When I was writing my first book, I was working full-time as a newspaper reporter. I wrote in my spare bedroom, in my time, on nights (Monday through Fridays, except not Thursdays, because my programs were on) and weekends. I told very few people that I was attempting a novel, mostly because I feared being that cliché, the Reporter Who Never Finished the Novel She Talked about Forever.
I did, however, tell my mother, who was not encouraging. “Oh, yes, your novel,” she would say, whenever the subject came up, all but draping her hand across her forehead, like a Southern belle anticipating an attack of the vapors.
So when it was done, and I’d found an agent, and my agent had found a publisher, I had the delightful experience of telling her that my so-called novel was going to be a real book.
Then I had the less-delightful experience of handing over the stack of pages and listening to my mother read it. Imagine a living room, absolutely silent except for the papery shuffle of pages turning, relieved only by the occasional shriek of Jenny, goddamnit!.
When my mom had finally finished, she set the last page down and turned to me, beaming.
“That was a real page-turner!” she announced. Page turner? I thought. What about the imagery? What about the language? What about that poignant and heart-rending scene where the heroine remembers her father teaching her to swim?
I must have been staring, affronted, as I waited for the more accurate assessment, the one I was certain my prose stylings and Princeton degree had earned me. I did not toil as a reporter for almost 10 years and take a creative writing workshop with Toni Morrison to write page turners! WTF, Fran?
When I wrote the book, I hadn’t been thinking of labels. In my head, Good in Bed was just a novel. Fran was only the first of many, many people who were happy to set me straight. As the spring went on, Good in Bed showed up on many summer reading lists, usually headlined something like “Beach Book Round-Up” illustrated with sun, sand, and bouncy beach balls, surrounded entirely by other books by women. When Janet Maslin of the New York Times labeled my heroine, Cannie Shapiro, “this season’s beach-book Queen for a Day,” I figured resistance was futile. My book was a beach book. Might as well make the best of it.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder (as another beach-book heroine might have said): What makes some books beach books and others just books?
Certainly timing was part of it. Good in Bed was published in May, just as the weather was getting warmer. The glossy, candy-colored cover with naked legs and a slice of cheesecake made the book look inviting, while sending a certain message — this is going to be fun! You will enjoy it! And, maybe, you won’t have to work very hard when you read it! It’s true that fiction — even the most sober, most salubrious most literary stuff — has to entertain. Those pages, after all, do not turn themselves. But beach reads tilt more toward the entertaining than improving side of the spectrum. The pacing is brisk, the plots are propulsive, ideally, there’s some humor, and, usually, there’s some sex.
Over the years, I’ve tried to make peace with the label. I’m not 100 percent there yet, mostly because of the gendered nature of the term. Stroll along a sandy shore or peruse the Nooks and Kindles by the pool anywhere in this great nation, and you’ll see plenty of John Grisham and Brad Thor, James Patterson and George R.R. Martin, Thomas Harris and Stephen King. These books, like all great beach reads, are built to entertain. Their plots are brisk, their main characters, if not “likable” or “relatable” are at least interesting. They generally offer some kind of escapism. While literary fiction is more likely to concern itself with the nuts and bolts of the here and now, beach reads are free to offer princes in disguise, or monsters in the sewers, or movie stars with secret pasts, or dramatic courtroom showdowns, or dragons. Unlike literary fiction, which can end with ambiguity, beach reads conclude with a version of happily ever after, where the mystery is solved, the monster is vanquished, the good guys save the day and the bad guys are packed off to jail, or hell, or Castle Black, depending.
But beach books by men get other, less dismissive monikers; labels like mystery or legal thriller or fantasy or horror that describe without demeaning.
It’s not fair. And maybe someday it will change, and all books read on beaches will be called “beach books” — or none will.
In the meantime, let us now praise the very best best beach books, which offer women readers a main character who’s a version of your best friend, or you. She’s the women you know, only more so: She’s braver, funnier, sexier, smarter, and altogether more daring. You might think of the perfectly devastating comeback two nights too late. A beach-book heroine will have it at the ready. You might consider your handsome boss or the hot billionaire and wonder what if?; a beach-read heroine will find out. Most of all, a beach-book protagonist will go big or go home. Even if she’s plagued by self-doubts, dysfunctional parents, a secret past or a pill problem, she’ll be out there saving the show, or her family, or the world. And there will be some bit of the book, some line or scene or bit of description, that will linger in your memory long after you’ve finally gotten those last grains of sand out of your suitcase.
Hollywood superstar Lili demanding Which one of you bitches is my mother?
Beach book. (Shirley Conran’s Lace).
Lisey Landon, sending her sadistic tormentor into interdimensional purgatory with a single savage blow from a ceremonial silver shovel?
Beach book. (Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story).
Bridget Jones blubbing into her ice cream, obsessing over pounds gained and cigarettes smoked?
Then there’s the sex. Maybe these days it’s all about Netflix, but when I was young, I learned about sex — and, more importantly, about sexual fulfillment — from fiction. The best beach books put women on top, describing their pleasure vividly, making their satisfaction a priority. You don’t always see realistic female orgasms in porn. You don’t always see them at all in literary fiction. In beach books, they’re practically a requirement.
Critics might call them trash or fluff, or dismiss them as mere entertainment. But entertainment is no mere thing — especially these days — and the best beach books are much more than being forgettable sunscreen-soaked formulaic tales. They are mirrors, where women and girls get to see the best-looking, most smartest, bravest, sexiest, confident and fulfilled versions of ourselves. They are wish fulfillment and best-life-now inspiration, all wrapped up in a single delicious package. And that’s something to be celebrated, not dismissed.