First things first: the history of the novel is already tangled up with the notion of “trash.” Peruse the great 19th-century realist novels — particularly Jane Austen’s, say — and you’ll catch characters insulting each other’s reading habits. But there are a lot of reasons to read other than intellectual elevation. Relaxation is one; keeping up with what everyone else is reading is another. Here are 40 of the greatest trashy books written in the last hundred years that, if you’re not looking for perfect prose, will surely decrease muscle tension over a weekend, or on vacation. These books aren’t perfect, but each has some kind of hook — either unexpectedly good construction, entertainingly inventive salaciousness, or historical import in and of itself. Enjoy!
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Grace Metalious’s 1956 classic of love, sex, and domestic violence in a tiny New England Hamlet was so scandalous that it was banned in Rhode Island. Best scene:
“Is it up, Rod?” she panted, undulating her body under his. “Is it up good and hard?” “Oh, yes,” he whispered, almost unable to speak. “Oh, yes.” Without another word, Betty jackknifed her knees, pushed Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside of the car. “Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie,” she screamed at him.
Zoya by Danielle Steel
Possibly the one actually kind of interesting Steel novel, it follows a minor member of the Romanov family to exile in America. She is a poor ballerina in France for awhile, then marries a soldier who dies. Then she marries rich, then watches as the fortune crumbles with the Great Depression. Along the way one of her kids gets super-spoiled. Rinse, repeat, forget completely about afterwards, but then you will finally have read one of her novels like probably half of the American population and it will have been a relatively painless experiment.
My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews
A lot of people I solicited for input on this list said, “Oh, Flowers in the Attic, of course,” but this choice flagged them to me as rank amateurs in the matter of V.C. Andrews. The weirdest, trashiest V.C. Andrews is not Flowers — even the later books in the series, which are far weirder than the first — but rather My Sweet Audrina, in which a seven-year-old with a serious brain-fog problem is raised to replace a dead elder sister. In the woods there’s a beautiful boy living with his amputee mother who knows the real story of the First Audrina’s death. Representative quote: “What is normal? Normal is only ordinary; mediocre. Life belongs to the rare, exceptional individual who dares to be different.”
Lace by Shirley Conran
I recommend this on the strength of my good friend and trash expert Sarah Hughes. Conran’s last name comes from her brief marriage to Terrence Conran, of the British Crate-and-Barrel precursor the Conran Shop. Like ye olde Sex and the City, the book features four friends who have risen to the very top of their big-city-cliché professions: fashion, PR, interior decorator, and, you know, war reporting. And then charts the disintegration of their love and sex lives. Plus they’re all British. The precursor to Bridget Jones, except apparently quite a bit braver.
Scruples by Judith Krantz
Scruples is set in Los Angeles, and the title refers to the name of the proto-Kitson boutique that saves her life. The protagonist’s name is Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop. Do you really need more?
The Plains of Passage by Jean Auel
A lot of people would say to start with The Clan of the Cave Bear, but Jean Auel’s “sex-among-the-cave-people epics” (that’s Stephen King’s term) are so repetitive you probably don’t need the context of the earlier books to understand this, the fourth one. Which, by the way, is chock full of long descriptions of Pleasures, considerations of the import of Pleasures, and segues like this one:
Suddenly he felt an urge to do more than compare skin tones. It pleased him to know that if he wanted to share pleasures with her right them, she would be willing. There was comfort in that too. It wasn’t necessary to seize every opportunity.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
The author took a journalistic approach to writing this young-women-climb-the-publishing-ladder epic, interviewing over 50 women. But the result isn’t just dry sociology; The Best of Everything, I’d say, is in the class of “actually kind of well-written trash,” though perhaps my view is skewed here by the fact that Rona Jaffe’s estate now sponsors a good literary prize for women. It enjoyed a brief revival when peak Mad Men madness was on.
The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins
At last — trash written by a man! About the heir to an aviation fortune, whose eccentricities bear a strong resemblance to those of Howard Hughes. Per the Times review, “It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.” But it became a bestseller and a film anyway.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Susann based her 1960s pulp classic on her own experiences as an aspiring actress, which was apparently a romp of pill-popping and porn-starring in Hollywood and New York. At first, Neely O’Hara, the eventual star, is a homebody: “I’ve got a library copy of Gone with the Wind, a quart of milk and all these cookies. Wow! What an orgy!” But by the end of the book she’s a diva monster.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
It occurs to me that this priest-lust epic set in the Australian countryside was both more scandalous and less icky to think about before the recent wave of pedophilia scandals in the church. Nonetheless, Maggie Carey’s melodrama still packs a punch:
The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follow an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.
