I was standing on the quay of the railroad station in the town of Orange in southern France when it came upon me like a hot flash born of the mistral. The longing was fierce. The desire unquenchable.
I had to have something to read. And not just anything. I needed trash.
Even now, years after the molten fact, I marvel at the intensity of that need. I see myself still, standing alone, forlorn, vulnerable, ready to succumb blindly, gladly -- yes! -- madly to the first offer. It came in the form of four Yugoslavs, who had among their possessions a tattered copy of Princess Daisy. My bosom heaved. My breath grew short. What could I offer them -- other than the obvious? My French-English dictionary! In an instant of literary flagrante, the deal was consummated.
The pulpy season is upon us, and once again my thoughts turn to trash. I can feel the stirring in my breast (which is where women feel such things since they don't have loins). The beach beckons. My soul yearns for coconut-oil-soaked prose.
It's been this way since a literature class the summer before senior year in college when I read the entire works of Joseph Conrad. I always thought the syllabus was a sadistic ploy on the part of the professor, who was no happier spending his summer with us than we were spending it with him.
Some people can read Conrad in July, but I'm not one of them. Instead, I dream of disembodied bellies on the beach, all sweating PreSun 15 on the same boffo book. By day, I hungrily scan my bookshelves, which is not unlike going through the garbage -- they tell you a lot about a person. Pride and Prejudice sits primly next to Shogun. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich abuts War and Remembrance. Harold Robbins huddles between V.S. Naipaul and John Barth.
So: What is this thing called trash, this lust for dreadful prose? Why do so many pay so much for so little?
Like pornography, trash is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. And in summer, you see trash novels everywhere -- at hotel pools (especially those near airports), nude beaches, checkout counters and departure gates. They have sand between the pages and grease stains on the flaps.
They are the books you can't put down while reading them and can't remember once you put them down. Like the Sunday comics, they rub off, but never leave a trace. An odd addiction, trash: Withdrawal is the whole point. When the flies follow you to paradise, when ants infiltrate your che`vre, when the pilot says, "We're experiencing some minor turbulence," when you're alone with your thoughts at a train station in southern France and realize you don't want to be, you need to withdraw into a world where reality does not pertain. There are no flies on the beaches of beach novels.
"The novel you can read at 37,000 feet when the plane is bumping is an incredible work of art on its own terms," says Carolyn See, who is both a serious novelist and one third of family saga writer "Monica Highland." "We work very hard to create a world where life is not as it is but as it should be. Everything works with such exquisite precision that the plane could crash and you'd still be reading."
Popular fiction is an index to cultural desire. When Gone With the Wind topped the lists in 1936-7 and the old order was crumbling, we wanted to remember the way we were. In 1943, when The Robe finished first, we wanted to believe. In 1969, when Portnoy's Complaint sold 418,000 copies, we wanted to kvetch. Always, we wanted to escape.
In the summer of 1895, according to Eighty Years of Best Sellers, everybody who was anybody was reading Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush. It was the first best seller in history. The author was a Presbyterian minister named John Watson, who wrote under the pseudonym Ian Maclaren and apparently had the same view of trash that predominates today.
BTBBB is a novel of piety, a portrait of an idyllic Scottish village called Drumtochty, where the church is the center of intrigue and human commerce. Will Lachlan Campbell forgive his wayward daughter Flora, whose name he removed from the family Bible when she left home for London? Will the proud young minister keep his promise to his late mother and "speak a gude word for Jesus Christ" in his first sermon? If past is prologue, then Drumtochty is Peyton Place with kilts and a brogue. It is proof positive that the Elements of Trash have endured:
Trash imitates life. Lit crit divides literature into what Roland Barthes calls writerly texts and readerly texts. A writerly text admits it is artifice, as Pogo does when he says, "How should I know, I'm just a cartoon." Trash never admits artifice. Trash creates glittering, insular worlds that it pretends are real. If we buy into this pretense, it adds to our available realities.
