Sidney Sheldon died yesterday at 89. He will live on, for a while at least, in his novels, with their lurid covers and assertive heroines. I remember reading Master of the Game when I was on vacation as an undergrad. I remember the story moved right along, sometimes with pleasing briskness, and sometimes with irritating disregard for telling details. His obituaries all carry the quote that seems to sum up his fiction:
I try to write my books so the reader can't put them down. I try to construct them so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she has to read just one more chapter. It's the technique of the old Saturday afternoon serial: leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter.
It's easy to heap scorn on this keep-the-pages-turning-no-matter-what approach to fiction. But as Roland Barthes once pointed out, we all read using two "systems" of reading: One that takes in every detail of the writing, and another that skips over the boring descriptive parts and gets on with the story. Although he prided himself on the authenticity of his details, Sheldon was never one to linger over a description. This narrative efficiency perfectly mirrored the ambitions of his heroines. In contrast to the typical female heroine in a romance, his women had no use for endurance and the redemptive suffering that came with it. They were often as ambitious as male characters in realist fiction, and just as impatient.
But I remember a moment in Master of the Game in which a Park Avenue psychiatrist awaits his next patient with glum boredom. He complains about the utter vapidity of his (mostly) female patients, the pettiness of their concerns, their tiresome self-absorption, and the utter emptiness of life at the upper reaches of the middle class. Then his patient arrives. She isn't the heroine, I don't think, but someone with whom we're supposed to be more or less sympathetic, and the plot resumes its express train to Greenwich speed. It's an unsettling moment, one that threatens to put a match to the entire world his heroine is working to master. It's also a bitter dig at the world many of Sheldon's readers inhabited, or aspired to inhabit. The psychiatrist is like the popular novelist, just another support worker keeping the whole haute bourgeois machine humming along. Both recast their analysands/readers' insatiable desires into well-ordered, soothing, and flattering narratives. The psychiatrist scene goes to show that in the rush to tell, to get to the happy ending, sometimes the most revealing details get swept under the rug.