In Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) the professor of English, in her search for broader theoretical meaning, declines to limit herself to the traditional definition of "pulp."
Crime fiction authority Jon L. Breen has written that "'Pulp fiction' refers to material written for pulp-paper magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s and died out in the 1950s." Breen allows, I should add, that some commentators have extended the term pulp fiction "to include material written for the digest-sized fiction magazines and paperback-original publishers that took the place of pulps in the marketplace--or as much of the marketplace as the rise of televison left them."
However, in her new book on the paperback revolution in mid-twentieth-century America, Paula Rabinowitz goes considerably beyond this definition, equating pulp generally with mass-market paperbacks produced between 1939 and the mid-1960s.
"What is pulp," Rabinowitz asks, then continues:
Steamy fiction? Sleazy magazines? Cheap paper? Or might it be technology, a vehicle that once brought desire--for sex, for violence--into the open in cheap, accessible form? Or, and this is the question that motivates this book, might it be part of a larger process by which modernism itself, as high literature and art but also as a mass consumer practice, spread across America?
The paperback revolution (or the pulp era, as she sees it) ended, according to Rabinowitz, with the coming of
"higher-priced trade paperbacks used in college courses....By then, paperbacks favored text over image on their covers [partly prompted, Rabinowitz explains, by "Censorship trials and government surveillance"--TPT]....The heyday of 'the great American paperback,' as collector Richard Lupoff calls it, lasted a mere generation."
Rabinowitz explains a bit more about her definition of "pulp" in a footnote:
Since Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction the word "Pulp" has become a triggering term that conveys the sleazy underside of American culture and life. Obviously, I expand the term considerably from its more narrow reference to B-genre fiction....In the bibliography of writings about pulp, the usual definitions confine it to genre writing--crime, mystery, romance, sci-fi--first written for the dozens of pulp magazines....
Rabinowitz uses "pulped" in a far broader, metaphorical sense to describe a process by which books, including "highbrow" works, were broadly disseminated to the American masses, as "pulp," or cheap paperback books. One might question why this process, once expanded so, should be limited to mass-market paperback fiction published from 1939 to the mid-Sixties.
One could argue that "pulping," as defined by Rabinowitz, has been going on since the since the invention of the mechanized printing press. Perhaps we can designate, under this definition, the Gutenberg Bible as the first "pulp"? Or argue that the lending libraries so popular in 1920s and 1930s America were figuratively pulp mills, churning out for readers not only the adventures of Hercule Poirot but the adultery of Hester Prynne (see Murder at 3 Cents a Day on lending libraries).
And we could extend this pulp era forward as well, I suppose. Though Rabinowitz sees this period as ending in the 1960s, I recall in the 1980s at strip mall bookstores buying "cheap" (say $3.50) copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and others in the 1980s, right along with identically-priced mysteries by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers. To be sure, this decade did see the rise of the trade, or quality, paperback; but what can today's cheap eBooks be called, under Rabinowitz's definition, but pulp--ePulp, if you will?
|Okay, wise guy, define pulp for me! |
And ya better make it snappy!
However, if everything is pulp, how helpful, really, is this word as an organizational definition? As Jon L. Breen puts it, "If Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, P. G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen are now pulp writers, the designation has lost all meaning."
Of course efforts to expand the word's definition have been ongoing, both in academia and popular culture, since Quentin's Tarantino's Oscar-winning crime film. Pulp has been increasingly linked with hard-boiled/noir post-WW2 paperback fiction, made infamous (and highly collectible) by the sexy/sleazy covers so ubiquitous at this time.
Geoffrey O'Brien described this period well in his 1981 book, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks. Therein he never defined these books, however, as "pulp." Nor was Richard Lupoff's 2001 opus, The Great American Paperback, called Great American Pulps. Similarly, Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007), an anthology of genuine pulp fiction, states that pulps "were replaced by the widespread popularity of paperback books, virtually unknown as a mass market commodity before World War II."
For example, The Feminist Press' Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series, which has reprinted classic crime novels by Vera Caspary and Dorothy B. Hughes, carries a publisher's foreword which unambiguously equate pulp with both pulp magazines and with mass-market paperback fiction in general:
Pulp emerged as an alternative format for books in the 1930s, building on the popularity of pulp magazines, which flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s....Printed on wood-grain, or pulp, paper, and cheaply bound, the books were markedly different from hardbound, cloth editions.
(In American Pulp Rabinowitz, by the way, similarly emphasizes the cheapness of 1940s and 1950s paperbacks, but many of those paperbacks are much more durable than the real pulp, the old genre fiction magazines, which have paper so browned and brittle it's often hard for one to turn pages--heaven forbid!--without chipping off pieces. Additionally, some wartime hardcover fiction, published at a time when austerity measures were in force, is none too well made.)
A decade ago Jon L. Breen pointed out the incongruity in classifying Dorothy B. Hughes as a pulp writer and Vera Caspary, author of the crime novels Laura (1943) and Bedelia (1945), certainly is not someone I would have considered "pulp"; yet such they are now both declared to be--the term "pulp," like "noir" and "hard-boiled," having proven a talisman to tastemakers. Frequently these words, which really do mean different things, are used interchangeably. (It's all fashionably dark--The Feminist Press on the back of their "pulp" edition of Caspary's Bedelia tells us that "Vera Caspary anticipates today's real-life female serial killers.")
