As everyone who is not
locked in a dungeon knows, the story of Anna Nicole Smith has
received overwhelming attention in recent weeks. The mainstream
American press, in fact, has taken a good deal of stick from
highbrow readers for devoting so many inches to the unfolding
narrative of this woman, her lovers and her child.
But how could it be
otherwise? This story was destined from the outset to take over
Page 1 — precisely because it is a classic melodrama. Following
its twists and turns, it's impossible not to get the feeling that
one is reading a good old-fashioned novel.
In 1878, Anthony
Trollope (that greatest of Victorian storytellers) offered his
readers Is He Popenjoy? It's my favorite of the 47 novels
he published, and it has an irresistible hook-in-the-jaw story. A
British aristocrat, fabulously wealthy, goes to Italy and is
trapped into marriage by a scheming foreign Delilah. He has a son
and heir — thus disowning the decent, and somewhat distant,
English relative who had expected to inherit. But did the Marquis
of Brotherton actually marry his foreign floozy? Is this young son
indeed the heir, or is he a bastard? Can the lawyers save the day?
A title, a vast fortune, a great country house hang in the
That fundamental plot
— the child without clear parentage who ultimately stands (when
his identity is finally revealed) to inherit a vast fortune — was
a favorite of the Victorian era. Think of Charles Dickens'
Great Expectations or Oliver Twist.
But it also is another
favorite plot of the Victorians; 19th-century fiction is as rich
in "oil" as Kirkuk in Iraq. In Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds,
Lizzie Greystock's problems begin when she marries an old, ill and
very loaded aristocrat, Sir Florian Eustace. Can Lizzie, after
he's done his marital duty and died on her, hold on to the family
diamonds? Or will the Eustace family break the will and disinherit
the shameless gold-digger?
You strike oil
everywhere in Victorian fiction. Trollope used the plot many
times. But there also are big oil stains across the plot surface
of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (Becky
Sharp's relationship with the Marquess of Steyne) and even in
starchy George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (Gwendolen
Harleth's cynical marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt).
The plots and story
lines that fascinated people in the past aren't likely to diminish
in appeal any time soon. Even on the USS Enterprise, Captain Kirk
and Spock are both antiquarian book lovers. At the beginning of
The Wrath of Khan, the half-Vulcan gives his commander a
copy of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
In Star Trek IV:
The Voyage Home, the two have traveled back in time and are
sitting in a cable car in 1990s San Francisco, embarked on a
mission to save the whales. When Kirk comes out with some street
talk — cunningly camouflaging their identities as denizens of the
far future — Spock asks where his commander picked up the lingo.
"Jacqueline Susann, Danielle
Steel and Harold Robbins," Kirk replies.
"Ah," sighs Spock,
I've always thought
that the American lit-crit professions have criminally underrated
the genius of Susann, Steel and Robbins (and Judith Krantz and the
recently deceased "world's master storyteller," as his Web site
labels him, Sidney Sheldon). Susann and Robbins time and again
foretell the trials, tribulation and tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith.
What is her life and death other than a sequel to Valley of
There is a lot of
snobbery about our addictive love of these stories — whether in
newspapers or trashy potboilers or the great Victorian novels. The
fact is, we need them as much as we need oxygenated air. By my
estimate, at least three-quarters of network prime-time TV is
fictional narrative. Bookstores, walk-in and Web-based, sell more
fiction than any other kind of book. The vast portion of what is
shown in our film theaters and on the cable movie channels is
fiction. Stories, that is.
persist in being snooty about storytelling. The best books,
according to some critics, are those with the least amount of
plot. There are more important issues, we're told, than Anna
Nicole Smith, just as there are better writers than Susann. Why
waste the space on Smith, they want to know?
Answer: because she
satisfies our need for a good story.
Why are we so hung up
on stories? Not because we're narrative junkies, zombified fiction
addicts — but because of the truth their falsehoods tell us. It's
the paradox that Aristotle noted, 2,500 years ago, in his
Poetics. A fiction like Oedipus Rex, Aristotle
asserted, was "truer" than history. Why? Because fiction can deal
with the essence of our human condition, unlike history, which is
tied to what actually happened.
What truth, then, does
the Anna Nicole Smith story tell us?
Take your pick:
"What doth it profit a
man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?"
"The American Dream is
just that — a dream."
"Love of money is the
root of all evil."
"Diamonds are a girl's