Our book today is H.R.H. by Danielle Steel, the second-worst novelist of the 20th century. She's also the second-best selling author of the 20th century; the first in both those categories is Stephen King, and as with most upgrades from #2 to #1, the person in the top spot is much worse and much more dangerous than the runner-up. King has aspirations to be taken seriously - and trust me when I predict, those aspirations will only get more desperate (and produce more deplorable stuff) as he gets older and becomes more and more aware of the fact that there were two paths open to him as a writer thirty years ago, and he took the wrong one if you're destination is literary respectability. His desire for what he can never have will only sharpen as time closes in on him - we'll see his critical study of Proust (or its mongrel equivalent) within a decade, and in the meantime, he's written a book on the craft of writing, and that book is taken seriously in some quarters, even assigned in some college-level courses. Hence the danger.
(It's the outgrowth of a natural human contradiction: people want to read good books, but people are also invincibly lazy ... so they read only stupid, easy books, but they still keep feeling the original want - and eventually, that causes them to call the stupid, easy books they actually do read good ... because it seems like such a neat little solution to their problem! And if those stupid, easy books are big enough financial successes or garner a wide enough audience of people trying that same solution, those of us who aren't invincibly lazy and actually do read good books - or at least real books - on a regular basis start to get characterized as cranks and killjoys and snobs, because we still have the nerve to say the Harry Potter books are awful, or that there's no literary worth to anything Stephen King has ever written, or that Susan Sontag is grotesquely overrated, or that nobody should be reading Raymond Carver .... and so on. All those judgements are right, but as the crowds grow larger wanting to elevate what they've settled for, they start to look more and more eccentric ...)
Danielle Steel might not be quite the same danger to the reading public as Stephen King, but boy, is she a bad writer! She's the kind of bad writer who wastes no time in being bad - she's bad right from the first sentence. Steel has written over 75 books, and in all that verbiage, she's not picked up a single trick of good prose. It's uncanny. H.R.H. was written in 2006 (she wrote three other novels in that same year), but Steel's awfulness has a fly-in-amber quality to it - this book isn't merely as bad as something she wrote thirty years ago, it's exactly as bad.
It's the story of Christianna, a beautiful young princess of modern-day Lichtenstein (the Royal Highness of the title) who's tormented by a Princess Diana-like desire to live a normal life, to do charity work all day long the way normal people do. At the book's opening, she's watching her dog Charles romp in a late summer rainstorm and having the following reverie:
He was having a great time, as Christianna was, watching him. It was the last of summer and the weather was still warm. She had returned to Vaduz in June, after four years of college in Berkeley. Coming home had been something of a shock, and so far the best thing about her homecoming was Charles. Other than her cousins in England and Germany, and acquaintances throughout Europe, her only friend was Charles. She led a sheltered and isolated life, and always had.
The problems load onto the prose with locust-like enswaddling totality, don't they? The book will go on to tell us - over and over again - how close Christianna is to her father, the reigning prince of Lichtenstein, how strong a bond they share, and yet here Steel is telling us the highlight of Christianna's entire summer at home has been her dog. And you sense right away the reason for this and all other problems with the book: Steel doesn't recall that her own words have created that vacant summer (there's no actual reason why the book can't open in June); she doesn't read her own work. Hell, she doesn't write her own work - I'd bet my last basset hound she records them, for transcription by underlings at some later date. If she read what she, er, produces, she'd see that the above passage says Christianna's only friend is Charles - except for a horde of friends across three countries and two continents. She'd see that Christianna has always led a sheltered and isolated life (got that? she's been both sheltered and isolated) - except for the four years she spent on the open campus of a college 7000 miles away from home.
You'd think such lazy, stupid writing would doom an author's career - unless you read the Bestseller feature Open Letters ran some months ago. During the gruesome prep-work everybody did for that issue, one thing became glaringly obvious: writers of this kind of garbage know exactly what they're doing. It would be folly to suggest Danielle Steel is somehow lucky in what she does - she's built a brand-name following precisely because the tone, tenor, and tautologies of her work haven't changed in an entire generation. Mothers who love her books can confidently pass them on to daughters of a similar lazy, stupid reading disposition, and they can both read the next book, without fear of disappointment.
Anyway, back to Christianna: she eventually rebels against her beloved father (very beloved - both father and daughter are always admiring - and commenting on - how attractive each other looks; mother is, conveniently and perhaps to her own relief, safely dead) and goes to Africa to do some charity work. Her presumably armed bodyguards excite no special attention from customs, nor does the fact that she has no surname printed on her passport - and soon she's rolling bandages with a whole cast of grubby-but-adorable peon volunteers, even consenting to touch some of the poor sick black folk who're too busy vomiting blood to do any charity work of their own. She goes to this clinic strictly incognito, but she wastes precious little time revealing herself to some of her fellow volunteers - including Parker, the scruffy-dreamy guy she of course falls in love with (that Parker is attractive, wealthy, and white almost goes without saying ... if Steel had had Christianna fall in love with one of those African patients, and then had the courage to write that book, right to its end, she'd be an entirely different author)(unlike Stephen King, I get the impression the thought of doing something like this literally never crosses Steel's mind).
At least once in every paragraph, we're told these thing: 1) Christianna loves her father deeply, 2) Christianna feels her duty to Lichtenstein too strongly to ever abandon it for merely personal rewards, 3) Christianna misses her time as a student at Berkeley, and (eventually) 4) Christianna deeply loves Parker, and that the love reminds her of 3, conflicts with 1, and is doomed by 2. And I'm not exaggerating: we're told all four of those things at least a thousand times in the course of this 383-page novel - all four are repeated several times on every page. To a so-called 'serious' reader, someone exploring the written word in search of the furthest reaches of its power and intricacy, this is nothing less than a nightmare, a kind of Tourettesian anti-reading.
But to all other readers, it's a virtually perfect formula: you're told a diverting story, but at no point are you required by the storyteller to actually pay attention - so the experience of moving through the book's pages is mentally effortless. You get the gain - the diverting story - without any expenditure of anything on your part: no remembering, no imagination, no preconceptions challenged. You get something for nothing - which has always been the American dream.
'Serious' readers who still occasionally read books like this (and I'm not the only one!) won't be able to help themselves - they'll occasionally do some of the work Steel herself so consistently avoids. They'll occasionally sniff out the real book buried under all the layers of reductive crapola. Take this passage, for instance:
She [Christianna] was also very interested in women's rights, which was a sore subject in her country. Women had only had the vote for just slightly over twenty years, since 1984, which was unthinkable. She liked to say that her arrival had brought them freedom, since the year of her emancipation was the one in which she'd been born.
Despite the claim made there, Christianna doesn't 'like to say' anything even remotely that witty, sarcastic, or interesting anywhere in the course of H.R.H. - she is blandness personified - but oh, what a tantalizing little glimpse it is! A glimpse of a version of this novel in which the characters, especially the title character, aren't cliched ciphers going through predictable motions to comfort a somnolent reading public and finance the author's various full-length portraits.
And who knows? Perhaps even a traveler as far down that road as Steel is really can find her way to something better, really can right the wrongs that have marred nearly 100 novels, if the spirit moves her. Danielle, we met once, years and years ago - you kept your handler waiting impatiently while you and I agreed that Jackie Collins' popularity was no good excuse for how bad her writing is. If you can recall that conversation - and more importantly, if you can recall the you who was having it - send me an email! We'll tell your publisher you're taking a year off, and we'll write a book you'll not only be proud of but that'll get reviewed on the front page of every newspaper in the country. It'll be just what poor Christianna wants: the best of both worlds.