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August 20, 2005

Taking Jackie Collins Seriously

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just finished reading a novel by the mistress-of-trash novelist Jackie Collins. I enjoyed it. It's the second Jackie Collins novel that I've read. I enjoyed the first one too.

Collins -- who is in her 60s and is based in Los Angeles -- has been pumping out glitzy fiction since 1968. She was born in England, and is the sister of glamor-queen actress Joan Collins -- who, amusingly, starred in movie adaptations of Jackie's early hits "The Bitch" and "The Stud." (Joan is a trash novelist in her own right -- nope, I haven't read her oeuvre. But recently she has also been writing columns for London's Spectator -- they can be found here. I think they're pretty entertaining.)

The maestra

Needless to say, Jackie Collins' work is considered beyond the pale by most lovers of literary fiction. I know lots of lit-fiction buffs, for instance, who have never read a word of her, who know of her only to laugh at her, and to whom it would never occur to give her books a try.

It's easy to see why. Her novels are sensationalistic, tacky, and outrageous. Her writing has a lot of crude drive, and not a lot of patience for the niceties of literary finesse. Sensitive, quivering-flower stuff it ain't; it isn't a carnival of sophisticated intellectuality either. Instead, it's extraverted, opportunistic, and dynamic.

I'm not going to quarrel with the lit set; people can read to please themselves, of course. And, after all, what would be the point of feeling sorry for Jackie Collins? She has had more than 20 bestsellers, many of which have sold to movies and television; she's said to have sold more than 400 million copies of her books. One estimate puts her net worth at over a hundred million dollars. Jackie Collins could buy out the entire literary world and not notice a dent in her Beverly Hills checking account.

Still, I'm puzzled by a few things.

One is: Why aren't more lit-fiction types curious about non-literary kinds of fiction? I know a lot of lit-fict addicts, for instance, who sneer at popular fiction without ever having read any. Sneering at what you don't know seems like bad form. (I've had a couple of chances to witness what happens when a literary type is forced to read some popular fiction. Usually the sequence of reactions goes this way: horror, depression, reconsideration, and finally, "You know, it isn't Shakespeare, but there's real talent here, if of a beneath-the-likes-of-me sort!") Life may be short. But it isn't as though there's so immensely much unmissable contempo lit fiction around that you can't take a few breaks from it to explore the larger reading-and-writing world.

Another puzzler: Why are many people's attitudes towards popular fiction different than their attitudes towards the popular arts in other fields? By now, most sophisticated and educated people can see virtues in rock and roll; in sitcoms; in action-adventure movies; and in barbecued ribs, ice cream, and corn on the cob. Yet where fiction-books are concerned ... Well, if these people are caught reading a blockbuster, they laugh, they apologize. They want you to know they're slumming; they really do know better. Really what they care about is the serious and good stuff.

Why the apologies? Popular fiction is to written-fiction generally what the blues are to music generally: the basics. Why laugh at the basics? Popular fiction may only occasionally deliver sophisticated pleasures. But it has its own important virtues. When it's good -- and in popular fiction, "good" means "it works" -- popular fiction delivers the material most people have always read fiction for: hook, plot, situations, sex, suspense, and characters who are unapologetically who they are -- who have guts, and real goals in mind.

If popular fiction doesn't deliver on this level, then it doesn't work at all. (One exception: John Grisham, whose popularity mystifies me completely. He's a huge popular hit, yet as far as I can tell he's completely incompetent as a popular novelist.) The usual from-inside argument that gets made is that literature is what keeps the art of fiction alive. I think that's 180 degrees from the truth. As far as I can tell, it's the popular work that's central and basic to fiction, and to fiction's well-being. Literary fiction -- at least in the sense we know it today -- is parasitical.

Between you and me, I often find the popular-fiction game to be a more demanding one than the lit-fiction game. Popular-fiction authors are out-there and exposed in ways lit-fict authors aren't. If a popular-fiction novel's hook doesn't grab the audience, if the characters don't resonate, if the audience can see your plot turns ahead of time, then the author has lost. That's all there is to it.

You can't pretend to be above these considerations; your audience will turn on you if you carry on in such a way. And if you fail, there's no way to pretend that you're unjustly unappreciated, or that you've got something ineffable and fancy going on that the masses are too crude to comprehend. There's no way to get away with egotistic crap, or to find refuge from the filthy hordes in some college's creative-writing program. Your fiction either works for its audience, or it's a bust.

I sometimes wish I had a magic wand to wave so I could bring a bit more sense to the writing-reading-and-publishing world. There are two main things I'd love to make magically happen. The first would be to force everyone who's interested in books to attend a couple of Book Expos -- the trade's big annual get-together. I don't know of any more efficient way of knocking the silliness out of the dreamily book-besotted.

I'd also force all lit-types to read a dozen examples of popular fiction. Too many of them have zero respect for it. Oh, a few examples of popular fiction have by now made it onto the radar screens of the lit-fiction set: Hammett and Chandler, for instance, are in the Library of America. And the LoA has also published a couple of compilations of noir novels. (Here's an Amazon Listmania list of crime fiction in LoA editions.)

But it's hilarious to see what the educated and the lit-centric make of the popular fiction they've learned to spend a little time on. They "appreciate" it; they savor its literary virtues. Basically, they connoisseur it to death.

This strikes me as missing the point entirely. It's like appreciating Elvis Presley or Muddy Waters in the terms that are appropriate to Pierre Boulez. Boulez opens your brain and elevates your soul in Euro-transcendent ways. (I'm a bit of a Boulez buff, in fact. I revere his conducting and even love some of his own hyper-difficult compositions.) Elvis and Muddy get at very different things than Boulez does -- Elvis makes you feel all shook up, while Muddy gets your mojo working. After a Boulez concert, I'm marveling contemplatively at the mystery of mortality. After an evening of hot r&b, I'm shaking off sweat, enjoying a gut-full of cheap hooch and fried food, and doing a dirty rumba with my sweetie. (Well, ideally.) All these are fine experiences. But they're also different kinds of pleasure.

It isn't that "Mildred Pierce" and "The Maltese Falcon" aren't technical wonders. As far as I'm concerned, they're works of genius on the craft level, and all fiction writers would do themselves a favor to study these novels closely. Learn to tell a story, dammit! It ain't easy! But it's a different kind of craft than contempo-lit craft. It's more analogous to the craft of the bassist in an r&b band than it is to the craft of string-quartet member. It's craft in the service of a different kind of experience: gritty, funky, messy, lowdown -- "dirty" in a juicy and grownup sense. Keep that spicey gumbo on the boil, baby!

Hey, a propos of not a lot, check out these lyrics from a sizzlin' CD I'm currently enjoying -- Guitar Shorty's "Watch Your Back." Lowdown, to the point, a little scary, and set to growly funkiness that dares you not to get up and dance:

What she don't know
Can't hurt me.
What she suspects
Is another thing still.
What she don't know
Can't hurt me.
What she finds out
Could get me killed.

Anyway, popular fiction is fiction that doesn't hit you primarily through the intellect, or through the finer taste-centers. It's more direct than that. It hits you through your funny bone, or it goes via your interest-in-gossip circuits, or it travels directly to the pelvis. The characters have to have oomph and drive. The sex better be sweaty and/or funny. The predicaments and relationships need to be piquant and/or full-blooded. The suspense has to make your heart race, or at least genuinely engage you. (In the case of a Wodehouse or an Agatha Christie -- popular-fiction geniuses both -- the craft is in the wit, the plotting, the specifying of characters and types, and in the engineering of surprises.)

