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Sheldon's writing spoke to the masses

February 02, 2007|Jonathan Kirsch | Special to The Times

The last time I saw Sidney Sheldon, he was holding court at an "A" table at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. As I recall the scene, a writer of a certain age was paying obeisance to Sheldon by presenting the grand master with a copy of his own new book, a biography of a dead Hollywood celebrity.

Both men were attired in the crisply pressed shirts and expertly tailored blazers and slacks that Sheldon himself would have described as "dapper," a favorite adjective in the books that he wrote. Other diners were scanning the room on that day, but their eyes did not linger on Sheldon and his lunch companion -- they seemed to be looking instead for one of the wild young things you read about in In Touch magazine.

Sheldon may have succeeded in putting another novel on the bestseller list as recently as 2004 with his last one, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?," but on that day he seemed a quaint and fading figure from another era of publishing. No one who reads the work of Aimee Bender, Dave Eggers or Nick Hornby, of course, is likely to have read anything Sheldon ever wrote. But I wonder how many of the readers who kept "The Da Vinci Code" on bestseller lists ever cracked open a Sheldon potboiler. With his death, one of the last survivors of a golden age in American popular culture has departed.

Born in 1917, Sheldon belonged to a generation of writers who may have revered (and envied) Steinbeck and Hemingway but who were perfectly willing to use their talents to make a buck. Indeed, Sheldon's role models were Irving Wallace and Harold Robbins, and the adjectives that have showed up in his obituary notices -- "steamy" and "trashy" -- mark him as the kind of writer whose work was seen in abundance on the beach and around the swimming pool. Significantly, Sheldon wrote in his memoir, when he finally decided to sell the novel in his bottom desk drawer after a long and rewarding movie and TV career, the first person he called to ask for a referral to a literary agent was "a dear friend of mine, the talented novelist, Irving Wallace."

Sheldon paid his dues in the same way that novelists always did before the existence of MFA programs and writing fellowships -- he went to work, not to school. Indeed, he was forced to drop out of college during the Depression, and he worked as a drugstore clerk, a shoe salesman and a radio announcer, the gig that prompted him to change his last name from Schechtel to Sheldon. After making the inevitable pilgrimage to Hollywood and taking a $17-a-week job as a script-reader, he was soon writing scripts for movies and plays. He was worth $3 billion when he died, according to Variety, an achievement that not even Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling can match.

If his novels were formulaic, so was his real life. The temptation to cash in, so deeply rooted in American arts and letters, can be seen in Sheldon's work. As a successful television producer in the 1960s, he recognized that the young Patty Duke was "extraordinarily talented," but it says something about both of them that she went from the sublime achievement of "The Miracle Worker" to the sitcom that Sheldon crafted for her, "The Patty Duke Show." Still, it is also telling that his experience of writing novels was more pleasurable and more meaningful to him than the committee work of making movies and TV shows.

Sheldon, of course, never set out to impress the critics, and nothing in his oeuvre suggests that he will be read 100 years from now except perhaps as an exemplar of the excess that characterizes most American bestseller lists. He could not have been surprised that he never put a Pulitzer medal on the shelf next to his Oscar and his Tony: On the other hand, with 300 million copies of his books sold in 180 countries, would that really matter to him?

But Sheldon is not wholly without influence on American letters. Dan Brown may have broken Sheldon's old record of keeping a book on a bestseller list for 53 weeks, but Brown certainly owes a debt to the man who gave the world so much of what critics have called "good junk reading." Stripped of their faux history and dubious theology, Brown's page-turners are rendered in precisely the same kind of dialogue-driven narrative and urgent, one-sentence paragraphs, and ornamented with the same kind of exotic locales and unlikely characters, that can be found in any of Sheldon's novels.

In that sense, Sidney Sheldon -- thanks to the kindred spirits following his example -- will live forever.

Jonathan Kirsch is a three-term former president of PEN USA and the author, most recently, of "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

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