“I’ve discovered writers by reading books left in airplane seats and in weird hotels.”— Lee Child
By PJ Parrish
Some days, you just don’t want sushi, free range chicken, or, god forbid, kale salad. You want…Goldfish Crackers, Gummi Bears, Pepperidge Farm Milanos, Kraft Mac and Cheese, McDonald’s french fries, with two scoops of Moomer’s Cherries Moobilee ice cream, washed down with Faygo Rock & Rye.
Some days, your soul cries out and the only thing you can do is give it what it craves — junk food. But it has to be good junk food, I say. Life is too short to eat a Wendy’s Quad Baconator.
Some days, you also need to read junk-food books. Sometimes called airplane books, the idea being that flying is so grotesque now that you need something soothing or numbing to get through it. I can’t read bad junk-food books on planes. I need the hard stuff. And the hard stuff — really good junk-food books — are in a category all their own. They…endure.
Two of my favorite “junk-food” writers died recently — Judith Krantz and Herman Wouk. Now, don’t get all huffy with me for calling them junk-food writers. I mean that as a sincere compliment. Krantz and Wouk had amazing, long careers creating hugely entertaining books. They got me through countless hard nights in high school, one divorce, the time I was fired from a job I loved, and the week my cat died. They took me to far away places with strange sounding places.
Judith Krantz died in her Bel Air home on June 22. She was 91. She didn’t publish her first book until she was 50 — the seminal Scruples. It’s the story of Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop — first nicknamed Honey, then called Billy — and her journey from a chubby “poor relation” in an aristocratic Boston family to a thin, rich Beverly Hills glamazon — with stops in Paris and New York along the way. (So described by Jezebel, the self-proclaimed Supposedly Feminist Website, which recommends it as a “juicy retro read.”).
God, I loved that book.
Why? It’s a take on the classic Cinderella tale. I was a pretty naive 27 when it came out and it took me to worlds I had no hope of ever knowing — Paris, New York, Beverly Hills, French couture, and rich folk. (I eventually got to all those places, and found out hanging with rich folks isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but that a vintage Chanel bag can change your life). It was really fun and often very funny. It also had some really hot sex:
After that first time he used every art he knew to bring her to an orgasm, as if that might be the key that would unlock the door between them. Sometimes she achieved a fleeting little spasm, but he never knew that it came from her one recurring sexual fantasy. In her mind she was being made love to by an anonymous lover, lying on a low bed surrounded by a ring of men who were watching her avidly…
I can’t print the rest of the paragraph since we are a G-rated blog. Scruples was made into a mini-series starring Lindsey Wagner. Rumor has it Natalie Portman is doing a remake. Bad idea. Just read the book. It’s great junk-food. As Jezebel points out, why settle for Fifty Shades of Garbage when you can get the real deal?
Or as Krantz herself once put it:
“It’s not Dostoevsky. It’s not going to tax your mental capacities. It’s not ahhrtt.”
Now, Herman Wouk, well, most folks wouldn’t classify his books as junk-food. But the critics were brutal to him. Still, many of them begrudgingly gave him props for his propulsive narrative style. He died May 17, a couple days short of his 104th birthday.
Wouk became a bestseller with his shipboard drama The Caine Mutiny. I didn’t read that as a youngun, but I did feast on his page-turners Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke. The first was another coming-of-ager set in the ’30s with a feminist theme (a girl trying to become an actress in a male-centric world). When I read it, somewhere around age 13, I didn’t even know a Jewish person. (Yes, my childhood was that white-bread). But back then, when I was dreaming about getting out of the Detroit suburbs alive, I loved Marjorie’s grit and related to her big dreams.
Youngblood Hawke was also about a striver — a Kentucky boy who dreams of being a novelist and becomes the toast of New York — but there’s a tragic fall from grace. I read this one when I was maybe 35 and thinking of trying to write a novel. Wouk supposedly had second thoughts about making his protag a writer. “Writers are the world’s dullest people!” he wrote in his notes. Dull this book is not. It’s got sex, money, betrayal, and characters that live on in your head after you close the book.
And then were Wouk’s World War II epics The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. At 814 pages and 941 pages, they were door-stops! Wouk originally intended them to be one book but decided to break it into two when he realized it took nearly 1000 pages just to get to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The appeal of these books for me was their vastness. I love meaty historical fiction, but with Wouk the history lessons were overlaid by a grand drama about the gnarly family tree of Pug Henry, naval officer and FDR confidant. I learned more about the wars from Wouk than from any of my history classes. Ditto for the Irish conflict and the founding of Israel from another of my favorite authors Leon Uris. Yes, Wouk had things to teach me but he always, first, entertained me.
