The 1980s was a time when materialism prevailed, and all of America regarded Hollywood not only as an entertainment mecca, but as the quintessential way of life. Media focused heavily on celebrities by zooming in on their personal lives, thus attracting a large audience captivated by the Hollywood intrigue. Books were no exception to this trend, and even though fictitious, they provided a peek inside the lives of America's elite. Hollywood Wives was so successful during this period because it wove bits and pieces of contemporary society into its plot, fictionalizing the seemingly fantasy world of Beverly Hills in which a wide audience could indulge. Jackie Collins added to the book's notoriety by being a best selling, celebrity author herself; merely plastering her name on the cover of a novel basically guarantees large sales volumes. Her penchant is writing about the glamorous and risqué life of Hollywood celebrities, and many other authors who have duplicated this method of writing about one main subject matter find it quite profitable. In the eighties, everyone wanted to learn about the rich and famous and pop culture powered the media industry to the point where it helped boost books into best selling status. Who better to write these books than Jackie Collins, who once described herself as "an insider who can write like an outsider about the inside"?
This age of excess and stardom witnessed the "celebritization" of media, ranging from books to television and from movies to politics. Hollywood Wives was published in 1983 and dealt with the glitzy lives of movie stars, directors, producers, and their significant others. This time frame coincides perfectly with the rise of America's "inquiring mind" and desire to live vicariously through fictitious characters. Tabloids were popular throughout the eighties and peaked at the close of the decade, selling twelve to fifteen million copies a week (led by The National Enquirer and the Star). Their tattletale, extravagant nature helped quench America's insatiable thirst for gossip. A book such as Hollywood Wives provided a similar source of secondhand information to readers.
The nonfiction bestsellers of the early eighties are also worth examining. In 1981 and 1982, the chart-toppers were The Beverly Hills Diet and Jane Fonda's Workout Book, respectively. The allure of celebrity lifestyle sent millions flocking to the bookstore in hopes of attaining the perfect Hollywood body.
Other forms of print media such as magazines grew in popularity at this time as well. The eighties saw an increase in publications devoted to coverage of Hollywood subjects-A & E Monthly, Entertainment Weekly, AMC Magazine, and Soap Opera Digest. Such materials fueled people's inquisitive nature and added to the trend that had already begun. In 1974, People Weekly came on the scene with Mia Farrow on the cover and front-to-back "personality" coverage. Celebrity news and photos started dominating traditional magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Esquire, and GQ in the late seventies, setting the stage for the Hollywood boom of the eighties. Prior to that time, power in Hollywood lay in the hands of producers and directors, but with the advent of the eighties, this power shifted to the stars themselves and their enormous salaries. Media took a more aggressive approach to reporting on Hollywood, which in turn provided writers like Jackie Collins with plenty of material for their work.
The "celebritization" trend did not stop with literature; television was greatly affected by it, as evidence by the types of shows that were popular at the time. In the same year as Hollywood Wives was published, cable television subscribers reached the thirty million mark with viewers tuning in to Dallas, Dynasty, and a variety of entertainment-related shows such as Access Hollywood, E! Extra, and Entertainment Tonight (premiering in 1982). During the mid-eighties, David Letterman received multiple Emmy awards for his Late Night with David Letterman variety show. A big draw for shows of this type was the celebrity interview, especially since hosts like Letterman could bring in the big-time stars. By the end of the decade, only two percent of United States households lacked a television, implying that the other ninety-eight percent were being exposed to the immense Hollywood hype in large doses. Psychological theory states the people like what they are familiar with and see often, so once again it is no mystery why books about the celebrity lifestyle were so popular.
The fascination with celebrities was even seen in politics of the eighties. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and showed that actors could be taken seriously. His fame and reputation got him enough votes to win, so he entered the political arena known as the actor-turned-president.
In Hollywood Wives, Collins cleverly included an underlying murder/mystery plot in addition to all of the Hollywood and glamour. Although the ending is predictable and foretold, it holds one's interest, and helps tie everything together into a neat package.
Hollywood Wives is the epitome of a 1980s romantic fiction best seller. Although the grammar and vocabulary of the text leave much to be desired, Collins' has been noted for the steady improvement of her plot lines and character developments over the years. This contributes to the book's popularity and defines it as a "quick read". Ease of sentence structure, familiarity with content, and a moderate number of pages all factor into its readability and helps push sales through the roof. In literary circles, however, her books are sometimes criticized as "trashy and over-sexed".