Impressive stuff, in any case: There's much that's important in a fiction sense -- in any fiction sense -- to be learned and enjoyed there. So why aren't the lit people more curious about it?

Another question about the popular-fiction thing: Why has the lit set made so little of the popular-fiction-writing women? God knows that I'm anything but a conventional feminist. But this seems like an absurd oversight. Are the pioneers and talents in what are generally thought of as the popular feminine genres -- Gothic, romance, shopping-and-fucking, soap opera, glitz, sexy vampires, romantic comedy, etc -- less deserving of recognition than the dudes who established and flourished in hardboiled and noir? Why should this be so?

Besides, it's one of those open secrets that -- just as more women than men tend to be gifted and natural actors -- more women than men have the fiction-writing gene. They move into other people more easily and imaginatively than men do. And they're better at inhabiting make-believe characters and situations.

I'm anything but a scholar of feminine popular fiction. But I know a bit about publishing and about publishing history, and I've read a few examples of each of the above genres. Heck, I dig chicks, and I'm curious about fiction. I even tried a couple of times to write a romance novel -- didn't have what it takes. Sigh: There's nothing like trying an activity for yourself and failing to learn respect for those who can do it.

FWIW, I suspect that Jackie Collins is one of these under-recognized female popular-fiction giants. Her angle is generally Hollywood-glitz; in the couple of novels of hers that I've read, she jazzes up the soap opera, gossip, money, and sex with crime and suspense.

To a large extent, she's peddling fantasy, god knows. Yet why shouldn't that be seen as a fun thing? As youngsters, The Wife and I were both fond of hotsy blockbuster fiction -- the Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins tales of sex and ambition. What's become of them, by the way? Has the genre been completely absorbed by television? Since I use the TV only for DVDs and documentaries, I wouldn't know. But there aren't many such books around these days.

Too bad: what a great, sleazy genre it was. These books can be frighteningly arousing: unprincipled, full of greed and lust, garish. They can leave you a little breathless and wondering, Why can't life itself be an overripe, gaudy adventure? Hey, some fun movies based on this kind of fiction: "The Other Side of Midnight," "The Betsy," "Chanel Solitaire," "Valley of the Dolls." There aren't a lot of good ones, which suggests that they're hard to do.

Part of the pleasure of reading Jackie Collins is camp, of course. Would you want a Jackie Collins novel not to make you gasp, and feel appalled, amazed, and delighted? To some extent, Jackie Collins is the novelist as dragon lady/diva -- she's nothing if not an outrageous chick-with-a-dick. In one interview, she said, "I love Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker and Laurence Shames. I like fast, male fiction. Many people say I write like a man; I write about direct, honest relationships."

Yet her novels have a lot of non-camp virtues too. Let me list a few:

  • She's shrewd about people, showbiz, and money. You know those moments when two women are talking, and there's a break, and then they shift to another plane, and they're really into it? They aren't quarreling; they've started to dig into someone's relationship, or into one of their friends. Usually this moment is kicked off with a comment like, "Well, Ellen's great of course, but ..." And then they giggle, and they're off, yanking the whole mess apart with cut-throat perceptiveness. (Guys at such moments usually feel a sudden need to check out what's on cable.) Well, Jackie Collins has that kind of ruthless canniness about people and their motivations. In her universe, people are always up to something -- and it's often some kind of no-good.

  • The plotting in her books is more than serviceable. The parallel stories that she deploys in the book I just finished aren't of immense interest in their own right. But they serve a variety of functions well. They keep you moving through the world that's on display, and they give the characters a lot of high-pressure conundra to attend to.

  • The fictional world Jackie Collins presents -- which is the main reason to read her books at all -- is convincing. FWIW, I've spent five minutes on the outskirts of showbiz and a few seconds on the outskirts of big-money society. (Glimpses, nothing but glimpses.) And, while Collins certainly caters to the reader's trash fantasies, she also portrays these worlds pretty accurately. She captures the viciousness and the spoiled self-entitlement, as well as the fact that the people in these worlds are still people. One for-instance: she's smart about how movies come about. She's familiar with (and she doesn't lie about) the crazy-making combo of money, ego, favors owed, talent, luck, drive, and coincidence that big-budget moviemaking generally arises from.

  • Her characters have a lot of juice. God knows we aren't talking Tolstoy here. But Jackie Collins doesn't deliver some anorectic-yet-overwritten piece of droopy lit-fiction either. Her characters are recognizable -- you feel you know these people, if partly from gossip rags and other trash fiction. Yet they also have their own motors. They do that thing memorable fictional characters do of getting up on their feet and walking around on their own. They want things, and they take themselves places. I don't consider this a minor writing achievement, by the way. In my own fiction-writing attempts, for instance, I discovered that one of my many major authorial failings is that I don't know how to bring characters to life. How do some authors create characters who live and breathe anyway?

  • Jackie Collins has a true fiction-making drive. I'm not convinced that many authors do. An author might well write a novel without it; he or she might rely instead on ego, or on sheer determination and will. Reading a novel, I often find myself thinking that the author would have been happier, and would have worked more naturally, if he or she had written an essay, a poem, or a blog posting. This isn't surprising. How many people are genuinely inspired story-tellers? I've known people who are gifted jokesters, interviewers, performance artists, observers, mimics, and analyzers. But I've known very few really gifted storytellers. And the people with both the story-telling gene and the drive to put those stories in some kind of on-the-page form have been doubly rare. FWIW, in my experience the driven storytellers genuinely have to tell stories, and put stories up on their feet. Otherwise, they're like actors without roles; they go a little crazy.

  • Jackie Collins knows how to hit women's pleasure-buttons. The power of women's preferences are one of the under-recognized marvels of the reading-and-writing world. Incapable though they often seem to be of explaining what they're looking for, most women really, really know what pleases them. They also really, really know when a book misses its target. (Check out the Amazon reader reviews of romances and of erotica for overwhelming proof of this.) When they aren't allowing lofty lit-things be put over on them, women are picky and precise about what they love. Hey, guys: doesn't this remind you of what women are like where sex and food are concerned? They usually aren't exactly sure what they're looking for, but they know exactly what's working and what isn't. Well, Jackie Collins has great instincts for where these female pleasure-buttons are located. The situations she dreams up are ones that make women lean in close, pay attention, and start to cluck and make faces. Her books seem to make women as happy as gabbing about the latest showbiz gossip does. Is Angelina really that crazy about Brad? Once again, these are the moments when guys remember that there's something pressing to watch on cable.

  • She's smart, funny and witty, and in a hard-hitting but companionable way. Dig these great trash-book titles, for instance: "The World is Full of Married Men." "The Bitch." "Hollywood Wives." Could you do as well? Could John Updike? There's a surprising amount of nicely-judged satire and irony in her books, at least the ones I've read. Jackie Collins never commits the sin of being over-knowing, or of cocking an eyebrow too high. Years ago I read a couple of novels by another British glitz-novelist, Pat Booth. I thought they were snappy and enjoyable, and the publisher gave Booth a big push. But the books failed to have anything like the commercial impact in the U.S. that they were expected to have. I suspect it's because they were too ironic, and too verbally glib. American women want you to mean what you're saying. Jackie Collins has the confidence, skill, and talent to mean it, even as she shocks, titillates, and makes you giggle.