Which can make critics, well, crabby. One guy, Stanley Edgar Hyman, described Wouk’s readers as “yahoos who hate culture and the mind.” Wouk, for his part, had this to say about his oft-nasty critics:
“I’ve been absolutely dead earnest and I’ve told the story I had in hand as best as I possibly could. I have never sought an audience. It may be that I am not a very involved or a very beautiful or a very anything writer, but I’ve done the level best I can.
“In the short run geniuses, minor writers and mountebanks alike take their chance. Imaginative writing is a wonderful way of life, and no man who can live by it should ask for more.”
Rest in peace, Judith and Herman. And thanks for all those sleepless nights.
So, crime dogs, who are your guilty pleasure writers?
I have to agree with you on HW… I first read _The Caine Mutiny_ when I was 15-16… and have read it at least two more times since… _Winds of War_ and _War and Remembrance_ were entertainingly educational… Additionally, I was given a copy of _Don’t Stop the Carnival_ when I told a friend I hadn’t heard about the Jimmy Buffett musical titled after and based on the book… (They worked together on it… the book, about a New York ad exec who chucks it all to run a hotel in the Caribbean is better, of course, but the CD has its moments)…
And there’s John D. McDonald – for all the reasons our esteemed Mr. Bell lists – and a few that are opposite of HW – especially brevity…
Raised as an airline brat, riding standby, which meant spending a whole day at the airport sometimes, I learned to always have something to read – usually “junk food”… and to watch (and “eavesdrop on”), people – both of which have proven invaluable…
Huh…did not know the Buffett musical was based on a Wouk book! You learn something new every day here. As I’ve said here before, I came to John McD late in life, after I had begun to write crime fiction. It was great fun to go through the series. (Still working on it. When a friend of mine died, his wife asked me to take his complete collection of McD paperbacks. What a gift!)
Now that’s what I call a friend!
What I’ll do is I’ll listen to audiobooks available on YouTube, from, usually but not always, bronze tier authors I wouldn’t otherwise dream of investing in and whose names I won’t be able to remember after the fact. My take is they must be doing something right and, sure enough, usually the prose is functional. They tend to handle choreography well.
This is the bit that gets me. Every time.
Why is it, for the life of Santa, why is it the best authors and the best novels conspicuously break every single piece of witting advice that’s out there? And I don’t just mean the occasional violation. I mean systemic offence.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred years of Solitude – It’s all telling. No scenes. Just narrative summary. All of it.
Ian McEwin, Atonement – Head hoping mid scene. Lots of telling.
Murakami, 1984 – An awful lot of telling and unadulterated exposition.
John le Carré, Little Drummer Girl and his Circus novels – Slow start, info-dumpy, lots of telling.
So world-renown authors who routinely break writing advice are my guilty pleasure.
Excellent point, NR re why do the top tier writers get away with breaking the rules. We can have loooong discussions about this one. I’m reading “The English Patient” right now, and I am enthralled with the writing (which breaks all the “rules”) to the point that I have taken up pencil and am making notes in the margins. But beneath the beauty of Ondaatje’s writing beats the heart of a great story. Maybe that is what we all look for, whether it’s from Judith Krantz or Marquez. Every writer you cite is a great storyteller.
I love your phrase bronze tier writer. 🙂 Made me smile.
I have no idea, but do you suppose those who break the rules and we love their books anyway are people who didn’t let others’ advice cause them to edit the very life out of their books? I wonder.
Part of the problem is that different genres have different expectations from their readers. Two of the writers you mention aren’t English/American writers. Again, different expectations. Narrative techniques change drastically over the years, and the last 20 years have seen the most drastic change in American/English history because the audience with its access to new media and the vast changes in culture have changed. (I could go for many pages on this subject because it’s a particular academic interest of mine.) So, different expectations. If you want to figure out “the rules” of right now, read the best of your genre. Not the best who have been bestsellers for years, but those newbies who are rising up the bestseller charts and winning the awards. On top of that, if the newbie breaks a rule, figure out why he/she did because there’s usually a reason.
Love the quotes by both Krantz and Wouk. Spot on. I would never take offense should people eventually tag me a junk-food writer. It would mean my books had been widely read and enjoyed and were never invited to a pinkie-raised wine-and-cheese affaire d’art. My job is not some elevated calling. It’s only to tell a good story and entertain readers.
Your phrase affaire d’art reminds me of one of my favorite French phrases — succès d’estime — which is success through critical acceptance rather than popularity or commercial gain. God forbid a writer should make money from writing…
Great post, Kris, but I can’t answer because I feel no guilt about any of the books I read. Some I re-read, some I have trouble getting through, some I don’t get through, but guilt? Nope.
I guess I used the phrase guilty pleasure only to make a point that we’re supposed to feel less-than for enjoying such books. Which is rot. (See comment above about succès d’estime).
I think I feel something closer to guilt about NOT reading books everyone else says are great, “must-reads.” I play the age card. Too many books, too little time.
