Death of the ‘bonkbuster’?

Well there’s a sad coincidence: on Saturday, a memory was broken open of having sneak-read the works of Mrs Judith Krantz in my teens, and today comes the news of the lady’s death. The trigger for my looking up Judith Krantz was the recent death of another spirited nonagenarian, Gloria Vanderbilt. Out of curiosity, I was taken by the urge to download Ms Vanderbilt’s erotic novel Obsession, fascinated by the (mainly negative) reviews it appeared to have received. (By the way, Obsession is charmingly, ridiculously bonkers).

Anyway, my memory of Judith Krantz novels is of nicking my mother’s copies and gorging them down at speed, with a particular fascination for the ‘rude bits’. A great quote from the author in 1994 ran thus:

“If you get to the point in a book where there’s going to be a sex scene, you can either have a fade-out, or you can write it. And I just don’t believe in fading out. I’m right there in the bed with them, the invisible spectator. Somebody asked me if it wasn’t voyeuristic. I said: ‘Of course it’s voyeuristic, that’s the whole point.”

That’s fair enough to me. All human drives and appetites are described in novels, why not sex? You don’t have to read—or write it, come to that, if it’s not your ‘thing’.

Bonkbusters were once the ultimate beach read

There was a somewhat cruel review of Krantz’s second novel Princess Daisy (in the London Review of Books, of all places) by Clive James some years ago. I normally find James a witty and intelligent writer—and speaker, but that article is not his best, in my view. Writing a ‘literary’ review of popular fiction is too cheap a shot, yes, but, most of all, the witticisms just don’t hit the mark in that piece. In line with that article, in the Washington Post the academic and writer John Sutherland included Judith Krantz’s Dazzle as the “vulgarest” novel he had ever read.

Ah, begone sneering men. They were gripping fun!

Although, it is ages since I have read a bonkbuster. I don’t remember finding Krantz’s prose all that terrible, though it’s true to say my critical faculties were not that well developed either. I almost daren’t try reading one again after all this time.

Defined as ‘a popular novel involving frequent explicit sexual encounters’ (‘bonk’ being British slang for ‘sexual intercourse’), they reigned supreme on best-seller lists and balanced on every other lap along the summer beach in the 1970s and 80s. Yet the bonkbuster is not something we see much of any more. We lost the so-called ‘Queen of the Bonkbuster’ Jackie Collins several years ago; Shirley Conran (remember Lace?) hasn’t published fiction in a while.

There seems to be disagreement as to the first bonkbuster. Maybe it was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966); perhaps we go back further to Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, 1944 (though that was historical rather than contemporary – which might discount it). Novels that were considered ‘sensational’ go back to at least the 19th century. Consider Mary Braddon (1835-1915) for instance, author of up to eighty novels and creator of much outrage with her 1862 best-selling Lady Audley’s Secret.

ME Braddon: An early ‘sensation’ novelist

Today we have romances a plenty, not to mention erotic-romance and simple erotica. But these are not quite the same. Rival for the Queen-of-the-Bonkbuster crown Jilly (Riders) Cooper claimed a few years ago that the death of the genre was because “women don’t want to have sex anymore,” and that “Ours is now a terribly under-sexed society…”

Oh dear. Sounds grim. What with that and the dire need for escapism at the moment, perhaps it’s time to bring the bonkbuster back?

Clive James, ‘A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses’, London Review of Books, June 1980
Richard Eden, ‘Author Jilly Cooper: ‘Bonkbuster’ is dead because women have lost their libidos’ The Daily Telegraph, June 2012.
Giles Smith, ‘Lives of the rich and famous’, The Independent, August 1994

20 thoughts on “Death of the ‘bonkbuster’?

  1. I wonder why people complain when a book marked ‘erotica’ has explicit sex scenes. It’s not the author’s fault the reader didn’t read which genre the book fall under.
    And yeah, that last part does sound grim.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an interesting phenomenon that sex scenes in erotica gets complained about – though it can be hard to tell if ‘erotic romance’ leans more to the former or the latter, I guess. On reflection, getting a review that reads ‘utterly filthy’ could be used as a marketing point…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with Judith Krantz, if you get to the point where there’s gonna be a sex scene you just have to write it…………………. btw speaking from personal experience it helps if the author is sexually aroused, just sayin 😀 .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too – with Judith Krantz in the bedroom, as it were (who says three’s a crowd?). Though I can also see that if the author has successfully built up the chemistry between their couple (or whatever configuration), the reader’s mind could do the rest – and who knows, perhaps better.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fun and informative post! And thank you for explaining the term bonkbuster for we Americans, because I had no idea what it meant. Now that I’ve been enlightened, I feel like I’ve been missing out. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a rather a lame play on ‘blockbuster’ 🙂 Come to think of it, not sure if anyone says ‘bonk’ any more either…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Erotica books should get the same stature as any other genre – reminded me of Nancy Friday 😊❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Friday was a great pioneer who helped women become more open about sexuality.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A superlative, informative, highly enjoyable, educational penning…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too generous an assessment! But thank you so much for stopping by to read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is indeed a great pleasure!


  6. Always impressed at the capacity of essentializing: “Women have lost their libido”. Wait a sec, Richard. What women? What are you sources? Do you have research? What is your sample? Population? Place? etc. etc. It’s like politicians who declare: “The people want this or that”. Should be read: “I want this”.
    Be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite! Those who make such generalized pronouncements reveal more about themselves than they do about supposed subject in hand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. There was a time not so long ago, in France when a woman could not open a bank account without hubby’s approval. Until early 70’s if I recall. Tsss.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Similarly in Uk, I believe women needed a male relative’s signature to obtain a mortgage in the 1970s.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s a long and winding road… 😉


  7. What a wonderful trip down memory lane: Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper, etc., we read them all. I think ‘Lace’ was my first. Who could forget the goldfish scene… or was that Lace 2?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was Lace (1)! A combination of proud and embarrassed to know that. I wonder why certain books have to be a guilty pleasure – I am a massive fan of eclectic reading. Yes, these books really are of their time, a certain 1980s excess.


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