Trash exists in a world of crushing embraces, where liquor smooths the rough passages and films of sweat clothe naked bodies, where luggage is never forgotten, where hair is never mousy brown, where sex is never bad unless it is rape. Everything is larger than life -- the passions, the treacheries, the challenges and especially the breasts. Trash has the texture of reality but none of the ambiguities. Verisimilitude is superimposed on fantasy. Detail lends credibility to fantasy.
In The Sisters, Pat Booth's trash novel about a trash novelist, her agent, Mort Janklow, is the protagonist's agent. The trash novelist's starlet sister has a Hollywood kitchen with a "Carrara marble floor, the three Sub-Zero fridges, Poggenpohl fitted cupboards, the Jenn-Air range and the KitchenAid dishwashers." Believe the kitchen, believe the starlet. Detail also has the ancillary benefit of filling space. There are a lot of pages to fill between gropes. Trash must be of the moment, but never of moment. To be successful, trash must feign reality and eschew it, which is the problem with Irving Wallace's new sex tome, The Celestial Bed. At bottom, it is a simple tale of boy meets girl. In this case, boy and girl are sex surrogates who never get it on because of overwork or jealousy. Their lives are complicated by an ambitious district attorney who wants to prosecute them, a venal right-wing preacher who wants to persecute them and an amoral journalist with a sexual problem who uses them (literally) to sleep his way to the top. In the end, boy gets girl, and nobody gets AIDS. Ten years ago, this would have been the perfect trash novel -- it has theme (love), conflict (performance anxiety) and the perfect plot device for a climax on every page. But in 1987, when the surrogate-heroine says she doesn't bother her clients with condoms, The Celestial Bed collides with reality.
Trash throbs. Sizzles. Seethes. Characters collide like bumper cars in a breathless rush of events. "Energy is the common denominator," says Booth's agent, Janklow. "A driving narrative. You are plunged along on the crest of a story line."
Sometimes, the prose that plunges is monosyllabic, as in The Celestial Bed: "He cast an eye inward at his instinct signals. No green light showed. But there was something that resembled a yellow light, a yellow light that said, 'You can go, but go easy.' "
Sometimes, the pages ooze, as in The Sisters, a book inhabited by breasts and nipples of infinite variety. There are breasts that are "psyche-raping sculptures," "magnolia-brushed" breasts and breasts that "rise and fall like Wall Street." As Gore Vidal once wrote, "The exuberant badness which so often achieves popularity cannot be faked."
Good trash is genuine trash. Trash is the triumph of a banal muse. It plumbs the depths of the lowest common denominator and seizes the low road -- and the mass market -- gleefully.
It's like the old question mothers used to ask their daughters -- would you rather be popular or respected? "Popular novels are like popular girls in high school," Carolyn See/Monica Highland says. "They went out a lot and had fun."
Trash novels are the popular girls of modern fiction. They're a good time, but you wouldn't take one home to meet your parents. :: A READER'S GUIDE
There is no objective barometer for trash. There are lots of different best-seller lists -- mass market, hardback, trade -- but no numerical gauge for impact trash. Here are a few personal favorites through the years:
1895 Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (because it was first)
1902 The Virginian (because it was dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt and one film version starred Gary Cooper, who said, "Smile when you say that")
1916 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (because of death, famine, plague and war)
1936 Gone With the Wind (because everybody gives a damn)
1943 The Robe (because it finished first on the annual best-seller list twice, 10 years apart)
1948 Never Love a Stranger (because it was Harold Robbins' first)
1956 Peyton Place (because of the TV show with Mia Farrow)
1966 Valley of the Dolls (because of Jacqueline Susann)
1969 The Godfather (because it's an offer you can't refuse)
1970 Love Story (because love means it doesn't matter if you have tenure at Yale)
1970 Jonathan Livingston Seagull (because it reminded me of the only other bird I ever loved, Chirpy, the parakeet who died of asphyxiation by Mr. Clean when I was 10)
1974 Jaws (because I haven't gone in the water since) and The Other Side of Midnight (because Sidney Sheldon is Sidney Sheldon)
1980 Princess Daisy (because) -- JANE LEAVY