The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick
Merrick was a handsome former actor when he wrote this book, which was a bestseller when it was published but is now out of print. It tells the love story of Peter and Charlie, whose affair begins in college. But Charlie is always reluctant to commit. It’s love at first sight, though:
His eyes encountered Peter’s and started to move on but were held by the clear blue innocence of the boy’s regard, openly responsive, with none of the guarded defiance with which young males generally eye their own sex.
The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon
Sheldon’s book can perhaps best be assessed by the quality of the prose on Wikipedia that describes it: “In America, Catherine Alexander was born to a father who had big dreams but could never achieve them. Because her mother died an early age, she never had a maternal figure to help her with female problems, and grew up to be ignorant of her beauty and sexuality.” Sheldon’s tale of female betrayal involves a retaliatory abortion and a lot of caves. It also spawned a sequel: Memories of Midnight.
Riders by Jilly Cooper
Sex and British horse people. Doesn’t the cover alone sell you?
Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
Per the author herself:
At the time we were all writing erotica at a dollar a page, I realized that for centuries we had had only one model for this literary genre—the writing of men. I was already conscious of a difference between the masculine and feminine treatment of sexual experience. I knew that there was a great disparity between Henry Miller’s explicitness and my ambiguities—between his humorous, Rabelaisian view of sex and my poetic descriptions of sexual relationships in the unpublished portions of [my] diary.. Women, I thought, were more apt to fuse sex with emotion, with love, and to single out one man rather than be promiscuous. This became apparent to me as I wrote the novels and the Diary, and I saw it even more clearly when I began to teach. But although women’s attitude towards sex was quite distinct from that of men, we had not yet learned how to write about it. Here in the erotica I was writing to entertain, under pressure from a client who wanted me to “leave out the poetry.” I believed that my style was derived from a reading of men’s works. For this reason I long felt that I had compromised my feminine self. I put the erotica aside. Rereading it these many years later, I see that my own voice was not completely suppressed. In numerous passages I was intuitively using a woman’s language, seeing sexual experience from a woman’s point of view. I finally decided to release the erotica for publication be- cause it shows the beginning efforts of a woman in a world that had been the domain of men.
The Second Lady by Irving Wallace
The premise of this alone sells it: the Russians have, through extensive plastic surgery, created a replica of the First Lady. But once installed, her doppelganger discovers that mimicry is not as easy as it looks.
The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
Heyer is largely forgotten today (ed: in the U.S.! But we hear you, Georgette Heyer fans), but she was a big deal in her own time, principally an author of historical romances. The Black Moth’s tale of a highwayman was inspired by a sick brother.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
The banned book that arguably was among the first to mix “trash” with “literature.” Read now it’s a little tame for modern tastes.
The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
Anne Rice’s vampire novels may be better known, but her epic about a family of witches in New Orleans is possibly quite a bit better, if only because witches must live in the modern world and therefore have a preference, as here, for dating hunky firefighters.
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
Jackie Collins made her career with this book, rumored to be only a very loosely fictionalized account of several people in Hollywood.
Bling by Erica Kennedy
All about the underbelly of the hip-hop world, and a delicious page turner I read in under a day in a park recently.
Loves Music, Loves to Dance by Mary Higgins Clark
In the age of the Craigslist killer, this book’s alarmism about the perils of personal ads is almost quaint. But it’s probably the most elegantly constructed of Higgins Clark’s mysteries.
Comes the Blind Fury by John Saul
Horror nerds have always found much to read in the lower ends of the book trade, and one of my favorites as a kid was this book by John Saul. It’s a typical haunted-house/possession story. It’s possible that I liked it so much because the little girl at its center was named Michelle.
Strangers by Dean Koontz
Again for horror/suspense nerds, Strangers is the book that made Koontz’s reputation. A bunch of strangers (heh) are brought together by maladies that turn out to be linked to extraterrestrial forces.
The Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris
I mean, you know what this is about. David Foster Wallace taught it to his students. What greater excuse do you need?
