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Is It Velveeta or Just Cheesy?

February 21, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Good writing--to recycle a perfectly serviceable cliche--is in the eye of the beholder.

Leo Tolstoy, for example, despised the work of William Shakespeare, who was, according to the great Russian novelist, certainly not a genius, and not even "an average author."

That the world could love and admire Shakespeare was attributable, said the cranky author of "Anna Karenina," to some sort of mass delusion akin to the religious fervor that inspired the Crusades or the tulip-planting craze that once swept Holland.

So who am I to say that Joan Collins' best-selling novels are to literature as Velveeta on Spam is to Duck a l'Orange? Until now, I have never read her "work."

But it was hard to ignore the plot of the actress' recent New York courtroom drama. To refresh your memories, Collins was sued by Random House for breach of contract and the return of a massive advance on a two-novel deal after the actress failed to produce what Random House considered publishable manuscripts. Oh, she produced manuscripts all right, but nothing her publisher deemed worthy of printing.

I followed the trial in order to learn how to produce a best-selling book. There seem to be two mere requisites: Be famous (this could be tough) and get a good editor (dime a dozen--oops, a cliche, but nothing an editor worth her, um, salt can't fix).

After five days of testimony, during which the renowned book editor Joni Evans testified that Collins' work was "very primitive . . . jumbled and disjointed" even "alarming," a jury decided mostly in Collins' favor. She did deliver one of the novels she had promised to produce, said jurors, but the second manuscript, they agreed, was only a refried version of the first. Bottom line: Collins keeps her $1.2-million advance, and may even receive more money for the first manuscript, since she was to receive a total of $4 million for both novels.

Collins owes the legal triumph to her agent, the late Swifty Lazar, who outfoxed Random House by forcing the publisher to scrap a standard contractual clause in which a manuscript must be deemed "satisfactory" by editors. Collins' contract only required that her manuscript be "complete" for which no legal definition exists.

Frankly, I think she wreaks the equivalent of domestic violence on the English language, but then again, I happen to think Shakespeare was a genius.

But why depend on my less-than-authoritative opinion. Judge for yourself a sample of her bruised prose, from the 1988 novel "Prime Time": The actress picked for this plum part would certainly have to have enough in common with Miranda to be believable to the audience. They would have to hate her, and they would have to love her. Not an easy combination to achieve. She had to be a bitch, but she had to be vulnerable. She had to have fire, but she had to be warm. She had to be dominating, yet men must feel they could be the one to dominate her. And last week the producers, dynamic Abby Arafat and his partner, the equally dynamic Gertrude Greenbloom, had come up with the idea of testing Chloe.

Is it any wonder the aisles in my local bookstore are identified as Fiction / Literature? Clearly, there is a difference.

After the legal wrangling ends--Random House is considering an appeal--perhaps the manuscripts of Joan Collins will find a home in the Library of Abominable First Drafts. I recently forayed into its dank and dusty archives and emerged with some startling discoveries.

Who could have guessed that some of the most famous literary passages in the English language were practically unprintable when first handed over to editors prior to publication?

* My parents could not for the life of them decide on a name for me. Should I be called Stuart? Or Horace? In the end, who knows why, they decided to call me Ishmael. Yuck. I ended up going to sea just to get away from them. What a mistake that was.

* Things were kind of so-so back in 1775. Good, bad, a real mixed bag. Everything seemed kind of discombobulated. The best and the worst of times, I guess you could say. More or less.

* Back when, waaay back when, the Big Guy got a little bored with the nothingness of it all and he decided to create something to toy with. So he devised the idea of a planet of some sort, which, of course, he created instantly because he's pretty impatient. And he said: Sure is dark in here. So, ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, the sun came up.

* When you love someone, you shouldn't feel that you have to apologize for every little thing.

This should give hope to all aspiring Joan Collinses everywhere.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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