In May 2023, Conservative British weekly magazine The Spectator ran a piece revealing the “guilty pleasures” of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Allegedly, he likes listening to the music of Michael Bublé, watching Emily in Paris – and reading the novels of Jilly Cooper.
This might seem, on the surface, an uncontroversial choice. Cooper is a stalwart of the British literary scene, awarded an OBE in 2004 and a CBE in 2018 for services to literature. Moreover, her most iconic character, Rupert Campbell-Black – who is reportedly partially based on Queen Camilla’s former husband Andrew Parker-Bowles – is British nationalism made flesh.
In Riders (1985), Sunak’s alleged favourite novel, Rupert wins multiple medals for Great Britain in showjumping, including gold in the team event at the 1984 Olympics. In later books in the so-called “Rutshire Chronicles”, such as Rivals (1988) and Polo (1991), he becomes Tory minister for sport.
But Sunak’s love of Cooper’s novels became something of a joke in the news cycle. One key reason was their genre: Cooper’s books are usually described as “bonkbusters”.
What is a bonkbuster?
The term “bonkbuster” was coined by Sue Limb in 1989, writing under the pseudonym Dulcie Domum for the column Bad Housekeeping in the Guardian:
Publisher [… enquires] about progress of blockbuster. Or as spouse now refers to it, bonk-buster […] Grab pen, and whisk Charlotte Beaminster from jacuzzi to bathroom window, from which she glimpses new gardener: stocky, balding Slav, with magnetic eyes and masterful manner with turnips. Feel at last bonkbuster is on the road.
The etymology of the term is fairly clear. To be a bonkbuster, a book must be popular, as signalled via the “-buster” (from “blockbuster”), and full of sex: notably, Limb came up with the term after a publisher asked her to write “a big, thick book with lots of bonking in it”.
And there’s a third component at play. Bonkbusters are characterised by melodrama and spectacle – in other words, they are completely, unashamedly, unabashedly bonkers.
While there are many authors whose works have been described as bonkbusters, four are generally agreed to be the doyennes of the genre: Sunak’s beloved Jilly Cooper, as well as Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran (also both OBEs), and Judith Krantz.
Krantz is the lone American of the four. The other three are all British, and this is expressed in much of their work – if not always in location (Collins, for instance, wrote extensively about Hollywood), then in a distinctly British dry, wry humour.
Their books – most famously, Chances (1981) and Hollywood Wives (1983) by Collins, Lace (1982) by Conran, Scruples by Krantz (1978), and the aforementioned novels by Cooper – have all sold millions of copies.
Collins was the first of these authors to publish a novel. Her debut, The World Is Full Of Married Men, came out in 1968.
But all four were at the pinnacle of their powers and popularity in the 1980s. This is an era frequently characterised by excess. The bonkbusters are no different, with their focus on wealth and power – and of course sex.
Sex, relationships and goldfish
Bonkbusters are often grouped with romance novels – presumably because they share a predominantly female authorship and an assumed female readership.
However, structurally, bonkbusters are far more expansive. While romance novels usually focus on two characters falling in love and conclude with them together, bonkbusters typically focus on multiple characters and have no such guarantee of a happy ending.
Combined with their innate melodrama, this means bonkbusters often feel more like soap operas than romance novels, especially contemporaneous 1980s soaps like Dallas (1978-91) and Dynasty (1981-89), which starred Joan Collins, sister of Jackie.
There are key differences in attitude between the two forms – including the way they approach sex. In romance fiction, sex scenes typically take place between two people who will ultimately end up in a relationship (even if they’re not in one at the time), and depict “good” sex, in that everyone involved has a good time.
By contrast, bonkbusters frequently contain bad sex. Sex can be euphoric and multi-orgasmic – this is certainly the case in what is arguably the most infamous bonkbuster sex scene, the goldfish scene from Conran’s Lace.
Here, the imperious Prince Abdullah scoops a “little fish” from “the bowl […] that always seemed to be at his bedside” and pushes it inside the woman in his bed (who “started to groan with pleasure”), before he “languorously” sucks it out.
But sex in the bonkbuster can also be mechanical, comedic, disgusting, unsatisfying or unwanted. In Cooper’s Riders, Helen Campbell-Black finds sex with her husband Rupert profoundly anxiety-inducing, and is often “too tense and nervous of interruption to gain any satisfaction”. Rupert is not sympathetic: he later tells her,
you’re like a frozen chicken. Fucking you is like stuffing sausage meat into a broiler. I’m always frightened I’ll discover the giblets.
This exemplifies another typical bonkbuster theme: bad relationships. Unsurprisingly, Helen and Rupert’s marriage does not last.
Orgasms and class
Bonkbusters have a deeply fraught and complicated relationship with feminism. However, it is arguably in their depictions of sex and relationships – particularly their championing of female orgasms – that the most compelling case for reading them as feminist texts can be made.
This is explicitly outlined in Lace, when one protagonist’s eventual husband tells her, “You have as much right as a man to an orgasm and the way you reach it is your business”.
By focusing on the sometimes disappointing realities of sex and romance, and contrasting them with better ones, bonkbusters in many ways forcefully advocate for a woman’s right to pleasure.
Bonkbusters – especially Jilly Cooper’s books – are often associated with the English upper classes. Cooper’s aristocratic characters attend parties in (often quite tumbledown) stately homes, or socialise at polo matches.
Yet this is not true of all bonkbusters. Jackie Collins’ and Judith Krantz’s novels set in Hollywood feature individuals with more humble origins. Cooper herself focuses on working-class characters in her later novel Wicked! (2006), which explores the rivalry between local private and comprehensive schools.
What all bonkbusters endorse is aspiration – to be richer, to be famous, to have better sex (or more sex), or to gain a husband.
Where has the bonkbuster gone?
The 21st century saw the bonkbuster disappear somewhat from view – or, at least, from its wholesale domination of bestseller lists. When she died in 2019, Judith Krantz had not published a book in 20 years. Shirley Conran hasn’t published a novel since 1998. The slew of copycats died down and other forms of women’s fiction, such as chick-lit, arose in its wake.
However, this is not to say the bonkbuster has gone away. Jackie Collins published until her death in 2015. Her publisher Simon & Schuster has been reissuing her novels with new forewords by other well-known woman writers – the 2023 40th anniversary reissue of Hollywood Wives comes with a foreword by BookTok sensation Colleen Hoover.
And one of Cooper’s earlier novels from the bonkbuster heyday of the 1980s, Rivals, is being adapted for the screen by Disney+, with a cast featuring David Tennant, Aidan Turner and Danny Dyer.
Whether or not this revived interest (in Cooper, in particular) will lead to a wholesale revival of the form remains to be seen. But if nothing else, Rishi Sunak will soon be able to enjoy a new novel from his favourite author.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Jodi McAlister, Deakin University and Amy Burge, University of Birmingham.
Jodi McAlister's novels are also published by Simon & Schuster, noted in this article as Jackie Collins' publisher.
Amy Burge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.