If you want to see how American society has changed in the 21st century, you need only to read Politically Correct Holiday Stories for an Enlightened Yuletide Season.
James Finn Garner’s slender bestseller updates classic Christmas tales for 1995 politically with-it readers, replacing terms that reinforce demeaning societal stereotypes with others deemed not sexist, ageist, racist, nationalist, or any other otherwise offensive-ist:
‘Twas the Night before Christmas becomes “‘Twas the Night before Solstice.” Frosty the Snowman becomes “Frosty the Persun of Snow.”
The story of a flying, horned quadruped becomes “Rudolph the Nasally Empowered Reindeer.”
The Nutcracker and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol retrain their titles, but get internal makeovers for the politically enlightened ‘90s.
Readers in 2020 will find Garner’s little book as quaint as Scrooge’s nightcap. America dumped political correctness when it emptied its Y2K jugs of stored water.
Today in America it’s no longer politically correct, let alone socially correct, to attempt to avoid offending people unnecessarily. In 2020, vicious verbal attacks on anyone with whom one disagrees are considered normal.
Today’s readers won’t get it when Garner’s Santa says, “Happy Christmas to all, but get over yourselves!!”
America can no longer laugh at itself, and that’s a serious problem.
James Finn Garner rewrote 13 classic fairy tales to replace any language that would offend the sensibilities of “Politically Correct” 1990s readers with language that will make ordinary folks laugh out loud.
Thus in Politically Correct Bedtime Stories:
Little Red Riding Hood becomes “a young person.”
The Emperor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is not naked but merely “endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle.”
The Little in Chicken Little’s name is a family name rather than a “size-based nickname,” and
Cinderella is put on the road to romance by an individual calling himself her “fairy godperson, or individual deity proxy.”
Garner’s long-distance nod to the historic origins of the tales is marked by a decorative capital letter, drawn by Lisa Amoroso to illustrate the story, and placed as the first letter of each story in the best tradition of early manuscripts.
Despite its extremely short length—79 pages—Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is not a work to be read in one sitting. To appreciate Garner’s humor, without being overwhelmed by the silliness, it’s best to read the stories one a night for 13 nights before bedtime.
Garner’s book was a flash-in-a-pan bestseller, ideally suited to the time in which it first appeared, but almost lusterless today when people seem unable to laugh at absurdities uttered by public figures.
The dead man whose funeral is the social event that kicks of the novel is a rich, ruthless Hollywood producer. Mourners come to impress other mourners—no one had any respects to pay— and to see if there’s any way they can profit from Harry Bell’s death.
Davis’s “beautiful people” are losers with more money than brains and more ego than money.
The novel has a huge cast of characters playing unmemorable roles badly. There’s a lot of sex, little plot, and nothing that is either worth remembering or memorable.
The Pretendersis the only one of the nearly 70 years of bestsellers I read for this blog that I wasn’t able to finish. I gave up somewhere around page 200, and I refuse to try again.
John Ashley Nail read the entire book and has intelligent comments about it on Amazon.
Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Human Opportunity Commissioner for New York City, is a psychological mess, and it’s all his parent’s fault.
At least that’s what he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in Philip Roth’s aptly named Portnoy’s Complaint.
Alex suffers from stereotypes.
He’s the brilliant and personable only son of a New Jersey Jewish couple. Alex’s eighth-grade educated father slaves for a Protestant insurance company, selling life insurance in the black slums. His mother cooks, cleans, kvetches.
Alex grew up being alternately praised to the hilt and told he was a disgrace to his family.
At 33 he’s still unmarried. His professional life is devoted to doing good for others.
His nonprofessional life is devoted to activities discussed primarily in four-letter words.
Alex’s monologue mixes exaggeration with self-deprecation. His occasional flashes of insight are masked with jokes.
He tells his shrink, “I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public.”
Roth’s novel is genuinely funny, but as he lets Alex makes readers laugh, he makes them see how emotionally frail Alex is.
Roth’s technical skill and his humanity — plus the final punch line — combine to produce a hopeful portrait of a damaged man.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Random House, 1969. 274 p. 1969 bestseller #1 My grade: A
Eponymous Myra Breckrenridge is as repellent a character as you’d ever not want to meet.
And she’s absolutely fascinating.
Gore Vidal presents Myra’s story as her confidences in her diary, written as therapy on the urging of her dentist and analyst, Randolph.
