Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pulp Poseurs: Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp (2014) and the American Paperback Revolution

Just what is "pulp"?  One seems more likely these days to get a strictly accurate definition, historically speaking, down in the streets of crime fiction fandom than up in the air with the denizens of academe's ivory tower.

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?  

This is a story of paper, or rather of paperback books, produced in massive numbers between the late 1930s and early 1960s.  These throwaway items hold within their covers a rich history of literary tastes; they point to, even reflect, a democratizing literacy and the new forms of identity and community that emerged in mid-twentieth-century America....The mechanisms of pulping a work entailed a process of redistribution or, more precisely, remediation: writing often created for an educated and elite audience took on new lives by being repackaged as cheap paperbacks....In this way, Tess Durbeyfield, Daisy Miller, Connie Chatterley, and Holden Caulfield, not to mention Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, were among the thousands who made it onto Main Street.

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....

The reason the "usual definitions" of "pulp" confine the word so is explained by Ed Hulse in his The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction (2007; expanded edition 2013): Pulp, as this term used is traditionally understood, specifically refers to genre magazines "published during the first half of the 20th century, printed on cheaply produced woodpulp paper." There were many such magazines (one of the most famous being, of course, Black Mask) in the 1920s and 1930s, spanning varied genres of fiction: crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, adventure, aviation, war, sport.

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!
Thus, pulp, it would seem in this approach, is everything that is part of mass reading culture (assuming we limit pulp to books).

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."

But others have not let themselves be constrained by mere technical definitions.

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."

It may seem to some that Hulse is quibbling, but treating "pulp" and "paperback" as interchangeable terms pushes Rabinowitz into awkward sentence constructions in American Pulp, as when she writes, at the beginning of Chapter 8, that "Pulps were essentially products of the Second World War."

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.

There's no question there is a link between the true pulps, the genre fiction magazines, and the mass-market paperback fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. Crime fiction was a hugely important element of both forms of "pulp," as were, until a government backlash took force in the 1950s, the notorious--and beloved by collectors and academicians alike--sexy/sleazy cover illustrations of pulp fiction, highlighted in both Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America and Hulse's Blood 'n' Thunder Guide.

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."

I also enjoyed Rabinowitz's chapter on efforts to censor paperbacks in the 1950s.  Not only their often risque covers but their widespread distribution across the United States (and, indeed, beyond American borders) made them exceptionally egregious to our designated moral guardians, fulminating politicians.

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?
Regrettably Rabinowitz does not actually spend much time on crime fiction per se in American Pulp. (There is a chapter on Jorge Luis Borges and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that has a great deal about Borges and very little about Ellery Queen.) Sometime I felt that Mickey Spillane was the (rogue) elephant in the room, demanding detailed attention that he never gets. When Rabinowitz writes that "From its inception, New American Library took pride not only in its discerning literary taste but also in its progressive attitude toward sexual and racial minorities"--in support of this point she quotes from a letter by editor Arabel Porter in which Porter condemns the 1930s mystery novel A Bullet in the Ballet for "chortling and sniggering about the male dancers who are fairies."--I had to remind myself that this was the same NAL that under its Signet imprint published Spillane, not exactly known for his advanced attitudes about alternative sexuality.

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.


  1. I can only go by what you’ve written, not having read Rabinowitz's book, but it sounds to me like she’s possibly made the mistake of seeing the paperback market as a single gigantic market? Which it obviously was not. It was a whole series of different markets, markets which certainly overlapped but which were just as certainly quite separate. The people who bought Scott Fitzgerald in paperback were not the same people who bought Mickey Spillane paperbacks, the people who bought Mickey Spillane paperbacks were not the same people who bought Agatha Christie paperbacks, the people who bought Agatha Christie paperbacks were not the same people who bought Ian Fleming paperbacks, the people who bought Ian Fleming paperbacks were not the same people who bought Robert A. Heinlein paperbacks.

    There was quite a bit of overlap, but then there’s quite a bit of overlap between people who like Cole Porter and people who like Beethoven but Cole Porter and Beethoven cannot be considered to be part of a single music market.

    She couldn’t have made such an egregious error, could she? Please reassure me.

    1. No, I didn't mean to give the impression that that's what she is saying. She's saying the paperback revolution made both Mickey Spillane and D. H. Lawrence, say, more accessible to people, not that all the same people necessarily were reading both.

  2. An extremely interesting and useful piece -- many thanks for it. Personally I've always (if I've thought about it all) regarded pulp as as style, rather than as something defined by the actual mode of publication; yes, obviously, the style is that born of the pulp magazines, but it seems to me not to matter a lot if a particular piece of fiction found its first publication in a paperback (or even a hardback or a radio broadcast!) rather than a magazine, so long as it's in the pulp style.

    I've just checked in the third edition of the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and I see its editors take the same tack. (Disclosure: I was deeply involved in the second edition.) In the relevant article, Peter Nicholl and Mike Ashley say: "When used metaphorically the word "pulp" describes the quality and style of the fiction published in the pulp magazines – and, by extension, any similar fiction, no matter in what format it was published. The term is still used in this sense today, 40 years after the death of the pulps proper. Of course, that's a long way from the definition that Rabinowitz is using which, I very much agree, seems quite useless.