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
At this point the term “Stepford Wife” is so ingrained in popular culture that it hardly seems transgressive to make fun of the empty heads of devoted housewives, but when it appeared Ira Levin’s book was taken as a strong satire of gender politics. The book actually holds up shockingly well; here’s Joanna, the heroine, dealing with a doctor to whom she’s laying out her theory:
Joanna said, “I know it sounds–” She rubbed her temple. “It sounds,” Dr. Fancher said, “like the idea of a woman who, like many women today, and with good reason, fees a deep resentment and suspicion of men. One who’s pulled two ways by conflicting demands, perhaps more strongly than she’s aware; the old conventions on the one hand, and the new conventions of the liberated woman on the other.”
The Bad Seed by William March
Now that it’s associated with a campy movie, people forget that when The Bad Seed came out in 1954 the critics loved it, and it was nominated for a National Book Award. Per The New York Times, it is an “absolutely first class novel of moral bewilderments and responsibilities nearest the heart of our decade.”
A Season in Purgatory by Dominick Dunne
This is Dunne’s novel about the murder of Martha Moxley, which he also wrote about extensively for Vanity Fair.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Turning Arthurian legends on their head, Bradley’s retelling through the experiences of the women behind them is a perennial bestseller and a mighty good read.
Naked Came the Stranger by “Penelope Ashe”
This book is actually a hoax of sorts. Penned by a group of journalists frustrated with the success of the pulpy bestseller, the book has only the loosest of plots and is chock full of sex scenes of every kind imaginable. Naturally, it sold as well as the tricksters behind it thought it would.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I suspect it might be impossible to live in America without ever encountering this book, but for my money I prefer it to the movie, lack of “Frankly, my dear” notwithstanding. Completely racist, too, of course.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Big, strong, strapping Scots. Time travel. Sexual frustration. Endless fun.
The Stand by Stephen King
The King novel which seems to be enjoying the biggest resurgence in interest lately is actually my other favorite, IT. But The Stand‘s ragtag band of community-building outsiders is due for a renaissance, I think. They botched the miniseries, but I call on HBO to take the thing on.
Shogun by James Clavell
In my opinion, the direct equivalent to bodice-rippers is the giant Great-Man historical sagas like Shogun, which essentially express male virility myths through their conquer and control of other people. That’s why I include Clavell’s behemoth here. Also because of the unintentional comedy factor in lines like this one:
The folds of her three gossamer kimonos sighed open and revealed the misted underskirt that enhanced her loins.
God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell
When it appeared in 1933, Caldwell was actually arrested by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He had written what he thought was a novel railing against the anti-labor-union movement in the South; they saw only the numerous sex scenes. It of course instantly became a bestseller.
Go Ask Alice by “Anonymous”
Go Ask Alice was passed around my middle school like samizdat. It’s all about a young girl’s descent into drug life, and just as it spoke to me and my classmates in the early 1990s I think it still holds up. And the life of Beatrice Sparks, who wrote it, could be its own novel.
Wifey by Judy Blume
Blume’s one truly “adult” book is as fabulous as just that description sounds.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Kind of crazy that in one sense these books are power-struggle sagas about architecture. But they’re that rare Game of Thrones-type thing: a complicated, byzantine saga that is actually relaxing to read.
Queenie by Michael Korda
Korda (who happened to be Harold Robbins’ editor, small world) wrote this novel about his aunt, the actress Merle Oberon, who was half-Indian, and her attempts to pass for white. It’s… really quite fabulous. And as far as I know, out of print. Save us, Kindle!
Beulah Land by Lonnie Coleman
Lonnie Coleman’s Beulah Land is a sort of Gone With the Wind ripoff that was so obviously going to be a bestseller that Doubleday paid $800,000 for the paperback rights — in 1978 dollars. That would be something in the range of $3 million today. But the sort of quiet prose it’s written in is unusual for a bestseller — probably because Coleman was a respected literary novelist before he wrote this behemoth.
Hawaii by James A. Michener
And we end on another Great-Man epic. Even if his characters are always flat and the world-historical conceit of something like Hawaii ponderous, Michener gets a Rona-Jaffe pass from me for having founded a writer’s center at the University of Texas, Austin, that is funding some of today’s greatest writers. And he writes quite cleanly, himself.