  • She's both shameless and generous. Some of the lofty writers take pride in how hard they are on themselves and on their own words. (I've always been puzzled by this stance: What's the point of it? Why brag about being unpleasant, hostile, judgmental, and uptight?) Jackie Collins is nothing if not a hard worker, but she gets off on the entertainment-exchange with her readers. She's here to please; no critical supergo interferes in her work. Whatever's going on in the way of judgment has to do with whether or not her tale and her characters are working for her readers.

Jackie Collins supplies a lot of glitzy/trashy camp pleasures as well as a decent amount of genuine fiction-substance. She does so in a canny, accessible, and eager-to-please way -- and there's juice, drive, lust, care, and talent in how she delivers the goods. What's not to enjoy? What's not to learn from? And what's not to celebrate?

Here's Jackie Collins' website. Here's an amusing interview with her. Here's an Amazon Listmania list by a Jackie Collins fan who has read a lot more Jackie Collins than I have. Here's another.



posted by Michael at August 20, 2005


Wow, people form cliques, and appreciation across genres is rare. Sumofagum. I hear the emo crowd doesn't care for death-metal, and abstract expressionists have contempt for Kinkade.

The lit-crit crowd holds some kind of illusion of progress I suppose. I keep visiting the valve, but I can't figure them out. We can also develop habits of reading, modes, that are hard to suspend.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 20, 2005 5:40 PM

The key word is: suffering. Lit-buffs can't take seriously a work of fiction that lacks suffering. There's lots of struggle in a Jackie Collins novel, but practically none of the navel-gazing-self-doubting-self-loathing-suffering that the literati associate with the higher consciousness.
Jackie Collin's people know who they are and what they want: it's all about making it: it's all about action -- not internality. That's what earns the eggheads' disdain (and maybe their envy?).

Posted by: ricpic on August 20, 2005 9:06 PM

As far as I'm concerned, the DaVinci Code is the mirror image of a Jackie Collins book - a crappy novel that pretends to be intellectual ("read this and you'll get real smart!") I find that sort of pretentiousness quite off-putting.

Posted by: Peter on August 20, 2005 10:55 PM

Good lord, that was a long post. But I have to say it made me lose some faith in your taste. The difference between the American blues/jazz/rock tradition and popular fiction is this: popular fiction basically sucks, the best of the American pop music tradition is great art. It's not that difficult really. I would bet good money that people will still be listening to Billie Holiday and Motown in a hundred years. But John Grisham will be unreadable in a hundred years. Ray Charles conveys real, deep, authentic emotion, he's genuinely affecting. Grisham is good enough at plots to be *entertaining*, but his characters are flimsy and fundamentally inhuman in their lack of depth and emotion. There's nothing there to evoke deep emotion, it's just a pastime. There is a difference between pure entertainment and art. I mean, are you going to slide over the edge and become a pure relativist about artistic quality?

And the literary world does generally acknowledge the pop writers who get anywhere close to real art. Look at how they have bent over backwards to honor Stephen King, who has plenty of problems as an author but is miles better than Grisham or Collins.

Posted by: MQ on August 21, 2005 3:34 AM

Just to be clear: art ought to be entertaining. When the modernist tradition lost sight of this serious problems developed. But that doesn't mean everything that is entertaining is art.

Posted by: MQ on August 21, 2005 3:35 AM

I'm not so crazy about Ms Collins as Michael is - but she did write the greatest lesbian scene ever. I can't remember the book, but it was two ladies who'd never done it before, and it comprised four sentences:

"Soft breasts. Hard nipples. Warm thighs. Milky wetness".

Posted by: Peter Briffa on August 21, 2005 5:19 AM

Well, Michael, quite a few words to justify reading such stuff. My take is:

Life's too short! There is so much to read, so many virtuosic writers out there I haven't gotten to yet, why while away the hours with sensationalistic crap written so poorly?

Okay, I admit to some likings for certain frankly commercial pop-lit writers, such as Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard. These guys have an unerring ear for dialog and their books aren't long.

A lot of my preferences boil down to chosen subject matter. I have little interest in the characters and milieus Collins describes. Rich-folk decadence in LA? Puh-lease!


Posted by: Larry Ayers on August 21, 2005 8:24 AM

In answer to your general question about the book-besotted's refusal to have "guilty pleasures" or "comfort food" reading - my unfriendly view is that it's too hard (for them) to be sure what's wheat and what's chaff. Seriously. I think it's that simple. Movies and TV shows are clearly labeled - Landmark or Lowes, FOX or HBO, etc.

Disagree with your view of Ms. Collin's literary talents (read several of her books while trapped in aunt's guest room. Your points are correct, yet you fail to mention the painfully wooden, awkward writing. Same lack of simple skill that kept me from slogging through a "Left Below" book.) However, I have no problem reading certain types of book that have nothing to offer in the way of observation or introspection and instead cut straight to a payoff.

Why has the lit set made so little of the popular-fiction-writing women? Again, with the bad attitude: when it's good, it makes people uncomfortable and when it's bad it's horrid.

Fey Weldon and Ann Tyler have the chops for literature. Why are they not A-list? Must be a combination of "men don't want to hear it" and properly feminist women's squeamishness about issues in the domestic sphere.

(Wally Lamb, who I think made such inroads in chick lit partially by being a guy, is horrid beyond belief.) A lot of the texts pressed on my by goonie chick-lit fans is straight-up fantasy, and rather ugly fantasy at that. The basic plot: What if despite all my inherent human flaws (which are revealed for the reader but not acknowledged as either failures or part of this moral coil) and steadfast refusal to treat others with any kind of compassion and respect, I was magically able get to get away with everything! And have a hunk boyfriend with money and a PhD because that's not lookism or elitist in any way!! In my heart of hearts I know that I am secretly better than everyone!!! Which my lame jokes purporting low self-esteem are sooooo funny!!!!

On good days, I like to think that text can be high-brow for, for instance Larry David, while no female has really hit the big leagues because women, as a group, have better sense than men. The truth is probably just the patriarchy again.

However, the qualities you list for Jackie, such as shameless and generous, strike me as simply professional. I am, every and always, very much for that.

But Larry - I am curious about your subject matter remarks. I can only hope that you are not one of the people who bashed Bush for not having traveled in Europe. Rich-folk decadence in LA is not all that intersting to me, and neither is NASCA, but as so many of my fellows are thrilled by these things, I thought it worthwhile to check 'em out.

Posted by: j.c. on August 21, 2005 1:25 PM

Bob -- I've tried The Valve too, and have given up on it. Nice guys, probably, and obviously very bright. But the academic discussion of literature strikes me (99.9% of the time, anyway) as pointless -- as having nothing to do with the way fiction is created or enjoyed. I guess I've lost all interest in professorial wheel-spinning ... Are there yakkers-about-books whose work you do enjoy these days?

Ricpic -- You've said so much more in a few words than I did in a zillion that I'm feeling even more oafish than usual.

Peter -- I confess I haven't followed the whole "Da Vinci Code" thing. Even if the book stinks, is it an entertaining phenomenon to think about? I find Grisham entertaining to think about, for instance. Terrible writer, as far as I'm concerned ... So what does the American public respond to in his work? I don't come up with anything very interesting, but I do enjoy puzzling over it. How do you explain the impact the "Da Vinci Code" has had? Any hunches?

