Critic's Appreciation: Jackie Collins, 'Queen of Trash Lit,' Loosened Up Pop Culture

 Think 'Fifty Shades' was important? Look at the 'Hollywood Wives' author's influence.
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Jackie Collins

Jackie Collins, the prolific author who died of breast cancer on September 19, ranks as one of the most important — and under-appreciated — pop authors of the last 50 years. From the 1980s on, she was regularly called "the queen of trash lit" — and she was, selling more than 500 million books and having all 33 appear on The New York Times bestseller list. But such a moniker totally misses how much she changed pop culture. Collins took "trash lit" mainstream like no other writer, and in doing so was a major cultural influence.

Her books broke all sorts of sexual taboos. She said she wrote her first book, The World Is Full of Married Men, to “turn the double standard on its head.” In fact, the book was inspired by her own experiences being propositioned by married men as a London teen in the 1950s. Her early books were full of empowered women and sex. Lots of sex. Married Men had blowjobs, which were almost unheard of in pop literature at the time. Married Men was so racy that romance novelist Barbara Cartland called it “nasty, filthy and disgusting" and the book was banned in Australia. Later books got even racier.

The woman knew how to write not just a sex scene but a seduction. Her books were hot. Read-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight-so-your-parents-don’t-catch-you hot. Fifty Shades of Grey (of which Collins was no fan) can’t hold a candle to any of Collins’ books in terms of sexiness, sex or taboo breaking.

She was also quick to adopt gay characters, making them a regular feature in her stories from the '70s on. Indeed, in one of her final interviews, she told THR in July that she was contemplating a trans character in an upcoming novel.

She was one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood. As early as her third novel, 1971’s Sunday Simmons & Charlie Brick (also known by the titles The Hollywood Zoo and Sinners), she was writing about Tinseltown. But it was with 1983’s Hollywood Wives and its four follow-ups (Hollywood Husbands, Hollywood Kids, Hollywood Wives: The New Generation and Hollywood Divorces) that she really secured her reputation. The plots were over-the-top, but Collins had a keen understanding for how sex, money, lust and power functioned in Hollywood, and the stories contained more truth than many in the town wanted to admit. The public ate it up. Hollywood Wives was Collins’ most successful novel, selling more than 15 million copies and becoming one of ABC's highest rated miniseries of the '80s.

A total of eight of her books were turned into films or TV movies, making her one the most-adapted authors of her generation. Her racy plots, camera-ready characters and rarefied settings (besides Hollywood, she liked swinging London clubs and gangster palaces) made her catnip for screenwriters and producers.

Her influence is everywhere. Start with reality TV: The Real Housewives series, Hollywood Exes, even Keeping up with the Kardashians owe a debt to Collins’ novels. Add in the books and TV shows influenced by Collins (everything from Dynasty to Sex in the City to Desperate Housewives) and one starts to see how much her racy writing changed pop culture.

In 2013, Collins was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth presented her with the award, just one queen honoring another. The difference was one queen had seen her empire shrink over her decades-long reign, the other’s had grown immensely.  

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