What actually was the idea of Englishman Allen Lane during WWII found its way to the United States: the invention of a small, affordable book format, available almost anywhere where you could buy chewing gum and cigarettes. Lane, after unsuccessfully searching for small-sized books to read on his daily train rides, in 1935 founded Penguin Books in England. The company would provide just this product: the cheap, quality pocket book with small dimensions (or portable books, as they were called then).
The idea was copied, some say stolen, and the paperback soon surfaced in the US with new American publishing houses specializing in this product. It was to become a great American genre, or rather a particular American institution: the paperback book, or the pulp book, printed on the cheapest paper (pulp) that was produced in incredible quantities between the 1930s and 1960s.
The newly designed book became synonymous with the distribution of countless mystery and detective novels, romance stories, and espionage thrillers; simply called pulp novels.
Furthermore, hundreds of reissued literary classics from the previous centuries also appeared in pocket-sized editions for the first time. Not only did the outer appearance of the books change but it is important to understand that some pulp books were simple reprints of “valuable” literature, classics actually, and now were available to a completely different sort of buyer at a very low price.
This led to the combination of abstract, generally action-inspired covers for famous works by authors like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Sigmund Freud or Camus. These editions often were advertised by the publishers with catchwords as “sex,” “wickedness,” “sensation,” or “violent.” A marketing strategy commonly in use for cheap mysteries and violence inspired detective fiction. So defining pulp fiction is not always easy, for there were many different literary qualities in circulation; generally, the term pulp fiction refers to the novels of lower literary quality.
Some of the new ‘real’ pulp novels in turn became classics themselves, if we keep in mind that the books by James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane – the ‘King of the Pulps -, and many other famous hard-boiled authors sold in very high quantities. (Spillane’s first novel ‘I, The Jury‘ sold more than 6 million paperback copies in the US). The price for a copy was just between 25 and 50 cents.
Paula Rabinowitz’s style is rather close to journalism and we learn in an entertaining way of the beginning, workings and the heritage of those particular editions with the exclusive cover design: chiefly depictions of crime scenes, gunfights and action. On those covers, however, women were portrayed much more often than men. And women, posing as aggressors or victims, were probably the basic reason why pulp stories sold; and they were bought by male and female customers alike. For the war created a new readership during the war, when women did the work of those who fought abroad; and with affordable literature in a pocket format, women became a target audience for the publishers.
The small books could easily be read anywhere, and the act of reading was no longer something one did at the library or at home. The pulps were not sold in bookshops, but they sat on the shelf next to chewing gum, newspapers, chocolate and cigarettes in candy stores, drugstores or tobacconists. (Which is the reason why for many years educated Americans looked down both at the pulps and the respective readership.)
To Rabinowitz the “monotony of the paperback – its uniform dimensions and the ways in which it blurs the line between high and low, fiction and nonfiction, text and image – allows for readers to embrace them for various reasons, often having nothing to do with the reading, including how the spectacle of paperbacks attracts one to purchase it or being attracted to something on its cover.”
This can be regarded as an act of mass-informing parts of the American public that was introduced to ‘valuable’ literature for the first time, while the majority of the pulps still represented cheap mystery and detective stories. “In effect, the story of American pulp is the story of American modernism. Pulping is the process by which Americans became modern. … Science, sociology, art and history – an entire liberal arts education – became available to working people through such imprints as New American Library’s Mentor Books.” The paperbacks also had another effect: for the first time, many undiscovered authors with a particular approach to literature, such as protest novels by African-Americans or texts featuring gay/lesbian characters, could be published easily and reach a large audience.
On top of that the war promoted the circulation of pulps and massively fought illiteracy in the forces since tons of pulps – selected by a special editorial team – were sent all around the world to American troops as Armed Service Editions.
Violence, lust, rage and crime in general are some of the most prominent topics of many pulp novels. Rabinowitz makes this clear in long chapters on American angst, the Cold War and cites numerous examples. Like Richard Wrights’s Native Son and 12 MillionBlack Voices, Ann Petry’s Country Place, and James Agee’s text in Let us Now Praise Famous Men (who studied crime magazines and photo tabloids for inspiration). With a section on Vera Caspary’s Laura (the novel that inspired the famous film noir) and other prominent works of fiction, we get detailed information hinting at the interrelatedness of newspaper headlines, true crime magazines and fictional accounts of a darker American reality, existing next to the otherwise prosperous 1940s and 1950s.
In American Pulp we not only encounter the history of pulp (pulp novels, not pulp magazines) from the late 1930s onwards, but along with the author’s very personal inspiration for collecting shelf after shelf of pulps. Rabinowitz, professor of English at the University of Minnesota, also tells her own story as a book collector. For pulp books never were meant to be kept or collected in the first place.
This fate is owed to the material at hand, pulp itself. “Pulp, lower grade than newsprint, is a paper stock destined to disappear … Made from the leftovers of paper production, pulp paperbacks were meant for the trash can, not the museum or library. Although these books were recycled throughout popular culture in comic strips, radio shows, movies, and television, they should not have survived. Yet they endure and provide a window onto the ways in which modernism cruised Man Street.”
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015
Paula Rabinowitz. American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton University Press, 2014, 408 p.