MQ -- I'm surprised you ever had any respect for my taste! I'm surprised, in any case, at your dismissal of American popular-fiction writing. Have you read much of it? I find that people who are attached to the Sunday Times account of current fiction often haven't explored the popular-fiction world much. But just to list a few post-WWII American non-literary authors whose work I like and admire ... Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, Robert ("Psycho") Bloch, Charles Willeford, Elizabeth George, David Goodis, Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, Kenneth Fearing, Laura Lipmann, Cornell Woolrich, Tony Hillerman, Jack Kelly, Dan Simmons, Robert Crais, Chester Himes, Peter Rabe, Mickey Spillane, Charles Williams, Margaret Millar, Robert Parker, Patricia Highsmith, Joe Landsdale, John Lutz, Jim Thompson, Ed McBain ...

They're all (IMHO, of course) very good, at the least. And that's just from the one of the genres. I assume that someone who knows horror, for instance, could come up with a similar list. With just a couple of exceptions, I'd never have learned about these writers from the usual lit-world accounts of "who's important and who's good." Yet I've found most of the above writers much, much more rewarding to read and explore than I have the writers and books the litworld does value and present as important.

The "relativism" thing is an interesting one. I find that many people worry about it, though I'm not sure why. It's a simple fact that no one knows which of our present-day fiction-writers are going to be seen as important in 50 years, or in 500 years -- no one can see into the future. (My own bet is that the reading of straight-through-it-all-prose-fiction is soon to become a very minor and specialized activity ...) Anyone who pretends to know which of our cultural works future generations will value most is full of it. Future generations will decide on their canon (or canons) for themselves, or they won't, and then some future-future generation will change its mind anyway, and so on. Some patterns and conclusions may arise out of all this, or may not. That's a simple fact. How we respond to this fact is up to us. Some people seem to need to think that we can settle out the "is it great or not" question on some objective basis here and now. That's OK. They're wrong -- take a look at any books section from 20 or 30 years ago and you'll be amazed how irrelevant most of the books trumpeted as important in them seem now. But it's OK -- people have their needs. My own response to the fact that we can't control the future is: Why stress about the question? Why not read for your own reasons instead -- in my case, pleasure and curiosity, but those don't have to be your motors -- and let the future take care of itself? That's got nothing to do with relativism, by the way. It's a way of letting judgment take care of itself.

Small historical note: Stephen King didn't get recognized by the Sunday-Times/NYer world because he's just so darned good, he got recognized because 1) he's so phenomenally successful and important, but also (and much more importantly) 2) he campaigned for that recognition. He had access to the press, he complained about not getting recognition, he volunteered for positions on boards and panels, he was generous in giving quotes and blurbs. I mean, god bless him for it. But it wasn't at all a matter of the profs and the critics puffing their pipes and deciding unprompted that, well, after all, we really ought to give this deserving soul a trophy. For one thing, I suspect that, so far as the lit class goes, most of them haven't read any contempo horror writers but King -- so how would they even know whether he's any better than any other horror novelist? They took note because he (and his success) made it impossible for them not to take note. A few of them finally read a bit of King, said, "Hey, y'know, this guy has his talents, and gosheroonie but he's been an important figure, and wowee, but it turns out he's pretty smart and funny ... Whaddya say we acknowledge that he's out there?"

Peter -- I'm impressed that you've given Jackie a try, but even more impressed that you have that scene committed to memory! It's a good one.

Larry -- So, as far as books go, you read only tiptop stuff? If so, congrats. You're a rare creature, though. I usually find that many people who are attached to the idea of reading only the best in fact have many other sides to their reading (and good for them). I've got a friend, for instance, who makes a point of keeping up with many of the currently-lauded novels, but who also loves reading celebrity biographies. In fact, she talks much more enthusiastically -- with more gusto and pleasure -- about the celeb bios than she does about the lauded novels, which she seems to approach as a kind of virtuous form of homework. (She tells me there's a terrific bio about Dusty Springfield, and a hard-to-resist one by one of Richard Pryor's ex-wives. I'm eager to find them!) I find the number of people who genuinely do all their book-reading out of a quest for literary excellence to be vanishingly small. It's understandable. I've pretty much given up following the contempo lit world, but there are a lot of classics I haven't gotten around to and would like to. But after a hard day of work, I confess I'm often not in the mood to spend a half-hour with "Pilgrim's Progress." So I often reach for something else -- an easier form of pleasure -- instead. I enjoy taking note and being honest about what these books are, and generally I'm a little more interested in what people actually read and actually enjoy than I am in their feelings about what they ought to read and ought to enjoy (though that's semi-interesting too) ...

J.C. -- Great to see you back! I think you're, as ever, smart and shrewd about whassup with the lit crowd. One thing you learn about them is how very many of them, at the end of the day, don't sit down with the latest lauded novel. Many of them sack out in front of the tube instead, or watch movies. That's partly because they're burned-out in a reading sense by the end of the day. But it's also because -- as far as I can tell, anyway -- many of them come, over time, to take the whole Sunday-Times version of the lit-world with a huge grain of salt. It's a kind of show that the industry puts on for the crowd in the cheap seats, who want to believe that something of immense literary importance is going on week-to-week. Suckers! Which of course doesn't mean that there aren't a striking number of good books being published. In my experience, there are (though they often show up in surprising forms - YA novels, DK visual reference books, etc.) It's just that there aren't many great books. Which shouldn't be a surprise, of course. But I think the whole question of getting people to be a little more honest about what their real pleasures are (as opposed to what they think they should be enjoying) is an interesting one. I suspect it's often hard with Americans because we're culturally insecure -- we're looking for merit badges to impress ourselves and others with. And it makes us snobbish in surprising ways. Many Americans think of Wodehouse as a brilliant entertainer but balk at the idea that he was a great artist. But many Brits have no trouble with the idea that he was a brilliant entertainer and a great artist. Do you think, by the way, that Fay Weldon and Anne Tyler haven't gotten their due? Seems to me they've done pretty well for themselves. Women seem to do better -- reputation-wise, anyway -- in the literary sphere than they do in the genre sphere. I still haven't figured out why. That's a hilarious evocation of chicklit, btw ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 21, 2005 5:47 PM

Well, actually what I was reacting viscerally was your implicit comparison of someone like Jackie Collins to the American popular blues/jazz/rock tradition. I think that latter musical tradition is going to be remembered as a major contribution to world cultural history, and I feel privileged to have been around for even the tail end. In a way I was on you for precisely something you criticized literary types -- not recognizing true quality simply because something is popular. Both Jackie Collins and the best 20th century American pop were popular, but that's about where the difference ends. I thought your equating the two simply on the basis of their popularity was patronizing to the best pop music. Collins might be entertaining and pretty good, the best pop is great. There's a difference. It's not a difference to "stress about", by the way, just a recognition of the quality and depth of pleasure obtained.

Looking back through your post, I see you explicitly did not include Grisham (who I used as an example of a bad popular writer) as a good writer. Sorry. I've read Collins too, though, and didn't find her that much better than e.g. Sidney Sheldon.

In your list, I don't read many mystery thrillers. But Elmore Leonard is a good writer, certainly. John Le Carre. P.G. Wodehouse is extremely witty, you were smart to pick him up. I think Stephen King will last, he reminds me somewhat of Poe in an odd way. He's a less colorful and more utilitarian writer than Poe, not gothic in the same way, but has a more subtle psychological edge. A lot of these authors have a problem with milking their formula too much, so that they end up with a lot of good, very similar books. Hard to escape the feeling that they could have been somewhat better by writing a little less and revising a bit more.

