Not all books are written to inspire or to educate; some are meant to entertain, or as an escape from our mundane daily routine. Like junk food or reality TV, we all have our guilty pleasures – that one author who writes novels that probably lower our IQ instead of raising it, but we can’t resist them because the stories are just so bad that they’re good!
For a fourteen year old girl with a keen interest in celebrities, fashion, movies and books, American Star by Jackie Collins was the equivalent of a modern day fairytale. A story about a bad-boy actor and a beautiful model, childhood sweethearts who’d been constantly torn apart by unfortunate circumstances and greedy schemers with selfish agendas, it was my gateway novel to more mature reading than the Sweet Valley series.
British-born novelist Jackie Collins was the queen of romance novels for nearly fifty years, with every one of her 32 novels appearing on the New York Times bestsellers list. Long before Fifty Shades of Grey, Collins was shocking the world with her risqué tales of the bedroom shenanigans of the rich and famous, and her death from breast cancer in September 2015 left a hole in romance/erotica fiction that may never be filled.
Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make the late Collins one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
Movie stars and socialites, crime bosses and royalty, sex, designer clothing, beautiful mansions and exotic travel destinations… the lives of the rich and famous has always been a source of wondrous entertainment for us lowly mortals. That is why celebrity gossip websites and magazines continue to be so profitable.
Collins’ novels are like gossip magazines, only better! You won’t find such steamy detail about who’s doing who in OK! magazine, or even on perezhilton.com.
Equally entertaining are the behind-the-scene looks at movie sets, film and television studios, recording studios, concerts, fashion shoots, runway shows, and organised crime dealings. As the younger sister of Dynasty actress Joan Collins and an actress herself during the late 1950s/early 1960s, Collins would’ve surely had access to a plethora of insider knowledge. One can’t help but wonder if Collins’ characters are 100% fictional – or if readers are being given an all-access scoop under the guise of “fiction”.
Take a look at Collins’ call sheet: Shelby Cheney of Hollywood Divorces sounds strikingly similar to Kate Beckinsale; Venus Maria of the Santangelo series bares a marked resemblance to Madonna (especially in her earlier years); and the main character in her 1988 novel Rock Star was infamously based on Rod Stewart.
2. CHARACTER PROFILING
Movie stars, singers, producers, directors, writers and screenwriters, billionaires, socialites, gangsters – the beautiful movers and shakers in Collins’ world are barely three dimensional, and they definitely won’t illuminate any profound truths about life or set you on the path to inner peace (they might inspire you to take a hard look at your wardrobe, though).
However, Collins gave every individual in her novels a thorough profile, from the central characters to the antagonists and background characters.
These biographies generally follow a specific formula – abusive or traumatic childhoods are common – but by knowing her characters inside and out, Collins can predict how they’re going to behave and therefore, she has total control over the direction and outcome of the story.
Some writers, like myself, only put the necessary planning into our work and allow our characters and their story to develop organically, just like real life. But spending some time “getting to know” our characters – their likes and dislikes, their background, their moods, etc – in the planning stages can assist in developing more realistic and relatable characters, and save from plot holes down the track.
Due to the advancement of technology and the introduction of the Internet, social media and ebooks, people are accoustomed to receiving their information instantly.
As a result, novelists have needed to adapt to suit the needs and wants of readers, meaning that modern novels are more concise than their 19th and 20th century counterparts. Readers today want more action in their novels. There is no time or patience for long, descriptive passages detailing what a character looks like, what they’re wearing or what the setting looks like.
While the loss of tacky cliches like “an incandescent beauty with catlike green eyes, a small straight nose, full luscious lip, cut-glass cheekbones and honey-blond hair” (yes, this is actually how Collins has described one of her heroines) from descriptive writing in fiction is not necessarily a bad thing for literature, the flip side is that there has been a loss for the appreciation of description in general.
Although some genres have maintained the art of descriptive writing (romance and fantasy novels, for example), the minimisation of the technique in more contemporary and commercial fiction means that novelists are no longer encouraged to tighten their vocabularies, or interested in evoking the reader’s senses. And above all, awakening the reader’s senses is the central function of description in storytelling.
Her critics may have labelled her books “nasty, filthy and disgusting”, but as Collins herself once said, she “never pretended to be a literary writer”. Perhaps she was simply a writer before her time; social media now allows an all-access pass into the glamorous world of celebrities, and E L James’ Fifty Shades phenomenon has opened the floodgates to an in-demand market for erotic fiction.
Whether or not her books are to your taste, you can’t disparage the fact that at least writers like Collins have people reading… and reading “trashy” romance novels is better than not reading novels at all!
© Tara Jenkinson 2016
Chances, 1981, Warner Books
Lucky, 1985, Warner Books
Lady Boss, 1990, Warner Books
Vendetta: Lucky’s Revenge, 1996, Avon
Dangerous Kiss, 1999, Simon & Schuster (US)/ Macmillan (UK)
Drop Dead Beautiful, 2007, Simon & Schuster
Poor Little Bitch Girl, 2010, St. Martin’s Press
Goddess of Vengeance, 2011,
Confessions of a Wild Child, 2013,
the Santangelos, 2015,
American Star, 1993, Pan Books, an imprint of Macmillan General Books
Thrill!, 1998, Macmillan
Rock Star, 1988, Simon & Schuster
Hollywood Wives, 1983, Simon & Schuster
Hollywood Husbands, 1986, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster
Hollywood Kids, 1994, Pan Books, an imprint of Macmillan General Books
Lovers & Gamblers, 1977, Pan Books
The Love Killers, 1989, Pan Books