In dozens of novels written over a decades-long career, the romance writer Jackie Collins sharply observed the role of sex and power in Hollywood. She wrote incisively about abuse in the industry and empowered female characters who found liberation in a male-dominated world. She was brilliant and prescient—and overlooked in literary circles by those who wrote off her work as trashy airport smut.
Like Collins, many authors who write mass-market novels—especially those whose readers are predominantly women, and even more so those whose readers are Black women—are discounted despite their wide appeal. Take Sister Souljah’s influential book The Coldest Winter Ever, which sold over 1 million copies and was beloved by a generation for its nuanced depiction of its protagonist’s community. Today, the work is relegated to the realm of “street lit” and rarely discussed as a classic of American literature. Or, look at the work of Jennifer Weiner, a masterful storyteller, whose books are often dismissed as lacking artistic value. Critics have even attacked the literary merit of Donna Tartt, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, on the basis of her popularity. A few crowd-pleasing authors do escape this trap. Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most notable example, drawing intense loyalty from fans, who sought to defend her name several years ago after her publisher released ironic “chick lit”–style book covers for her works. But many more popular writers are derided than defended.
To take a genre or mass-market work seriously means recognizing the quiet skill in its pages. Books by Collins and Sister Souljah, for instance, slyly analyze the very institutions that aim to undercut them. The romance author Eric Jerome Dickey took a lighter approach. His novels craft vivid portraits of Black women experiencing love and desire and joy.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.