As for contemporary literary fiction, I have my own list of "literary" books I like a lot, but generally I don't bother with it much. You would not get any argument from me if you argued that, for example, Stephen King's best stuff was much better than "The Corrections" or "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", to name two overrated recent sensations. The very best "literary" books are I would argue significantly better than the best "popular" ones, but misses in the "literary" genre tend to be awful and notably worse than good "popular" stuff. And the great majority of literary works are misses. The peaks are higher in the "literary" world but the average is lower.

Posted by: MQ on August 21, 2005 6:29 PM

Sorry -- I should proofread, third and fourth sentences should be:

"In a way I was on you for something you criticized literary types for -- not recognizing true quality simply because something is popular. Both Jackie Collins and the best 20th century American pop were popular, but that's about where the similarity ends."

Posted by: MQ on August 21, 2005 6:30 PM

I'd say it goes the other way round -- the blues/jazz tradition is the basics, or rather the basis, the foundation, while most of pop/rock is blues/jazz simplified, mixed with "classical" harmony and diluted. Likewise, it's good old literature that left today's hacks a huge toolbox and a hoard of spare parts.

Posted by: Alexei on August 22, 2005 7:48 AM

I've never read any Jackie Collins or even any Sydney Sheldon. My experience with it is solely through a handful of TV movies in the eighties (where or where did Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd---who feasted as the heroines of these stories---go?). Great for all those who enjoyed them, and more power to ya---but I just hated them. To me, there just wasn't anything resonant or admirable or even funny about them. Maybe there are some people who don't like them--not out of snobbery---they just don't like 'em.

Posted by: annette on August 22, 2005 10:33 AM

MQ -- You won't get much argument from me about most of what you're saying! And I'm certainly not arguing that Jackie Collins is Charlie Parker, let alone Shakespeare. I do think, though, that she has some real strengths as a fiction-writer -- many more, in fact, than many celebrated lit writers: imagination, humor, opportunism, the ability to bring characters to life -- that ain't nothing. And I wonder if you aren't being a bit dismissive of the blockbuster tradition. Lots tried to write those books, but only a few connected bigtime with audiences, so I assume it is/was actually a hard thing to do, or at least a rare talent. I'm sorry the genre isn't around much these days, in any case. It provided a lot of people with a lot of pleasure. And that big ol' crass-vulgar-gaudy style had a lot going for it.

Alexei -- That's really well said. And Jackie Collins certainly isn't the equivalent of blues/jazz -- the noir and pulp guys were probably that. She's more like a pop diva. But she isn't without her vitality, earthiness, funkiness and humor -- she isn't Celine Dion, she's Bette Midler. I'm not so sure about your last sentence, though. "Good ol' literature" was often, in its time, what we'd consider hackwork. Defoe's novels, for instance, were the equivalent of The Star, Samuel Richardson was writing romance novels, and Poe was a cheap scare-guy. They became "literature" only in retrospect. Who knows what future generations will decide was really "literature" from our era? Like I say, my bet is that very few people will even be reading long narrative prose fiction in a hundred years.

FWIW, a lot of people enjoy the "ranking" conversations when it comes to books -- what's great, what's literature, what's not, this-is-better-than-that, etc. I think these conversations are fine. People enjoy 'em, helps keep 'em interested in the arts, etc. But I don't have a lot to add to them. What interests me more is the actual experience of actually reading -- what we actually read, why we read what we do read, what we find it like when we do, what we respond to and don't, etc. Jackie Collins surprised me: for what she is and what she does, she's got a lot of strengths. And, hey, how funny to learn (over time) that I have a bit of a taste for this kind of trash fiction.

Any thoughts from anyone about why so many people have different attitudes towards popular fiction than they do towards popular music or movies?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 22, 2005 11:02 AM

Annette -- There is something kind of horrifying about the gaudy-blockbuster stuff, that's for sure. Are you fond of any kinds of popular fiction?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 22, 2005 11:04 AM

MQ -- Billie Holiday is not "popular" music in any meaningful sense of the term.

Posted by: jult52 on August 22, 2005 1:27 PM

Michael: "It's just that there aren't many great books."

I think that greatness is a (nearly) purely personal judgement. A piece that works for me perfectly one day may well not work at all on another day.

On the other hand, I think that "pretty darn goodness" is much more likely to be definable in ways that many will agree with. Things like entertaining plots, believable characters and dialog, and good timing determine the latter for me.

When I go looking for something to read, pretty darn good is what I look for, and it's not that hard to find in popular fiction. Greatness is something that I occasionally stumble across, and seldom in expected places.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 22, 2005 1:33 PM

Oh sure--there is plenty of popular fiction I've enjoyed, just not this. Scott Turow, whoever wrote "Silence of the Lambs", loved 'em! Also, I've never actually ready John Grisham---maybe Hollywood improved upon him---but I thought "The Firm" and "The Client" were perfectly delightful lowbrow movies. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon vs. the Mob and a child with The Secret. Pretty darn good story. Its just the all about money and perfect big hair and sparkling diamond earrings and sex and ambition and a heroine that I can never tell if we're actually supposed admire, or despise, or pity? Is she supposed to be "plucky"? Or a whore? Just doesn't connect for me.

Posted by: annette on August 22, 2005 2:25 PM

Never read JC, and never will.
I can see carfull (subway car, that is) proof of her popularity every morning, still I prefer other delusions. IMO, she's for perpetually stuck in 12y.o.' fantasy-land (and if you think 12 yrs are innocent dainty creatures, think again).

As to her style - again, I haven't actually read a page of hers - if I can bring food parallel so favored by our host, if I did I'd probably have indigestion in 5 min. Not that I eat exclusively creme-brulees, mushroom omelettes are my more likely regular fare - but not stinking raw eggs masked with Italian parsley.

My idea of pop fiction is somebody like Stefan Zweig (does somebody know where can I find his Leporella, a pefect "on the beach" novella, in English?)

And than there are blogs.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 22, 2005 3:38 PM

Jult52 -- Billie Holiday worked regularly with people like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman in the 30s and 40s. Hard to remember now, but those bands were HUGE back then. She toured with them, but had difficulty sticking because of drug problems, etc. She had multiple charting pop hits, and was a regular tabloid presence at her peak. She ended up quite poor because of drugs and bad choices in men, and also because pop artists made less then than now.

True that starting in the 50s the big band era was quickly erased from popular memory and people like Billie became a more specialty taste. But what counts for this discussion is whether you were a "popular artist" when you were working.

Posted by: MQ on August 22, 2005 6:36 PM

I think MQ nails it. Jackie Collins isn't Billie Holiday good, so why bother.

Nabokov once said that he wasn't the type of english professor that confesses to his students that he likes nothing better than to read a good mystery. That kind of elitism didn't hurt Nabokov's writing as far as I can tell.

Posted by: Joe O on August 22, 2005 7:01 PM

Nabokovs of this world are scarce, and be they elitists, populists or stamp collectors in their leusure time (that is, other than writing masterpieces) makes no difference to their writing whatsoever.
He also had very weird linguistic and philological views - which doesn't make it a prerequisite for being a 1st class writer.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 22, 2005 7:24 PM

Trenchant as ever. Random comments:

Never read Jackie Collins. Her sister's columns in Spectator are just fine.

I am a discriminating reader but not lit vs. trash. I love Nabokov; I love Michael Gruber's crime novels; I am often fond of Cormac McCarthy; I like both Evelyn Waugh and John Sanford. Those that say there isn't enough time either don't read enough or are deluding themselves. Both Nabokov and Waugh were dandies who very much put on roles, and this must be considered when they pronounce on ANYTHING.