Ed Hulse is having none of this in his Blood 'n' Thunder Guide, pronouncing that therein he will not be "lavishing attention on sub-genres often mistaken for pulp: splatterpunk, lesbian fiction, Fifties J.D. [juvenile delinquent] novels and the like....after a thorough reading of this book, you'll have a much better understanding of what pulp fiction is--and what it isn't."
Since pulps as traditionally understood came into being long before the Second World War this sentence naturally will strike the traditionalist as nonsensical. Could Rabinowitz really not simply here have written the word "paperbacks," since they are what she is discussing?
Similarly, Rabinowitz writes at one point that the "post-Korean War" recession led to "the pulping of millions of unsold paperbacks," using "pulping" to mean, I believe, withdrawn from sale and destroyed/recycled; yet a few pages earlier she writes that the Mickey Spillane novel Kiss Me, Deadly was "pulped" by the paperback publisher NAL in 1953, by which I presume she means published in paperback and not, well, pulped--i.e., destroyed. This confusion arises from the author's refusing to say that Spillane's book was "published in paperback."
But paperback is not sexy, nor is the perfectly good term the paperback revolution, which used to be applied, aptly enough, to this period.
In case anyone ever doubted that sex sold prewar pulp magazine fiction, Hulse's book amply illustrates this matter. Though pulps relied on poor quality paper, a lot was put into highly-dramatic, indeed often eye-popping, color cover illustrations. (Hulse's book includes hundreds of examples, though regrettably only in black-and-white.) Some pulps were more "family-friendly," to be sure, but Spicy pulps and the Weird pulps were especially prone to exploiting the allure of sex. Certainly dazzling distressed damsels in dishabille (along with hard-fisted, pistol-packing men of course) were found in abundance.
It was only natural that to sell books paperback publishers in the Forties and Fifties would deploy sexualized cover art, especially as visceral hard-boiled fiction stormed the market, so to speak, guns-ablazing. But sexy/sleazy covers alone do not convert paperbacks into "pulp." And, in any event, Rabinowitz and others in academia today are going beyond making this connection, in their works "pulping" everything that was published in softcover up to the mid-1960s, from Jane Austen to Mickey Spillane. At times, however, Rabinowitz seems as well to fall back on the sleaze definition of pulp, as when she writes that with the rise of trade paperbacks "stressing quality and refined taste...sleaze was coming to an end." Perhaps the academic definition of pulp has not yet settled.
If we put aside the pulpy question of definitions, there are definitely things to praise about American Pulp. For one thing, it is a gorgeously-produced book (the publisher is Princeton University Press), affordably priced, including a two dozen page section of color plates depicting mid-century paperbacks. Academic tomes don't come more nicely produced than this one!
In the text Rabinowitz does not offer a full formal history of the paperback revolution, but she does provide interesting glimpses of some of the skirmishers. I especially enjoyed her chapter on the paperback Armed Services Editions and reading by members of American military during the Second World War.
It is quite interesting seeing in their own words what these readers actually perused:
In my opinion, the reading of the men with whom I serve can be summed up in one word, "escape." When you have breakfast with a man and at supper time he has been buried--your relative values change. High cultural values seem silly to a jungle fighter....
I used to be quite discriminating in my choice of books....Now, I'll read anything I can get my hands on, including the "who-dunits."
One serviceman concluded that among his compatriots "the Most Popular Books are Mysteries, following it with a ratio of about 3:2 are Westerns, and a ratio of 3:1 to mysteries are adventure stories."
In American Pulp there is a comical quotation from Congresswoman Katharine St. George (R-NY), a cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, in which she condemns the very paperback edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles to which I once devoted a blog post.
Fraud on the public perpetrated by paperback publishers, the congresswoman declared
has been carried to absurd lengths in some cases, even in one case, in my recollection, of taking a Sherlock Holmes book--and surely nobody has less sex in him than Sherlock Holmes--and I think it was The Hound of the Baskervilles and how in the world they were able to develop a sexy cover on The Hound of the Baskervilles is beyond me.
As I recollect, a captive woman indeed is bound in Hound, though this outrage is described secondhand. I'm reminded of the 1952 play (later famously filmed) The Seven Year Itch, wherein a paperback publisher wants to issue an edition of The Scarlet Letter, under the title I Was an Adulteress, with Hester Prynne depicted wearing "a real tight, low-cut dress," "with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth." The only concern is somehow finding space on her dress "for a big red letter." (this is originally recounted, I believe, in Hardboiled America).
Rabinowitz also covers such hot topics in academic literary studies as "lesbian pulp" and juvenile delinquent novels and there is often something of interest to be found in these discussions, although sometimes the speculations seem opaque. (There's a lot about the symbolic significance of the slip in cover art on lesbian paperbacks; from a practical standpoint I'm reminded of prewar writing guidelines for the Spicy pulps: "Try and keep at least a shred of something on the girls"--on the covers one couldn't depict full nudity, of course, but it was important to have considerable exposure.)
|Another culprit exposed|
by Mike Hammer?
To be sure, some mid-century paperbacks aided, as Rabinowitz notes, in the development of "new sensibilities aware of racial, gendered, and queer expressions." (I discuss this matter myself in Clues and Corpses, my book on mystery writer and critic Todd Downing). Yet there also was a great deal in the paperback crime fiction of that era that was regressive and reactionary.
Of course if one wants to learn in detail about crime fiction's key role in the paperback revolution, there are plenty of books besides American Pulp, such as Hardboiled America. And if one has a hankering to try some really pithy pulp, there is always The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction, which, as its author says, will tell you what pulp is--and isn't.