One summer, I read Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” All of it. It was like getting my teeth cleaned. I can’t remember a thing about it, except the madeleine cookie image. A brilliant example of James’s theory of the telling detail.
Right on, Kris. I wrote about Wouk when he had a novel come out at age 97. Then he writes a memoir at 100! That’s how I want to be.
Little known literary fact: JSB worked on Scruples. **clears throat** I was an actor in NY making side dough doing temp typing. I was called into Crown Publishing one day, as they had some emergency work to be done. As I sat down at a desk, watching the activity all around me, I asked what was going on. A woman said, “We have a book coming out. It’s going to be big. It’s called Scruples.” I shrugged and began to type. Thus, if it weren’t for me…
Ha! I knew I saw your imprint on it somewhere.
So…you know the rest of the sex scene paragraph then.
LOL…I think I was typing letters or something. I do remember seeing the cover art and the author photo floating around. Later, when I saw the book in a store, and knew then it was a blockbuster, I thought, “Huh. They were right. It is big.”
However, I’ve never read it. They left me out of the acknowledgements!
I’m not sure where the Kerry Greenwood Phryne Fisher novels fit in the junk food hierarchy. But I remember a while back I considered doing a blog over my struggle whether to read another Phryne FIsher or start one of the later Kinsey Milhones. It really struck me as a choice between pleasure and work.
I’m not familiar with the Phryne novels. But when I looked them up I found this phrase: “Terribly fashionable, unmistakably glamorous, handy with a pistol.” What’s not to like?
Also at least three TV series based on them. Australia in the ’20s.
With fabulous clothes.
I don’t mean to sound hoity-toity, but I never looked at some novels as ‘works of art’ and others as ‘junk food.’ Back in the day, when I read a lot more than I do now (man, the world just moves too fast,) I would go into Barnes and Noble, or better yet, one of the lesser known but far more interesting bookstores… and all of it would leave me feeling like a kid in a candy store. I’d stroll around, read the summaries contained inside the dust jackets, feel the book in my hands, run my fingers over the glossy image on the cover, and finally, decide to put my good money down on something.
I was seldom disappointed, and that’s the beauty of writing and reading. There’s no shortage of ways to describe some vital aspect of the human experience. If writers can master that idea and stick to it, the idea of ‘junk’ is already half-conquered.
You said it well: “There’s no shortage of ways to describe some vital aspect of the human experience. If writers can master that idea and stick to it, the idea of ‘junk’ is already half-conquered.”
As we often say here, there are only so many basic plots. The beauty of novels is that every writer puts his or her unique imprint on the framework.
I used the term “junk-food” book to be a little purposely provocative. Thanks for dropping by.
After I finished all my literature/literary analysis degrees, and my life took a totally different turn because of my family, I decided I would not be ruled by what critics told me was great literature. (Those authors of the 20th century considered the greats by my professors in the Seventies are now totally forgotten so smart of me.) I read for pleasure mainly, and I read widely in many genres and age levels. So, I have no shame about what I read.
I was an English lit major. That’ll cure you real quick.
Thank you for your tribute to Mr. Wouk. I try to re-read The Winds of War and War and Remembrance every couple of years. (This is a year for that, reading them, feet up, socks on, sipping Diet Pepsi and nibbling popcorn.)
I’ve never read Ms. Krantz. Perhaps it’s time for me to do that. I love fiction soaked in detail.
Sorry that they’re no longer with us.
Popcorn and Diet Coke.
Does that qualify as junky enough junk-food?
I’m a big fan of the late Robin Cook’s medical thrillers. Gives me a terrific opportunity to hate doctors. And let’s not forget Arthur Hailey’s epics, including “Wheels,” about the Detroit motor industry.
And _Hotel_, which spun off a TV series, and _Airport_, which inspired the comedy flick, “Airplane,” (which inspired other equally pun-filled, bad joke, Mad Magazine-like junk-food-movies – surely I’m not serious ~ Yes, I am… and don’t call me Shirley… ? )
Oh yeah, I loved Hailey’s books. I got to interview him once when he was touring for “Wheels.” He was a generous and gracious subject and I was a pretty green reporter. Nice man.
I’d heard about Mr. Wouk’s passing but don’t remember seeing the news about Ms. Krantz. Also didn’t know that the Bionic Woman herself was in Scruples (oh the hours I spent in childhood pretending to be the Bionic Woman!). I need to get out more. LOL!
I always liked Lindsey Wagner. Loved her in The Paper Chase.
I remember reading Scruples in high school, or junior high. I had to hide it in between an accepted book in my homeroom class. I got caught once and the homeroom teacher was scandalized. Then she asked me if it was good! LOL
yeah, it was pretty racy for its day. Ditto for Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins, two other writers I devoured. Another writer of that era whose books I liked was Barbara Taylor Bradford. “A Woman of Substance” was a big fat juicy book. Quite feminist in its empowerment message of its heroine.