"Read at will!"-- Randall Jarrell. Highbrow enough?

Right now I am reading Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner (lit), and The Program by Greg Hurwitz, (pop) and enjoying them both. Also A Dragon Apparent, a 1950 account of travel in Indochina by the recently deceased Norman Lewis, and a translation of a novel by a Siberian Yakut. So?

Tell a story-- or tell many smaller ones. Enjoy stories and language. Lit vs. pop is not a real controversy.

Posted by: Steve Bodio on August 22, 2005 10:13 PM

Heavens, why is anyone under the impression that I'm trying to get them to read Jackie Collins? I'm a curious reader who does a lot of reading in order to see what stuff is like. I happen to have read a couple of Jackie Collins' novels, and I happen to have been struck by the fact that 1) I enjoyed 'em, and 2) she's got her strengths as a fiction-writer. If you've got no interest in reading her, that's OK with me, believe me. But I do find it odd that so many people seem willing to put her work down without ever having given it a look.

But I'm struck by something else in this discussion that I'm often struck by: People claiming to read only the highest and the mightiest. Really? Truly? You never read the sports pages? The gossip rags? You never, ever read a detective novel rather than that final Nabokov you haven't gotten around to? You've never spent a few hours with a trashy biography? I guess I'm willing to believe that there are a couple of Zen monks of whom this might be true. But I've known very few people who haven't enjoyed a joke-collection, or who don't own a few "For Dummies" books, or who wouldn't sometimes prefer curling up with a magazine to plowing through one of the greats. One very serious gal I knew --a librarian -- sat one year on the awards-granting panel of a famous lit prize. She had to read dozens and dozens of highbrow books in the courrse of six months or so. At the end of it, she returned -- with immense relief -- to reading the kind of mix what she really enjoys: trashy biographies and mysteries (and occasional "serious" books). People in the publishing industry generally tend to decompress more (as far as I could tell) with movies and TV than with books. It isn't because they're un-serious people, it's because at the end of many days, they just aren't in the mood for a wrestle with prose greatness.

As I tried to hint in the posting, I'm puzzled as to why people are often less open about their reading habits and their reading pleasures than they are about their listening and viewing habits and pleasures. We all goof off and slum it sometimes, it seems to me. Where "greatness" goes, sometimes it just doens't suit. Sometimes we're tired, sometimes we need cheering up or distraction, sometimes we just aren't in the mood. I can't read serious fiction on airplanes, for instance -- the white noise and the cramped quarters and my doziness make Tolstoy a no-go on a plane. So I read something else instead, something that's easier going. There's no shame in that. And "a good airplane read" is something to be treasured, as far as I'm concerned.

Most of us feel no shame about admitting that we found a pop tune cheery-making, or a glitzy movie kinda fun, or a comic strip pretty amusing. So why do so many people find it relatively hard to be similarly open about their experiences with reading and books? My own theory about this is that it has a lot to do with school. Reading ... school...being serious ... getting good grades, etc ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2005 1:11 AM

Incidentally, am I the only person who can't read Nabokov? I pigged out on him as a grad student. But ever since, his stuff has struck me as over-refined, iridescent, and snobbish to the point of sick-making. And the farther I get from grad school the more I respond this way. Which isn't to put him down or to quarrel with anyone who loves him. It's just my reaction.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2005 1:14 AM

Literary snobs who won't read popular fiction remind me of the music snobs who won't listen to music without an indie label. I've always found both to be bizarre and short sighted- if it's good, wouldn't that make it popular? To shun it's popularity it to say that you believe the masses are ignorant sheep (which could be a good argument) incapable of choosing what it good or bad.

All the MENSA pretentiousness aside, you never know until you try it. You can't judge a book by it's cover (or popularity).

I applaud your curiousity! Hoorah! Hoorah!

Posted by: Jill on August 23, 2005 9:31 AM

I read what I want to - don't give a tinker's damn about book snobbery.

Right now I am laughing my ass off at night while re-reading a longtime favorite author, Lewis Grizzard, and his "Shoot Low Boys, They're Ridin' Shetland Ponies". Plan to read "You Can't Put No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll" also by this king of southern humor next. Sad thing ole Lewis is not with us anymore, but he left me some great reading material. Who could resist a book with this title:
"They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat"(written after Grizzard's battle with heart surgery)?

Hey, Michael, I LOVE Guitar Shorty! Thanks for for enlightenment. I listened to a few free music files at Amazon, and I think I hear a faint reminiscence of the Allman Brothers Band...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 23, 2005 11:23 AM

Hey, as far as trashy and fun---see Bill Maher's new book---"New Rules". Very, very funny.

Posted by: annette on August 23, 2005 12:25 PM

"As I tried to hint in the posting, I'm puzzled as to why people are often less open about their reading habits and their reading pleasures than they are about their listening and viewing habits and pleasures. We all goof off and slum it sometimes, it seems to me."

I think these sentences provide part of the reason that people won't talk about their reading of anything other than the approved sort of books. When you think of it as slumming, you have already made a value judgement, and judged the popular book to be of less value. (I don't actually think that Michael believes this. Rather, I think he was trying to connect with an audience that might. That same audience would seem unlikely to admit to tastes that it feels unworthy.)

As for me, I'm (re)reading some Clancy now, followingnew books from Stross, Bujold, Weber, and Ringo. Fine writers all, and I'm not in the least concerned about their popularity (except inasmuch as their popularity makes it more likely that I'll find more of their work to read in the future.)

Frankly, I find the desire to read the "approved, serious" authors purely because of their status a bit too reminiscent of Junior High attempts to curry popularity for my taste, but everyone needs a hobby.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 23, 2005 1:46 PM

MQ: I know about Holliday's career. My point was that the complexity of her art makes it worlds removed from Motown and Ray Charles, which you lumped in together with her as part of a single tradition. I don't find any descriptive term that includes both the Ronettes and Billie Holliday as meaningful. The fact that all of them had hits that earned lots of money surely isn't the point, right?

In writing this, I'm assuming that the reason Jackie Collins' novels is trash is due to some intrinsic quality in the writing and not that it is trash simply because it is popular. I'd say everyone here probably agrees with that distinction.

Posted by: jult52 on August 23, 2005 2:43 PM

I dunno. I think it's harder to admit that you like middle-brow than that you like pulpy stuff, especially with our popular culture mad, er, culture.

I mean, how to admit that I love Anita Brookner? She's been writing the same novel for twenty years, one a year, same London flat, same slightly lonely woman, same disappointment. And the silly reviewers all think that it's about men and that the characters should just take Prozac. Poor, clueless reviewers.

Don't care much for Jackie Collins, although I admit I read plenty of trash (or used to; I decided to read more 'serious' things years ago and it's spoiled the fun of the trash. You can't go back). Sigh. I used to enjoy a fat, shiny Catherine Coulter or Joan Johnston, paperbacks you rush through in an hour, poorly and quickly written, but adventure, adventure, adventure. And, you know, the romance. Terrible, but occasionally necessary. I draw the line at the Regency Romance, though. Barbara Cartland never did it for me.....And why are women such suckers for the cowboy in romance fiction? Always the cowboy.

My favorite used to be Victoria Holt, but those were popular from the 60s to the 80s (my period). Chaste Gothic romances are on the outs now that we have chick lit. Move over Jane Eyre-lite and welcome Bridget Jones-lite. Did I ever tell you my theory that Bridget Jones' Diary is just Lucky Jim for the shallow 90s? (forget the Austen background. Whatever the author says).

