous-looking typewriter font, and To Kill a Mockingbird's posed delicately in old-fashioned type above a serene painting of a tree and a bird in silhouette), there is no question which one of them is about murder. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is clearly one of these books that uses its cover art not just to snag potential buyers, but to give people an idea of what the book is really about. In these terms, it is Disclosure's antithesis.
[Sidebar: See "Supplementary Materials" below for several of the aforementioned cover images.]
And what Looking for Mr. Goodbar is about, in large part, is sex. Like its famous predecessor, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (not an annual bestseller but nonetheless an extraordinarily popular book), Looking for Mr. Goodbar contains all sorts of forbidden sex that's "bad" in all sorts of ways. Shortly after Rossner introduces the protagonist, Theresa Dunn, she launches into Theresa's fear of, pursuit of, loathing of, love for, and ultimately seduction by her English professor, Dr. Martin Engle. A scene right before their first sexual encounter illustrates the strained, ambivalent nature of their relationship:
He always worked in the room while she was there, sometimes on his poetry (by hand on legal pads), sometimes on his scholarly manuscript (on the typewriter), sometimes, it seemed, just fussing with the papers she'd done or some other odds and ends. She would work in the big chair, watching him surreptitiously when she was supposed to be concentrating on the papers. Sometimes he just pulled dry leaves off his plants or stared out the window. He told her he didn't know how he had ever managed without her. Occasionally she asked him a question about some paper and then he might lean over her to see what she was talking about. Once in the spring she looked up as he was doing that and he kissed her mouth. Then he walked away. The next time she asked him a question he stayed in his chair and told her to read it aloud to him. (60)
echoes Fear of Flying
in that it includes scenes of sex in which one or both people are uncomfortable, as well as scenes of people who don't entirely like each other having sex. The major sex scene between Theresa and Martin (which I will not include here because it's so painfully mechanical) is an example of the former; the relationship Theresa later develops with James is a prime example of the latter.
James Morrisey is a trial lawyer whom Theresa meets just before getting involved with a heroin-addicted mechanic named Tony. He is the only man introduced in the book who does not try to manipulate Theresa in some way. But she is more put off than endeared by his kindness, and rather than getting to know him, she uses him to boost her ego.
She went out with him six times before he kissed her goodnight. She became almost eager for him to do it, not because she wanted to kiss him but to get it over with. His kiss was light on her lips, as she would have expected. She was unmoved by it. As she would have expected.
She smiled naughtily. "Now you're not a virgin any more."
"Ah, Theresa," he said. "You're so cruel to me. Why?"
Because you like me too much, was what came into her head. But of course that was ridiculous. It wasn't that simple. (179)
After forcing herself to socialize with James for a while, Theresa begins to wish heartily that she were attracted to him. Finally, she throws in the towel and decides to sleep with him, but the experience is no less painful than it was for her with Martin. This time it is not because she feels unloved, but because she feels loved and doesn't know how to deal with it.
But Theresa's troubles with sex don't stop there. Her relationship with Tony is also problematic. The only sex scenes in Goodbar
that even approach eroticism are those in which Theresa and Tony make love, or, as she says, "...fucking, she should call it, since it was hard to see how anything she did with him could be about love" (167). She and Tony play roles for each other. He is tough because she likes it when men are tough; when he sees that she's unhappy, he becomes sensitive, but only until he sees that the disaster has been averted. Sex is the couple's solution for everything, and it doesn't work very well.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
sold copies because a lot of people enjoy reading books with lots of sex in them. But sex is more than a source of voyeurism in Goodbar
: the fact that Theresa has such various problems with it leads some readers to identify with her. Maribel Vega says in her Amazon.com review, "I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading about the inner turmoil women face when confronted with situations where their sexuality faces off with their morality." In another Amazon.com review, B. Scarpone explains, albeit ungrammatically, "This book gets to a matter that is very seldom explored by the people reading it?their own deep dark insecurities." Certainly, these are not the only readers who are attracted to Goodbar
because it encourages them to think about their attitudes about sex and intimacy. How to Save Your Own Life
and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
bring up many of the same questions. Unlike bodice-ripping romance novels, these books deal with both the up and down sides of sex. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
is a classic example of this genre.
Not only does Looking for Mr. Goodbar
fit comfortably into this subgroup of fiction bestsellers, it was published at a time when many nonfiction bestsellers were also focusing on sex. Three sex-related nonfiction books made it onto the annual bestseller lists in the 1960s: Sex and the Single Girl,
written by former Cosmopolitan
editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown; Human Sexual Response,
by the legendary Masters and Johnson; and Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual.
Of the three, only Human Sexual Response
is in print as of May 2000.
By contrast, seven sex-related books were annual bestsellers in the 1970s, all of them between 1970 and 1976. They are as follows:
- Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, by David Reuben, M.D. #1 in 1970.
- The Sensuous Woman, by "J." #3 in 1970.
- The Sensuous Man, by "M." #1 in 1971.
- Open Marriage, by Nena and George O'Neill. #3 in 1972.
- The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort. #4 in 1973.
- More Joy: A Lovemaking Companion to The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort. #4 in 1974.
- The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, by Shere Hite. #9 in 1976.
Of these seven, all but the last are in print as of May 2000. From this information alone, it would be easy to argue that since the 1970s are more recent than the 1960s, it is more likely for books from that decade to be in print in 2000. However, inspection of the bestseller lists from the 1980s show not a single sex-related nonfiction book on the annual bestseller list. In fact, none are on the list after 1976. The fact that not only did the 70s produce more non-fiction bestsellers than either the 60s or the 80s, but nearly all of them are in print more than 20 years later, suggests that these books attained "classic" status. So Looking for Mr. Goodbar
, which was published in 1975, was released into an ideal literary environment.
Rarely does a single attribute of a book propel it onto the bestseller lists. While many bestsellers are controversial, many controversial books alienate potential readers before they ever pick the books up off the shelf. Many bestsellers are based on true stories, but countless novelizations of real-life events never hit the shelves of major bookstores, let alone the bestseller lists. Because it combines sensationalistic cover art with graphic sex scenes, and because it was published at a time when audiences were clearly looking for such books, Looking for Mr. Goodbar
provides a powerful example of what can happen when several factors come together to produce a bestseller.
Bass, Elizabeth. Database entry on Disclosure,
by Michael Crichton.
Books In Print.
Chen, Su-Hou. Database entry on K is for Killer,
by Sue Grafton.
Cymes, Alina. Database entry on Naked Came the Stranger,
by Penelope Ashe.
Goudar, Ranjit. Database entry on Fatal Cure,
by Robin Cook.
Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying.
New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.
Lewis, Scott. Database entry on Jaws,
by Peter Benchley.
Lists of annual bestsellers for the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. http://www.engl.virginia.edu/courses/bestsellers/best60.html
, and http://www.engl.virginia.edu/courses/bestsellers/best80.html
Luckey, J.C. Database entry on To Kill a Mockingbird,
by Harper Lee.
Maloney, Joseph. Database entry on You Only Live Twice,
by Ian Fleming.
Romano, Christina. Database entry on Delta of Venus: Erotica,
by Anaïs Nin.
Scarpone, B. "Touches a Reality That Most of Us Don't Want to Face." http://www.amazon.com
, as of 5/1/00.
Schroeder, Heidi. Database entry on How to Save Your Own Life,
by Erica Jong.
Sutton, Brian. Database entry on The Deep,
by Peter Benchley.
Vega, Maribel. "A Penetrating Glance Into the Psyche of a Fallen Woman." http://www.amazon.com
, as of 5/1/00.