The Soft Radicalism of Erotic Fiction

Jackie Collins sold half a billion books, taught women to demand power, and told the truth about Hollywood, yet she’s never gotten her due.

The author Jackie Collins standing by a pool, surrounded by palm trees
Jackie Collins at her Beverly Hills home in 1995 (CNN Films)

Pleasure, in the novels of Jackie Collins, tends to be abundant but hard-earned—imagine Pandora, having opened the box containing every sin plaguing humanity, retiring to a beach house in Malibu with two Weimaraners and a finely muscled masseur. The titles of her later books nod to desire and its cost: Lethal Seduction, Deadly Embrace, Dangerous Kiss. And in life, the British-born author emanated a similar combination of tough glamour. If I close my eyes, I can see the jacket photo on the glossy hardcovers in my childhood bedroom: Collins, standing in front of a blandly wealthy backdrop, her hair as rich as chocolate and her shoulders padded past the point of no return. These conspicuous displays of accomplishment read to me now as karmic winks at all the critics who disdained her. Carry on with your carping, suckers, she seems to say with her eyes, the light glinting off her abundant jewelry. This pool is paid for.

I have loved Jackie Collins since I was 11, when a friend pulled me into her parents’ study in a drafty house in the English countryside to show me a particularly raunchy scene she’d found in her mother’s copy of Hollywood Kids. After that, I was totally in thrall. From the late ’60s—when she published her first book, The World Is Full of Married Menuntil her death in 2015, Collins published 32 best-selling novels, characterized by their ballsy female characters, explicit bedroom scenes, and trenchant portrayals of the entertainment industry and its abuses of power. To read a 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. (As she told The New York Times in 2007, “I published my first novel in 1968, when no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.”)

Collins’s reputation, though, has always suffered from an instinctive tendency among her critics to be alarmed by what she sold: stories about empowered women seeking out gratification on their own terms. I didn’t realize, until I watched the documentarian Laura Fairrie’s Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (airing on CNN this Sunday and then available on demand), quite how precipitously Collins tilted the curve of popular eroticism away from blushing maidens and crinoline toward Alaïa-clad entrepreneurs. As one interviewee in the film phrases it, Collins put “female sexuality at the center of the world, and people lost their minds.” During the ’70s and ’80s, few authors were hotter: Collins made significant amounts of money; she shrugged off the shadow of her famous and pulchritudinous older sister, Joan; she socialized with the starriest of Los Angeles’s British imports. And yet she seems to have been stung throughout her life by the rancor of her detractors. In one archival scene shot poolside during a party, the writer speaks earnestly about her plans for the day while the actor Roger Moore mimics the physique of a large-breasted woman behind her for the camera—a reminder that, even for her friends, she tended to be reduced to a smutty punch line.

book covers of works by Jackie Collins
Jackie Collins’s first novel, published in 1968, (left) and a popular mid-career work, published in 1977 (right)

Fairrie seems to have loved Collins too. Lady Boss is piercing, snappy, and seemingly devoted to its subject, whose personal archives provide a trove of insight. When Collins died in 2015, at the age of 77, she left a mass of documents—photograph albums, diaries, videos—due to the fact that she had been working on an autobiography that she never got to finish. The details are candid (Collins, at 15, had what she described as an affair with the 29-year-old Marlon Brando, who she writes called her “sincere, sweet, and luscious”) and revelatory. Before Collins was 30, she lost her mother to cancer and her first husband, who experienced addiction and manic depression, to suicide. She also had an inferiority complex regarding her sister, whom she tried to follow into acting, after getting substantial plastic surgery. “I look awful,” she writes in one desolate diary entry from the 1950s. “Joan told me so.”

But Jackie’s failed acting career gave her an unexpected gift. If she wasn’t embraced into the capacious bosom of Hollywood, she could scrutinize it quietly from the sidelines. Friend after friend tells Fairrie how Collins would go to parties, observing people, asking endless questions, and mentally storing notes for her next book. Her critiques of an industry riven equally with sleaze and aspiration are more incisive than she’s given credit for: Decades before #MeToo, she was a thoughtful chronicler of the scourge of the casting couch, and the challenges that women behind the scenes faced in being taken seriously. Hollywood Wives, Collins’s best-selling novel to date, skewers the quirks and toxicity of the moviemaking business—the pandering to male ego, the fragility of stardom, the ineffable taxonomy of who’s hot and who’s not. Her books are laden with hot male actors preying on underage girls and poisonous hustlers operating up and down the social ladder.

But her female characters tend to be bold, smart, and resilient. Lucky Santangelo, her most storied character—who Lady Boss theorizes is Collins’s alter ego—overcomes a forced marriage, mob violence, a sexist father, and a litany of abuses to become a casino boss and the head of her own movie studio. Her message for readers, Collins told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, was that “women need to be stronger … Women have always been pushed into positions in the bedroom, the kitchen, the workforce. Women can do anything.” It’s easy to satirize her style, with its rampant descriptors (“Lucky was a slender, long-limbed woman with an abundance of shoulder-length jet curls; dangerous black opal eyes; full, sensual lips; and a deep olive skin”) and husky excess. But the substance beneath it merits closer attention. Collins’s agent, Morton Janklow, argues in the film that “the great storyteller is rarer than the great writer, and Jackie was a great storyteller.”

Fairrie includes clips from TV talk shows to underscore how gleefully Collins was torn apart, often to her face. The writer Clive James derides her work as vacant airport trash; the romance novelist Barbara Cartland tells Collins during one shared appearance that she thinks her books are “evil,” to which Collins can only laugh. One talk-show appearance seems almost like an ambush: Audience members gathered by the British host Robert Kilroy-Silk lash out at Collins’s supposedly fake feminism and “disgusting” morals while she watches, completely stunned. The comedians Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders gently parodied the saga of Jackie and Joan—rivalry, fame, and lots and lots of leopard print—in a legendary sketch titled “Lucky Bitches.”

Male authors of potboilers have not historically received this treatment. Harold Robbins is still lauded as “the Onassis of supermarket literature”; Lee Child gets interviewed by The New Yorker’s David Remnick. But Collins’s influence endures in other ways. For decades, the teenagers and women who read her novels heard over and over that they counted, that their pleasure and autonomy were as important as anyone else’s. It’s not an easy message to internalize, even now. Lady Boss makes me cherish Collins more than ever for her career-long commitment to delivering it.

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