Ok, I have now totally embarrassed myself by showing you all that I know too much about this sort of fiction. I deny reading any of these books. This is just what I've heard. Plus, I read *real* literature now, see what you've all done?

Posted by: MD on August 23, 2005 6:29 PM

Ok, to clarify: I meant the eighties was my period to read trash, not the 60s to the 80s. Unless you want to believe that I read all those Victoria Holt books as a toddler....

Posted by: MD on August 23, 2005 6:31 PM

Hey, what's so wrong with cowboy romantic heroes? Louis L'Amour's tough hombres were the best.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 23, 2005 9:43 PM

Oh, there's nothing wrong with the cowboy hero. To be honest, I like them myself. I just meant, why *do* we like them so much? Are we just hard-wired to find the laconic guys attractive, or what?

Posted by: MD on August 23, 2005 10:23 PM

Michael: Nabokov can be hard to read, but don't you find "Lolita" indisputably great? To me that novel just seems undeniable, compelling, fun, deep, gorgeous. You can roll the sentences around on your tongue like candy.

Posted by: MQ on August 23, 2005 11:05 PM

Michael, do you know of any other songs with lyrics like those? I'm reminded of the Lead Belly song "Where did you sleep last night" that Kurt Cobain covered years and years ago on the Nirvana MTV Unplugged special. Also, some (well almost all) of Nick Cave's songs dealing with murder. Just reading those eerie lyrics is so much more impressive in my imagination than actually hearing the snippet of the song I listened to at I imagined something extremely high-pitched and feminine with an eerie sing-songy sound, but obviously the singer is male and has a deep voice. Does he have other songs of such quality?

Posted by: lindenen on August 24, 2005 3:37 AM

“David R. Slavitt is the author of seventy works of fiction, poetry, and poetry and drama in translation.”
( ; )

“David R. Slavitt has ‘lived three lives,’ writes Margo Jefferson in New York Times Book Review: ‘as a scrupulously genteel poet, as a serious minor novelist and as an exuberantly crass pseudonymous writer of potboilers.’”

His first “potboiler,” a bestseller entitled The Exhibitioinist, was published under the name of Henry Sutton in 1967. He wrote a number of others as Sutton, some nearly as successful as the first, some less, with such titles as The Voyeur, Vector, The Liberated, The Sacrifice: A Novel of the Occult, The Proposal, Bank Holiday Monday.

“Although Slavitt suffers from anonymity under his own name, he did gain fame and recognition with his writings under the pseudonym Henry Sutton.” “. . . The Exhibitionist catapulted Slavitt into the world of popular fiction. The only reason for the pseudonym, explains Slavitt in [an autobiographical] essay, was to sustain his first novel written under his own name, Rochelle; or Virtue Rewarded, which was to be published in the same month The Exhibitionist was slated to appear. In this way, book stores could carry a substantial number of both works.”

“Discussing the pseudonym in relation to his other work, Slavitt told CA [Contemporary Authors]: ‘I have had to struggle with Sutton for years. It seemed to me at the time a simple enough indication of what I was doing. No one criticizes the Chrysler for manufacturing Plymouths under a different name, or the Omega company for putting out Tissot watches. But my assumption of a second name for a different kind of writing seemed to offend a certain middle-brow sensibility. Most newspapers dismissed any Sutton book as slumming, and also dismissed anything I did under my own name as high-brow and low-revenue and, paradoxically, just as proper to be ignored. Now that I've paid for the educations of my children, I think it extremely unlikely that I'll ever write a pseudonymous book again.’”

“Slavitt also commented to CA on his relative anonymity since his Sutton books. ‘Even as a poet, I have been more or less ignored,’ he explains. ‘The old snobbishness about poets who wrote any fiction at all seems to have faded away. But it is not yet permissible to have written successful commercial fiction. I say this without any particular complaint. I rather like being ignored, having by now become accustomed to the freedom and the privacy that are the handmaidens to obscurity. I've come to understand that the lit biz is a silly waste of time. Literature, on the other hand, is not.’

(Quotations from Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005 (not available for free on the web))

In an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (not available on the web), he wrote about what he thought made The Exhibitionist “work”: “It was, as any piece of popular art must be, a throwback. It was fundamentally a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, perfectly conventional in its architecture and its outcomes. It was good natured fun, mostly, rather campy (one character, of whom I am especially fond, gets kicked to death by an ostrich), and it had an exuberance that pleased readers. I’d learned, going to all those movies for Newsweek [he worked at Newsweek for seven years, eventually becoming its film critic (1963-1965)], that there is such a thing as a good-bad movie, a film that may be corny and predictable but that somehow works. I’d been an early admirer, for example, of those Roger Corman send-ups of Poe that featured Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and were quite dopey but still wonderful. And I’d tried to maintain that balance in writing The Exhibitionist. I tried, in other words, to have fun”
(Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 3, (Gale, 1986), pages 320-321)

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 24, 2005 9:15 AM

Michael -- I understand that some of Poe's short stories sold quite well so a highbrow critic of his time would be tempted to brand EAP as a purveyor of cheap, popular horror (or detective) fiction. We risk getting into the same trap if we let our assessment of a book's audience to have too much impact on our assessment of the text. Knowing that few of the book's readers have read Dickens or Tolstoy makes us suspect it’s no belles-lettres -- suspect but not conclude. Masterpieces can have mass appeal, too. But Poe was not only deprecated -- he had a few authoritative advocates almost in his lifetime (during his would-be natural lifetime so to say): take Dostoyevsky for one. Can we find a serious artist who would take Jackie Collins seriously? (Here, a “serious artist” means one whose art is closely related to her struggle with questions of life and death – no talent or artistic accomplishment is implied.)

Posted by: Alexei on August 24, 2005 10:39 AM

By the way, song lyrics is a different matter entirely: there's a good deal of blues, rock and "indie" lyrics that borders, at least, on high art, even stripped of the music and laid down on plain paper. I remember reading Pink Floyd's Vera even when I did not know who Vera Lynn had been (was, to be precise), and I still can't explain why the simple piece worked so well for me -- it should be for the enormous context, not so much the text.

Next time, why not look at writers who don't shun suffering and whose prose can move -- yet you can't get rid of a feeling it is commercially tainted so to say. How about Dan Simmons or John Fowles himself?

Posted by: Alexei on August 24, 2005 10:55 AM

Jill -- I don't mind indulging in a little literary snobbishness myself sometimes, do you? I just don't like getting trapped in it...

Pattie -- I love Southern humor. Well, a lot of it anyway. A huge fan of William Price Fox's "Southern Fried," and his novel "Dixiana Moon." Have you tried those? And Roy Blount, and Sarah Gilbert, and even that "You Know You're a Redneck if..." guy.

Annette -- Thanks for the rec. I semi-enjoyed Maher's novel about being a standup comedian. Not all that funny, but very interesting as a look at the life. Have you tried that?

JT -- I think confusions sometimes arise when one person's talking evaluatively and the other one's talking in pure category-terms, don't you? Is Cary Grant better described as a "great artist" or as a "romantic comedian," for instance? Really (as far as I'm concerned, anyway), he belongs in both categories. But the "great artist" category depends a bit more on opinion and interpretation, while the "romantic comedian" cateogory has only to do with what the hell he was doing in a practical sense. I remember Rachel and I were tussling a bit over chicklit a week or two ago. As far as Rachel's concerned, chicklit is the latest incaranation of a certain traditoin of feminine lit. I was making the case that it's a new category of fiction. I finally figured out we weren't disagreeing, we were talking at cross purposes. She was talking litcrit, while I was talking publishing. We were both right, although we were also both missing each other's point.

