As a Bahrain book lover, I was saddened to hear of Jackie Collins’ passing. Sex, scandal, wealth and celebrity: Such are the themes of the fiction of Collins, who has died aged 77. While her 32 novels, amassing aggregate sales of more than 500 million copies, generally escape the attention of scholars, she knew her market.
The subjects she wrote of have inspired some of the greatest writers in the language. Shakespeare wrote of the corrosions of wealth and status in Timon of Athens. Wordsworth lamented that in “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. Collins’ fascination with adultery was shared by such 20th century masters as D H Lawrence and John Updike.
The typical blockbuster about sex and shopping is a staple of modern culture. The novel emerged as a literary form to serve a mass market from the end of the 18th century, and mechanised printing encouraged a tighter, more climactic form of writing than the picaresque narratives typical of early works.
Money dominates the concerns of some of the best-selling novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Walter Scott and Dickens. Plots that are meticulously structured came of age with the suspense stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and continue with such writers as John Grisham.
Though the writings of Collins or Judith Krantz may seem formulaic, the idea of the author of popular fiction as a brand has a long history to it. “The most amazing story ever written,” declared the billboard advertising for H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, in an early venture into the marketing of the blockbuster for a mass audience. Haggard’s novel of derring-do bequeathed a plot device (concerning knowledge of a solar eclipse) to the adventures of the boy detective Tintin in Prisoners of the Sun.
Sensationalism, shockers and sex form a great literary tradition. Collins belongs in it.