Despite the negative reviews her work has elicited, the fact remains that she has written twenty-two best selling novels that have all been on the New York Times Best Sellers List. This success does not stem solely from the literary merit of these books, however. Best selling status takes into consideration sales figures and sales figures only. There is no mention anywhere on a best seller list of quality of writing or development of plot. Thus, it is quite possible that other circumstances weigh in. Authors like Jackie Collins have the luxury of writing whatever they want and still winding up with a best seller more often than not due simply to name recognition. Like any product of service, once it performs consistently, one does not hesitate to buy it again in the future as it is assumed to produce favorable results again. Author recognition follows the same pattern. The books whose titles are a smaller font than the author's name indicate that the book is being marketed on "brand name" and that the title is more or less irrelevant to the success of the book. Along with best selling status, Collins has celebrity status to boot, thanks to her famous actress-sister Joan Collins.
Examining the best sellers lists of the past decade reveals a trend of well-known authors making it to the top year after year. They churn out books and even if those books are not literary masterpieces, people buy them in droves. A 1997 study from Publisher's Weekly found that out of forty-three books that had sales of more than a million copies in their first year of publication, thirty of them were written by Stephen King, John Grisham, or Danielle Steele. Stephen King came onto the literary scene topping the best seller list in 1980 with Firestarter, which was eventually adapted into a film starring a young Drew Barrymore. The success of the book and film helped launch King's career. One year later, he came out with Cujo and as expected, it sold over a million copies in its first year. This trend continued and his name became a regular on the New York Times Best Seller List between the years of 1980 and 1996, appearing at least once each year in the top ten. Danielle Steele found her success in the eighties and nineties writing romance novels similar to those of Jackie Collins sans the obligatory Hollywood slant. She captivates her audience by repeating a successful "formula" of sex, drugs, and scandal. Whereas Jackie Collins was a celebrity in her own right prior to writing, authors like Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Irving, and Mary Higgins Clark became famous as a result of their writing. The general population has come to expect a certain level of entertainment from these well-known authors, thus increasing the likelihood of buying their books and boosting sales into the best seller realm.
An interesting subset of this type of "celebrity author" genre includes books found in the Oprah Book Club. Although Oprah herself does not write the books, her notoriety supports every book she selects for the Club. More often than not, the author is not very well known, yet sales skyrocket after Oprah introduces them to America. One example of this occurred with Wally Lamb, author of She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True. Her fame served as the backbone of the marketing scheme for these books. What better way to inform people about a new book than to "advertise" it on national television endorsed by the most famous talk show host in America? Mostly housewives and young adults, two groups who are generally not big readers, then purchase these books. This supports Jackie Collins' main goal of writing: "The important thing is I get people into the bookstores who probably wouldn't be there otherwise."
Hollywood Wives is also part of a category of novels created by authors who maintain a common theme throughout a majority of their books. Readers know what they are getting before they even open the book. While plot surprises contribute to the suspense and entertainment value of the book, a certain level of predictability contributes to the purchasing decision made at the bookstore. If someone wants to read about sex and betrayal, Sandra Brown comes to mind whereas if one were looking for law and politics, John Grisham would be first on their list. From The Client to The Firm, The Street Lawyer to The Runaway Jury, he never fails to write an entertaining, high-energy law novel. This is well known by the general public, as many of his works have been brought to life on the big screen; so when people think lawyers and novels, they think John Grisham. Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, and Harold Robbins (Jackie's inspiration) all draw on big business, media, and the film industry.
When an author becomes known for consistently writing about a certain topic, it has a tremendous impact on sales figures. It is important to note that name and subject matter recognition is on an extremely large scale, as the average American has some grasp on who Jackie Collins is and the fact that she likes to write about celebrities in Hollywood. Consistent entertaining writing coupled with a proven successful storyline appeals to the typical pleasure reader, and the typical pleasure reader is the one who goes to Barnes & Noble and lays out the money for a new book.
One thing that can be concluded from researching Hollywood Wives and the circumstances surrounding it is that in the eighties and nineties there was a particular way to write a best seller of this type. Realizing that this sort of book belongs to a variety of sub-genres is essential to learning what makes Hollywood Wives a best seller. The 1980s was an era of excess where Hollywood celebrities and materialism was glorified. The rise of tabloids and superstar-focused media captivated America, who in turn sought out the same way of life in print form. Blockbuster authors like Jackie Collins became the driving forces behind the success of their books, as people began to develop certain expectations from particular writers based on their status in the literary community. Publishers market these books solely on the reputation of the author and his or her past successes, banking on name recognition for sales. Authors who tend to stick with one main theme throughout their books do not go unnoticed. Jackie Collins, known for her "trash-and-flash" writing style makes fans of this genre run back to the bookstore for more. There is much to be learned by examining best sellers of the twentieth century, and Hollywood Wives teaches more lessons than one would ever expect from a seemingly simple, sexy, scandalous book. When one scratches below the surface, bits of contemporary society and literary trends abound.
People Weekly Almanac, Cader Books, New York, 1999.
Wilson, John Morgan, Inside Hollywood. Writer's Digest Books, Ohio, 1998.
Consulted Hollywood Wives Assignments 1 through 4 by Debbie Beisswanger.