MD -- Attagirl! I find it wonderful when people fess up to their real pleasures, and to the history of what they've enjoyed. Many thanks. Here's a supersmart woman who's spent a little fun time enjoying romance and glitz. And why not? We're out of school and entitled to please ourselves (or not) as we see fit. Although that love for Anita Brookner, I don't know about that ...

MQ -- I find there are some writers I was once crazy about who I can't read more than a page of these days. Hemingway's one. These days everything he wrote seems so mannered to me. (That's a reaction not a judgement, by the way.) And Nabokov's another. For all his gifts, and despite how hard I once fell for him, I can't help feeling a little repelled by his work now. The tweeness, the game-playing, the narcissism, the self-adoring virtuosity ... Yucko. Are there writers you've found you've grown away from? I mean, not kiddie writers, for instance, but grown-up writers you once dug and took seriously that you can't get with any longer?

Lindenen -- Those are some great lyrics, aren't they? I wonder if Guitar Shorty wrote 'em. Ah, the frustrations of Itunes ... There's a good small collection of blue lyrics in book form somewhere that I enjoyed... Damn, I can't find it. But I wonder if either of these are any good ... God knows that I think Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley sure get off a lot of great lines. The jazz-blues critic Albert Murray argues that the blues (and folk tales more generally: Uncle Remus, etc) are the real essential stuff of American culture: the basic meat and potatoes of it. I think he makes a plausible and enlightening case for it. This book of Murray's is a great one. It's pretty controversial -- some people hate it. But as far as I'm concerned, it's Essential American Culture 101.

Dave -- Many thanks for that. Slavitt's a really interesting (and brilliant) guy who has lots of respect for the many sides of writing: translating, poetry, potboilers, journalism, literature, the whole shebang. And why not? I've wanted to read "The Exhibitionist" for years. Didn't he base it on Jane Fonda? Or am I hallucinating?

Alexei -- I'm a lot less interested in ranking artists on a scale of greatness or seriousness than a lot of people who enjoy chatting about books are. These ranking-conversations are perfectly OK by me, I just don't have much to add to them. I'm pretty laissez-faire, really. My own attitude tends to be: No one can predict the future; only time will sort these ranking matters out; and then further time will un-do and re-do all the rankings, or most of them anyway.

It's like trying to predict the stock market, IMHO -- a fun game in its own right for some, but fairly meaningless viewed from another point of view. There's so much more that's there to be said about the whole interacting-with-books thing. What's it like? What do you notice and observe? What has surprised you? What do you notice about your habits and pleasures? How about your friends'? What are the diffs between bookish people and non-bookish people? Etc, etc. So instead of playing-critic or prof (something which doesn't interest me at all), I tend to play anthropologist of culture crossed with personal-responder-to-what-I-encounter. Here's hoping it's a bit of a contribution.

For instance, I've noticed that I'm often -- not always, but often -- more moved by non-major art than I am by what's generally thought of as major art. What's that about? Another thing I've noticed is that some people talk about reading only the greats -- and then, when I visit their houses, I see all kinds of books on their shelves: collections of reviews, crinkled paperbacks, books about their hobbies, guides to CDs and DVDs, blockbusters ... When I ask about all the non-great stuff on the shelves, it's hilarious to watch the contortions they go into: "Oh, well that's for the airplane, and that's because I like locomotives, and that, well, I don't know what got into me but I read it all the way through, etc etc." None of it, in their terms, represents their "real reading." (Presumably, all those pages consumed were non-real-reading.) I dunno, that kind of pretence and intellectual vanity cracks me up. It's also more prevalent in the world of interacting-with-books than it is in the other culture-worlds, it seems to me. Wasn't it John Lennon who said something like "Life is what happens while you're busy making plans"? It seems to me that many bookish people spend 90% of their energy on the "making plans" phase, and not very much at all on the "experiencing life" phase.

And, between you and me, it strikes me as too bad. I think the world of interacting-with-books could benefit from a little less hypocrisy and a little more honesty. Incidentally, I don't think honesty is always better than hypocrisy! But things in the books world strike me as really, really out of hand. People get confused about what they really enjoy and what they think they ought to enjoy, between what they actually read and what they think they should be reading. And real values get lost in the confusion.

If pressed, I'd argue that Jackie Collins is selling more of what really matters in fiction -- the spark, the life -- than a lot of fairly-well-known lit-fiction authors are. It ain't nothing to create characters who live and breathe and walk around on their own! But my real point is to encourage openness to our experiences with culture. What do we encounter? What do we find it to be like? Comparing notes, swapping tips ... I dunno, it strikes me as soooo much more worthwhile than worrying about what kind of grade something called "History" is going to grant a given work. I'm not so sure this "History" creature actually exists, and in any case I'm not going to be around to find out what he decides. So why worry about him?

BTW, great to hear you enjoy Simmons! I like Dan Simmons too, at least the one book of his I read. I blogged a bit about it here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2005 1:33 PM

"I've wanted to read 'The Exhibitionist' for years. Didn't he base it on Jane Fonda? Or am I hallucinating?"

I think you're right.

From an article in Life magazine ("A calculating poet behind a very gamey book," by Paul O'Neil, January 26, 1968, pages 67-71):

"The Exhibitionist concerns itself with the careers, personal dilemmas and varied sexual aberrations of a middle-aged movie star, his actress daughter and a steamily neurotic secondary cast. It libels a nice man and a talented girl, both of whom will be recognizable to many readers...." (page 67)

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 24, 2005 3:07 PM

Michael, seriousness the way I defined it above differs a lot from greatness: it means the author injecting questions nagging him into his work -- questions, say, of life and death, primarily of his own life and death. Once we're sure a book is serious in this way, we won't be embarrassed to lose sleep over it. Some people would cry over books (movies, in our time) that are completely fake. Others -- like your fake worshippers of the greats -- wouldn't be moved by all the Confessions, Macbeths, and Idiots in the world. Anthropologically, the most interesting case would be people who take serious books seriously, and as far as I know they are not extinct.

I've only read Simmons' Endymion/Hyperion cycle, and the problem I have with it comes back to pester me from time to time: why did he write it? It's a huge parable of sorts -- but did he mean it to be, or should we take it as somewhat sadomasochistic entertainment?

Posted by: Alexei on August 26, 2005 11:00 AM

I'm not being entirely flippant when I say that I'll read Collins when her books go out of print and nobody is reading her anymore. I enjoy rediscovering people out of the public eye; it gives a fresh perspective and a privileged sense of experiencing something new.

I probably wouldn't read Collins of my own free will, but I don't doubt that I would find something interesting from the overall experience. On the other hand, I would think nothing of killing an hour with an awful Disney sitcom or cheap comedy film on TV.

I tend to be more interested in the writing habits of blockbuster authors than what they are actually writing about. Stephen King's book, On Writing, was utterly fascinating and caused me to reevaluate my opinion of him.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 26, 2005 6:29 PM

Anybody know where I can get an extensive coolection of her e-books to buyor download?? Send me a mail at my e-mail address. Thanks.

Posted by: Jerry King on August 29, 2005 8:32 PM

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