Our books today form an essential part of “summer” reading: trash. I mentioned yesterday the peculiar mongrel enjoyability of a crappy book, but I mentioned it in context of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which is thickly populated with very brainy authors, most of whom, when sober, would sternly disavow the idea that they ever intentionally wrote anything crappy. High-mindedness is always thicker in the atmosphere of lesser genres, since they creep about everywhere under the man in the street’s sneers at their legitimacy … or rather, since the man in the street knows less about literature the he does about particle physics, the sneers of snobby critics. Since one of the central tenets of sci-fi/fantasy is the intelligent extrapolation of the recognizably real into the sustainedly strange, serious practitioners tend to look at crappy sci-fi/fantasy as letting the side down. It’s that question of legitimacy: I’ve heard many a science fiction author lament that a bad sci-fi novel hurts the genre of science fiction worse than a bad novel hurts the fiction genre.
But outright trash fiction? It tends to get a pass from the high priests of the genre – except when trash authors like Jennifer Weiner write irate op-eds whining about how their books don’t get treated with enough respect, but such maneuvers can be readily dismissed, since despite the tsunami of aesthetic relativism currently swamping the Novel Readings comments field, when it comes to fiction of any kind, the proof is in the pudding: the merits – or lack thereof – are right there on the page, provided the reader is skilled enough and experienced enough to assess them. A book isn’t good or bad “for me” – a book is good or bad, or else green is blue and hot is cold and we are all lost.
Translation: Weiner’s novels stink – but that’s not an outright condemnation, at least not in a post like this! Her novels stink, but thousands and thousands of people enjoy them just the same, and that’s the key to all trash fiction: it’s all Scollay Square vaudeville, and as long as everybody keeps that in mind – as long as nobody’s expecting a National Book Award for Fifty Shades of Grey – summer is the perfect guilt-free time to indulge in a little trash-reading.
Or, in my case, trash re-reading. This might seem like a contradiction in terms: surely the whole point of trash is that you don’t keep it? You don’t re-read it? But what can I say? If a book has brought me that jolt of pleasure, if it manages the aforementioned peculiar mongrel enjoyability, I’ll probably think fondly enough of it to keep it and return to it. In my defense, if pressed, I can always remind my accuser that I also read more new books – in more genres – than most people do.
But on languid summer afternoons, sometimes the latest study of Alfred Russell Wallace or the Reform Bill or the critical reception of “Paradise Lost” takes a back-seat to books of a less serious nature.
Although not necessarily – hell, hardly ever – less earnestness! Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of trash fiction is its earnestness; the huge majority of these books take themselves so relentlessly seriously that you can’t help but giggle. And surely the most monumental example of that ever fielded is the seven-book “Masters of Rome” series written over the course of 20 years by Colleen McCullough. Each of these books is several hundreds pages long, and taken together they run to a million words of turgid, lifeless prose, and each book fairly bristles with McCullough’s leaden defensiveness about her enterprise. She laboriously lists the number of Loeb Classical Library editions she has (all of them, essentially); she backs each book with a hundred-page appendix of historical discourses, and she stuffs every chapter with meticulously-researched micro-details.
And yet, ye gods, is it all trash! Boring narration, numb plotting, stilted dialogue … not one single step our industrious author takes is the right one. The “Masters of Rome” series may not be the most trash ever produced by one author (how many books has Stephen King written?), but it’s certainly in the running for the most earnest trash ever written by one author. Every time I return to these books (and I do return – I wouldn’t part with them), I giggle just a little bit harder.
