The Books Briefing: The Quiet Skill of Mass-Market Novels

Many popular authors are compelling storytellers who sharply analyze power dynamics and offer vivid portraits of daily life. They are also frequently dismissed by the literary establishment.

illustration of a woman reading
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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.

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What We’re Reading

Jackie Collins

Jackie Collins at her Beverly Hills home in 1995 (CNN Films)

The soft radicalism of erotic fiction

“To read a [Jackie] Collins novel, as roughly half a billion of us humans have, is to know that sex and power are inextricable. No one mined the dynamics of both as astutely in the late 20th century as she did.”

📚 Hollywood Kids, by Jackie Collins
📚 The World Is Full of Married Men, by Collins
📚 Lucky, by Collins
🎥 Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, directed by Laura Fairrie


Anthony Barboza / Getty

Literature’s original bad bitch is back
“Sister Souljah’s books pose a challenge to readers and critics invested in a specific vision of literary ‘Black excellence.’ Some Black authors and booksellers have bristled, at times infamously, at the mass-market appeal of novels like hers.”

📚 The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah
📚 Life After Death, by Sister Souljah

woman eating ramen and reading

Joshua Lott / Reuters

When women’s literary tastes are deemed less worthy
“Many novels that do sell well are mass-market genre reads—romance, mystery, and the like—that travelers pick up in airports or shoppers grab off of discount tables at Walmart. Many novels that don’t sell well, meanwhile, are the kind argued over in highbrow publications.”

📚 The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

book cover

Europa Editions

The subtle genius of Elena Ferrante’s bad book covers
“While Ferrante’s covers are definitely trite, there’s little about them that’s actually patronizing. There are no flowers or martini glasses or shopping bags on Ferrante’s covers, no high-heeled condescension. There are just images of women doing things that women, in fact, occasionally do: standing still, holding children, being on the beach. And yet, the very image of women doing things now strikes even women readers as unliterary.”

📚 My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
📚 The Story of the Lost Child, by Ferrante
📚 The Days of Abandonment, by Ferrante
📚 Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner
📚 The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

Eric Jerome Dickey

Eric Jerome Dickey’s work is a master class in Black joy. (Yola Monakhov / The​ New York Times / Redux)

Eric Jerome Dickey made Black women feel seen
“Dickey’s characters—bold, smart women oozing sexuality and vulnerability—navigate interpersonal conflicts using dialogue that crackles with authenticity … In casting the struggles of his characters as valid, he affirmed that the struggles of the mostly Black women reading him were also valid.”

📚 The Son of Mr. Suleman, by Eric Jerome Dickey
📚 Sister, Sister, by Dickey
📚 Friends and Lovers, by Dickey
📚 Cheaters, by Dickey

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris.

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