Author Judith Krantz, who has died aged 91, sold millions of novels but her work was still dismissed as being about “sex and shopping”. Writer Daisy Buchanan looks at why novels about women making money and having great sex deserve to be respected more.
If you’re a successful writer of science fiction, you’ll be celebrated and praised for your vivid imagination. People will talk about how impressive your work is and wonder how you have created alternative universes that reflect the problems we encounter in the existing one. Your work will be read on buses and trains, without attracting comment. Your readers will rarely feel the need to defend you or hide their enthusiasm for your books.
However, if you write books that are set in the world we know, and you tell stories about women getting exactly what they want, you will rarely be afforded the same courtesy. If your fantasy landscape isn’t a bleak dystopia, but instead, features women making money, women having great sex, and women who have really good hair, your work will be laughed at. It won’t be ignored – you could have tens of millions of readers – but your books will not be taken seriously. Even your most ardent fans will describe your words as a “guilty pleasure”. Respected literary critics will line up to sneer at you. Your work, your words, your brain could make you worth $150 million (EL James) or $180 million (Jackie Collins) – you could generate more in revenue than whole international businesses and become a household name – but it is still entirely acceptable to laugh at you.
Judith Krantz died on Monday, aged 91. She wrote 10 bestselling novels, selling 85 million books worldwide. In her New York Times obituary, Krantz was described as “a fantasy novelist. Her heroines — invariably rich, thin, savvy, ambitious and preternaturally beautiful — are undisputed princesses, their castles the opulent hotels, condominiums, casinos and boutiques of New York, Paris, Beverly Hills and Monte Carlo.” She is credited with inventing a genre. The Guardian described her as a “sex and shopping novelist” – and Krantz did not object to term, and used it as the name of her memoir, published in 2000 – but plenty of people used the label as a way to dismiss her work. Angela Carter once compared the experience of reading Krantz’s novels to “being sealed inside a luxury shopping mall whilst being softly pelted with scented sex technique manuals.”
I love reading Krantz. She’s one of the writers I discovered as I was reaching my teens – I devoured Scruples with wide eyed, open mouthed greed, at around the same time as I started falling for my other favourites – Jackie Collins, Jaqueline Susanne, Sophie Kinsella, Fiona Walker, Grace Metallious, Shirley Conran, and my writing heroine, Jilly Cooper. These books made me gasp with giddy delight. I was thrilled to discover that this kind of writing was allowed.
My parents had permitted and encouraged my love of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte), and any book that was part of the classic canon. The heroines I’d met were plucky and principled. I’d read plenty of books that told me that strained circumstances were character building, and that it was better to be poor, earnest and humble than a dreaming arriviste. I still love these books, and I don’t think we can underestimate the impact they’ve had on the literature that was written in their wake.
But discovering Scruples felt like downing an icy vodka martini immediately after finishing a mug of Yorkshire tea. It was shocking, it was refreshing, and it made me want to act like a wild woman. The characters were still plucky and principled – but they were wealthy, audacious and fabulously dressed. They pursued pleasure and ambition with unquestioning entitlement. Krantz’s Billy Ikehorn is the polar opposite of Austen’s Fanny Price.
Krantz was a brand and a business in her own right, but arguably her impact on publishing has been incalculably valuable. When Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James was published in the UK in 2011, it became the fastest selling book in this country since records began. We know the franchise was directly inspired by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books – another multi million seller that has been the subject of snobbery and disdain – but I believe that Krantz’s work laid the foundations for the world that James created.
Whether or not you count yourself as a fan of James’ writing – and Fifty Shades has sold 125 million copies, so some of you must like her books – it must be acknowledged that her imagination has created an industry. You can watch the films. You can buy the sex toys. People are employed because of James, and because of Krantz before her. Julie Cohen, the bestselling author and vice president of the Romantic Novelists Association tells me that she once heard Krantz speaking: “She was very clear: writing is a business, and you have got to be smart and tough and determined. Judith Krantz was all of those things. It is incredibly difficult to write a fast-paced, entertaining novel that makes readers feel good. It is both a skill and an art.”
I host a podcast called You’re Booked, in which I interview authors about the books on their shelves, and their lives as readers. I want to find out who the guests really are, and challenge the way that literature is sometimes used as a shield, or a mask representing a self we wish to project. During every single episode, a guest will pick up a book they love, and they will say this: “Honestly, I can’t remember exactly what happened – but I vividly remember the way I felt when I was reading it.” Often, they are holding a book by Krantz, Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins.
Krantz and her predecessors might have written about women living fantasy lives, but their responses and emotions make them real. The bestselling romantic novelist Rowan Coleman says “Krantz’s heroines are survivors, their happy endings are on their own terms. Tell me, what is more central to the human condition than loving another human being? It’s what defines us.” When we describe a book as “escapism”, it’s often intended as a dismissal – when “gritty” and “real” are indicative of worth.
But what are books for, if not to offer us precious moments of escape? Why do we underestimate the talent of the writers who don’t simply take us away from reality, but manage to invent dazzling universes, and find a way to make us feel as though we belong there, alongside their wittiest and most glittering characters?
“Sex and shopping” sounds dismissive, but perhaps it’s not the worst label. There’s nothing feminist about dismissing the feminine. Any pen that created sexually confident, empowered women who make and spend their own money must be remembered as a force to be reckoned with.