Likewise with the endless novels of James Michener, whose fat books can be found moldering in beachfront cabanas and summer homes all over the world. Like McCullough, Michener responded to some internal warning, some sneaking personal suspicion that he was producing dead-prose trash by piling more and more dead-prose trash onto his whisker-thin plots until every last angle and detail was buried and softened and obscured, like a picnic table under four feet of snow. Michener’s epics – Alaska, Chesapeake, Poland, Texas, and my personal favorite, Hawaii, plus a dozen more – are distended encyclopedia entries on their given subjects with just the lightest sprinkling of actual plot added on top. Those plots are uniformly contrived, and the heaps of exposition is delivered with the smoothness that only an old hack could do it, and something about the combination makes these huge novels some of the most enjoyable trash ever written. They manage the almost unbelievable feat of providing panoramas without the smallest hint of aesthetics, and so they have all the weird but undeniable allure of slowly paging through somebody else’s albums of vacation photos. I tend to read one every summer, and the main question I always face is which. I’m leaning toward Texas this time, in honor of the unfathomably hot summer I spent there a long time ago in the company of a gorgeous, brainless slab of beef named Cody and a charming armadillo named Ruby.
It was a roasting hot summer when I first read another entrant on our list, Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls, which, in its drug- and alcohol-suffused excess is the trashiest of all the trash novels on our list this time around. It tells the story of three ambitious showbiz women over a couple of decades, a couple-dozen lousy men, and a couple-thousand afternoon drinks, and on every page, Susann does a heroic job of substituting gossip and titillation for the actual talent she so conspicuously lacks. Those substitutions are what make Valley of the Dolls so much mindless fun, although lately I worry that the Brainless Argument-Baiter contingent of the “third-wave” feminists (by far the biggest contingent, a billion-strong shrill idiots who wouldn’t know a worthy application of their energy if it walked up and gave them a playful slap on the behind) might be missing the essential vacuousness that is both the heart and the point of this book. In short, I worry about movements to have it put on women’s-lit college reading lists. There’d be an irony in that glaring enough for even Jackie Susann to spot.
And if there’s a danger with Valley of the Dolls that trashy garbage will be first co-opted by the brainless and then re-packaged to the credulous as something other than the trash it is, that danger has become a reality with Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, which is now in the Penguin Classics line and is regularly taught in college classes on “colonial literature” and “Victorian conceptions of womanhood” and such clap-trap. An entire generation of readers has been taught to read this horrible, enjoyable book not as the racist, sexist romp that it is but rather as a document, a valuable period resource. I re-read virtually all of Rider Haggard in two-year cycles – always in the summertime – but t least I keep my wits about me when I do it: I’m at no risk of forgetting it’s trash I’m reading.
No such danger with the rambunctious novels of Jilly Cooper! These big, buxom books – Riders, Rivals, Polo, and my personal favorite, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous – are the rare exception to our earnestness rule: they know exactly how full of soap suds they are, and they don’t appear to mind in the slightest. Here we get protracted juicy melodramas about beautiful discontented rich people screwing each other over both metaphorically and un, and all of it set against a country-club backdrop that Cooper brings to life with all the skills of an old newspaper hack. These books are mindless, predictable, and unabashedly venal – the perfect fare, in other words, for a budding heat wave.
Which isn’t to say no trash-fiction can ever be any kind of important in its own right! Some of it actually manages to be, and one of the prime examples of that is certainly the fiction of Burt Hirschfeld, an indefatigable hack who couldn’t write a boring sentence to save his life (unless the client was paying for boring sentences, in which case …). Hirschfeld wrote a dozen novels under his own name, ranging from adaptations from the TV show Dallas to such trash bonanzas as Acapulco, Fire Island, Provincetown, Key West, and of course Return to Fire Island, and they’re set in much the same world as Valley of the Dolls, where drugs and alcohol are everywhere, money is everything, and every character is a shark of some species or other. Nine-tenths of everything Hirschfeld wrote is trash pure and simple, trash only, but in every book (and in some more than others, especially Cindy on Fire), there are glimmerings of something more, some hint of this author’s yearning to be an actual chronicler. Hacks often feel such yearnings, and they often find canny ways to express them even in books specifically commissioned to have no depth at all. I’ve seen this time and time again, and I mean to study it someday and find out what it really signifies. You haven’t heard the last from me on the now-forgotten Burt Hirschfeld!
But in the meantime, I’m picking Aspen.