Myra is in Hollywood to attempt to get money she believes owed to her by Buck Loner, her late husband Myron’s uncle. Buck had built a flourishing acting school on land willed jointly to him and his late sister, Myron’s mother.
Buck says he’ll get his lawyer on it; meanwhile, he invites Myra to join his faculty to teach courses in Empathy and Posture.
Myra and Buck set out to swindle each other without dropping the pose of family bonding.
For 20 of her 27 years, Myra in imagination cast herself as a the female lead in films she saw while growing up. But Myra doesn’t want the subservient roles: Myra hates men, and she’s determined to dominate them.
Despite his heavy hand with satire, Vidal makes the transgender Myra believable and human.
I didn’t like Myra the person or Myra the novel, but I felt I did something necessary and respectful just by exposing myself to Myra’s perspective.
Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown,  264 p.
1968 bestseller #7. My grade: A-.
Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.
By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.
Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.
On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.
Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.
There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.
Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.
The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.
The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.
I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”
Chucking the workaday world for tropical beaches is a paradise most of us only dream about.
Norman Paperman tries it—and his inventor, novelist Herman Wouk, tells the tale.
Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk
Doubleday, 1965. 395 pages. 1965 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.
Norm is bored with his work as Broadway publicity agent when a mild heart attack signals he needs a change of pace.
With encouragement from millionaire Lester Atlas, a hard-drinking slob he can’t stand, Norm buys the Gull Reef Club on the island of Amerigo, which Lester assures him will be a gold mine.
Lester gets the gold and Norm gets to do the heavy digging.
Norm knows nothing of the hospitality business.
He’s unprepared for the loonies and eccentrics on whom he must rely to make the hotel run.
In addition, he finds certain aspects of life in the West Indies—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, lack of drinking water—too far off Broadway for his liking.
Norm finally learns to put his managerial skills to work in the strange surroundings. He’s on the verge of a success of the hotel when a series of tragic accidents produce a shocking ending that upon closer examination appears entirely reasonable.
Wouk makes the boisterous story laugh-out-loud funny, but the guffaws cover some serious growing-up for the middle-aged non-hero.
According to notes in the Book-of-the-Month Club’s edition of Candy, Terry Southern in his pitch to his novel’s eventual publisher said, “Candy satirizes American culture.”
He might more accurately have written, “Candy satryizes American culture.”
BOMC says the novel is “a lusty romp” — I’ll accept it’s lusty — “centered around the impossibly sweet Candy Christian.”
Candy, a luscious university sophomore, is every parent’s definition of impossible, but she’s not sweet. She’s just dumb.“Good grief” is Candy’s favorite line, which shows her intellectual and emotional range.
Candy spends her days Thinking Deep Thoughts about How Best to Serve Mankind and usually ends up merely servicing men.
She isn’t particularly choosy about the men.
Southern ran into problems finishing the story, so he called in Mason Hoffenberg to help. Together they managed to get the thing stopped, but the damage was already done.
The fact that my regional library system had culled all its copies of the 1964 bestseller is indicative of how little merit the novel had.
I rarely throw out a book, but Candy is going in the trash. It isn’t worth the 99¢ I paid for it.
By Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
Book-of-the-Month Club edition, 1994
1964 bestseller #2
George F. Babbitt, 46 has vague yearning for something other than being making money, but he’s not sure what it is. In college, he had dreams of being a lawyer and doing battle for truth and justice. He settled for “selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”
He is bored with his wife and baffled by his children. Immersed in business deals, civic clubs and community boosterism, he usually manages to insulate himself from feeling or thinking.
When his pal Paul Riesling shoots his wife and lands in jail, Babbitt falls apart. Paul was Babbitt’s only link to his youthful ideals. Babbitt takes a mistress, drinks too much, offends his fellow businessmen.
His wife’s need for emergency surgery brings Babbitt back to himself.
Sinclair Lewis skewers Babbitt’s materialism, his ignorance, his self-delusion. Sadly, every character in the novel is the mental and moral equivalent of Babbitt. Babbitt’s son may wish to do great things, but nothing in the novel suggests anyone ever lives up to their ideals.
Lewis is funny in small doses but after by the half-way point his satire becomes depressing. If America in 1920 had been as bad as Lewis suggests nobody would have purchased this novel, let alone made it a best seller.