Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On reading Jackie Collins

A couple of weeks ago, my wife came home from the used bookstore around the corner from our house with a present for me. The present was a worn copy of Jackie Collins' Lovers and Gamblers. "Read it," she said. "Jackie Collins is pretty much porn for middle-aged women."

With summer vacation beginning and a list of "literary" books I wanted to plough before school starts again in August, I agreed to read the first 50 pages, figuring I can pick up a few tricks from a best-selling author. The next thing I knew I was on Page 490 and there was no way anyone was going to stop me from finishing the fucker.

Listen, I'm not going to try to make a case for Jackie Collins to be immortalized in the literary canon, but at the same time, I can't stand half of the books in the so-called literary canon. I hold the canon and every obdurate high school Engliish teacher cramming Ethan Frome down the throats of their students partially responsible for this country's epidemic apathy when it comes to reading. And for anyone who is looking to become a writer, I would agree that the classics must be part of your essential diet, however, that diet should also include a healthy dose of genre writers and commercial fiction. The most frustrating thing about reading literary fiction, in my opinion, is the pacing. Too many times, the authors---who are clearly skilled and talented in their craft---fall in love with their own sentences, which results in a 25-page single-paragraph description of a pubic hair on a toilet seat.

But back to Jackie Collins and Lovers and Gamblers. First of all, sadly, this is the type of prose that would be lambasted in a graduate workshop. The characters in Jackie Collins' world exist according to a hierarchy of physical attributes. Men with big cocks rank supreme, as do women with big tits. And it took about 5 pages until I figured that the character with the big cock would end up with the female character with the big tits by the end of the novel. But I was all right with it, mostly because they'd have to screw approximately 500 partners each until they arrived at this realization. Basically, the book's narrative tension is a long build up to one climatic titty-fuck.

And the characters all have names thieved from a list of porn star monikers: Al King (guy with big cock), Dallas (girl with big tits whose last name was mentioned once then mysteriously disappeared), Bernie Suntan, Linda Cosmos, Cody Hills, Manny Shorto, Karmen get the picture. For the first 400 pages or so, these characters lived to get laid. It's the equivalent of having a world populated by people who all possess a 16-year-old boy's libido.

Then, in the final 100 pages or so, a plane carrying most of the main characters is hijacked and crashes in the Amazon, and the rest of the book becomes a pornographic version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where the characters look straight into the barrel of their own existential hollowness and doom and decide to fuck to forget about it. If they don't fuck, they're eaten by alligators. There's a moral there.

That's 600 pages of Lovers and Gamblers in a nutshell. And I couldn't get enough of it.

Collins delivers exactly the product her readers are looking to buy, and when you consider that writing and publishing IS an industry, you can't go wrong with that formula. There are also aspects of her writing that anyone looking to write a novel can learn from. For example, she does an excellent job with narrative hooks and chapter breaks. Like most successful commercial novelists, she knows how to keep the plot moving. She does seamless work with the third-person omniscient voice as well. In fact, I think it would behoove graduate programs to spend more time developing these skills, especially seeing that most of the MFA students are aspiring to be successful in the commercial market. Instead of spending all of their time stroking Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace, why not concentrate on making the writing commercially viable?

So am I going to run out and buy another Jackie Collins novel? No. I think I've had enough for now. But I believe there's something to be said for reading for only the entertainment value. Teachers spend way too much time talking about symbolism and theme (whatever that is), and in the process, we're sucking the fun out of reading. And while a lot of writers whine about the fact that no one reads anymore, it's occurred to me that, maybe, we're also somehow complicit in this.

Thanks for the read, Ms. Collins, and thanks for reminding me that reading can be largely self-indulgent.


Anonymous said...

The "pop" vs. "art" debate is one I actually find myself in quite a bit, although for me it usually involves music and film. Oddly enough I am on complete opposite sides of the spectrum with these two mediums. When it comes to music, I absolutely embrace the world of trashy pop music. With not a hint of indie hipster douche bag irony, I think Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake are responsible for the two best songs of the last decade, and as a disciple of punk, I think knowing how to play an instrument is actually doing you a diservice when trying to make music. On the other hand, if someone even possibly suggests that the newest Adam Sandler film could even result in one chuckle, I'll manage to scoff in multiple languages while preparing a lecture on the values taught by Jean Luc Godard and the French New Wave.

I think the best of any art often times is when the two meet right in the middle. For music, it's easy: the Beatles. Films can be a little tougher, but it's hard to meet anyone who doesn't think The Godfather is brilliant.

I find it interesting though that you mentioned Cormac McCarthy in your post, implying that he's a stuffy literary figure that has no appeal to the middlebrow. I must admit I'm not a big reader and the only reason I know McCarthy is becuase of the Coen brother's adaptation of No Country for Old Men, but that film did lead me to check out Blood Merridean last year, and to be honest, I couldn't put it down. I can see why some people might be put off by McCarthy's often long flowing flowery language and descriptions, but the story itself was completely "entertaining," whatever that might mean.

I guess I'm just kind of saying your whole point in a more round about way, but I don't see why things have to be one or the other. I don't understand why people who enjoy contemporary cinema that requires no thought can't also appreciate a classic from time to time, just like someone who thinks "sexyback" is a great song couldn't also appreciate Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

On a side note, this kind of reminds me of the film The Squid and the Whale. If you've never seen it, I would highly reccomend it. I don't think any film has ever nailed down the obnoxious, supperior attitude of "high brow" culture enthusiasts better.


Nate Graziano said...


Yes. I definitely agree that pop culture can also be serious art, whatever "serious" means. In fact, in order for an artist to make a living practicing their craft, they have to appeal to pop sensibilities. Of course, as soon as an indie artist becomes popular, all those hipster douche bags that you mentioned turn on the artist and snarl, "Sell out."

I've never understood that. If I could sustain myself writing books, I would do it in a heartbeat. I think the HDB's use the term largely out of jealously and territorial pissing. You should read Steve Almond's new book "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life." It's nonfiction and addresses many of these issue. Trust me, you'll love it. Even if you're not much of a reader, YOU are the target audience for this book.

And I've heard of that movie. I will look it up and check it out.

By the way, I liked "Blood Meridian" quite a bit as well, and McCarthy is a perfect example of the two worlds merging. I was just trying to think of typical authors taught in graduate programs.

Nate Graziano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

2 - no, 3 things:
1 - enjoy reading yr blog posts, Nate. Bravo on posting some new stuff.
2 - I couldn't watch "the squid and the whale" - or rather, my wife and I gave up after awhile, because those characters were such awful, awful people.
3 - Christopher Moore is awesome, smartly written, comic, commercial, nearly "literary" fiction, and everyone in the world should read his stuff. Try it, you'll like it. - Steve Henn

Nate Graziano said...

Thanks, Steve. I just finished a book yesterday, so I'm going to the bookstore today and will pick up a Moore novel. I've read a lot of good things about him, but he's one of those writers I'm always meaning to read but haven't. I'll let you know.