Jackie Collins was one hell of a storyteller.
Her novels were distinctive for many reasons, though they’re most famous for the copious amounts of fantastically dirty sex included in each. Even by the standards of today’s abundant whips-and-chains literature, Collins’ depictions can still bring an instant flush to the face. But to remember her work as “pornographic” (it wasn’t) or even “trashy” (it wasn’t that either…not in a bad way) is doing a great disservice to both the author’s prodigious talents, and the brilliance of her stories.
On Saturday, September 19, Jackie Collins died at the age of 77. Over the course of her career, she wrote 32 novels, five screenplays, one cookbook, and a recently discovered unproduced stage play. Every one of her novels was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has sold over 500 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. Along with Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, Jackie Collins possessed a rare status in our day and age: that of a mainstream literary superstar.
But Collins rebuffed the term literary when describing her own books. “I’m not a literary writer and I never pretended to be,” she once said. Indeed, no one—not even Collins herself—would consider her books highbrow art, to be ranked up there with the likes of Joyce and Dostoevsky. But this is, honestly, irrelevant. Bearing in mind that art comes in all shapes and sizes and styles, Collins gave us art of another kind, and it’s no less valuable. She was the grande dame of the sun/sex/glamour beach-read; Britain’s tabloids once dubbed her “The Queen of Flash and Trash.” And no one—no one—could tell a story like Jackie Collins.
Collins’s writing style wasn’t lofty, nor was it filled with literary tricks and showoffy devices. Her voice was straightforward and unornamented. Her settings were wherever the rich and famous (and infamous) gathered to play: Hollywood, New York City, London, the South of France (a typical Collins novel takes place in several different locations around the globe). Her central characters were primarily independent, kickass women. Her sentences were short, exuberant bursts of energy. Her pacing was breakneck. Her chapters were often quick and episodic.
Most impressively, her dialogue revealed the intricacies of her characters. While many authors devote paragraphs and paragraphs, page upon page, to descriptions and backstories and exposition on their characters, Collins rarely did that. We usually got a few descriptive phrases before the dialogue took off, like everything else in a Collins novel, rapid-fire. Through that dialogue, we came to know her characters on intimate terms. I think Collins’s genius truly lies in her dialogue, and her ability to flesh out fully-formed human beings through tangibly electric conversations.
A typical Jackie Collins novel was a glitzy ride through the excesses of the high life’s power players, whether in Hollywood, the music business, the modeling world, or even the mob. It meant an escape into a fantasy world that would forever elude most of us. For millions of readers, Jackie accompanied them to the beach and on their vacations. Many of us, as adolescents, snuck Jackie’s novels past our parents and read them, rapt, by cover of night. Readers clamored for her latest (and last) novel, The Santangelos, just a few months ago. And no matter where any of us found ourselves with a Jackie Collins novel in hand, we could be guaranteed to stay up late into the night, devouring her delicious stories, turning pages ravenously, and repeating to ourselves, “Just one more chapter…just one more chapter…”
Oh, Ms. Collins. What we wouldn’t give for just one more chapter.