    I do love that Baskervilles cover, though!

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, and the very interesting link. (Mike Ashley contributed an essay to Mysteries Unlocked, by the way.) It's great to have your input on this matter.

      I know there are degrees by one can move away from the strictest definition of pulp. Clearly, as Jon Breen indicates, designating paperbacks by Spillane or Jim Thompson as "pulp" or, "pulp style" is a far cry from branding Jane Austen and Henry James paperbacks as pulp, like Rabinowitz does! (There are illustration of paperback editions of James' The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller in her book.)

      To stick with these examples, I tend first to think of Spillane as "hard-boiled" and Jim Thompson as "noir," though certainly one sees the stylistic influences of "pulp," much of which was hard-boiled, of course.

      Here's a nice discussion by a UK academic:

    2. Thanks very much for that link -- it looks in general to be an interesting site, the rest of which I'll explore when I'm less pressed for time!

  3. It does seem to have expanded the definition of 'pulp' to a point that that it becomes useless in all practical ways. Certainly in Britain the distance between popular and serious fiction is blurred by the fact that Penguin books began publishing stuff like Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemmingway in cheap paperback editions from 1935. Cheap paperback is not pulp, and only those stories actually published in pulp magazines are really pulp fiction. Certainly anything published after the downfall of the pulps that is still obviously influenced by them needs a new name. A lot of those huge paperback series like THE DESTROYER that were published in the 70s and 80s can be categorised as something like 'Neo-Pulp'.

    1. Maybe "neo-pulp" will do it! And don't forget ePulp!

      I was frustrated by the Rabinowitz book, because it has some interesting material in it, but I can't really see,as I explained at great length above, what it accomplishes to label all mass-market paperbacks of that period "pulp" (she includes non-fiction as well). I always thought the term "paperback revolution" served us just fine.

  4. It sounds like the definition or understanding of the meaning of "pulp" is as confusing as some other terms that get used ... such as noir and cozy, for example. This is a very enlightening post and I will have to come back and re-read it and digest more of it.

    I recently read O'Brien's Hardboiled America and am now reading Brian Ritt's Paperback Confidential, and have some of the others you mentioned, including Clues and Corpses. I love reading mystery reference books even when they have conflicting info or views.

    1. Thanks Tracy. I love the reference books too and am pleased you bought Clues and Corpses. I love to read the older reviewers.

  5. I've been thinking about this book since you first mentioned it, Curtis, and I'm getting it through my local library as best I can. What I'm wondering is, is this use of the word "pulp" an attempt to pejoratively label the provision of good books to the lower social classes? I'll be looking at this book with an eye to the author intimating, "Only people who read books in hardcover are the right people to be reading them. And since I don't like that poor people want to read too, I'll label the way they get those books as 'pulp' to make academics think worse of them." It kind of sounds like she's heading in that direction.
    I agree with TracyK that this misuse is like the currently soft, mushy definitions of words like "noir" and "cozy". People just don't seem to know what the hell they're talking about and use words any old way. Including that "cozy noir" volume that was such a bizarre idea.

    1. That's an interesting point, Noah. I honestly don't think Rabinowitz means to be pejorative, but I think one might make the argument that there perhaps is come unintended condescension in the idea "the masses" can't appreciate higher art unless it's "pulped," as she says, so that there's a girl in a bra on the cover or what have you. One literal meaning of "pulped" is "crushed into a soft, shapeless mass"--which doesn't sound very appealing! Originally when a book was pulped the copies were withdrawn from the market and destroyed, the paper recycled into God knows what. I suppose you could say that paperbacks are recycled or repurposed hardbacks in a figurative way!

      Of course when publishers put sexy covers on Faulkner or what have you, they were, surely, trying to broaden the market for his challenging books. And by broaden the market I suppose we mean in part reaching people who might not have been learning about Faulkner in college lit classes.

    2. By the way, I was talking this over with Bill Pronzini, and he favors a stricter definition of the word pulps-- (one confined to the actual pulp magazines--but ironically he was a co-editor of a book also called "American Pulp," an anthology that includes stories that were not pulp by the strict definition. He told me he had nothing to do with that title!

      The pulp mags represented a lot of things but seem for a lot of people to have become synonymous with hard-boiled and noir and crime fiction. Certainly hard-boiled was a big part of pulp mags, but a lot of other things were part of that world too: adventures, westerns, horror, sci-fi, romance, even traditional mystery! Hulse points out that Agatha Christie was popular in pulp mags in the 1920s, before she moved up to the slicks. So were J. S. Fletcher and Carolyn Wells! None of these authors are what you would call sexy or sleazy, however, and I don't think anyone today thinks of Hercule Poirot as pulp (unless it's The Big Four)! But Agatha Christie, unlike a lot of the authors Rabinowitz discusses, actually was in the pulps.