American Pulp – Paula Rabinowitz

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There is real hope for a culture that makes it as easy to buy a book as it does a pack of cigarettes.”—a civic leader quoted in a New American Library ad (1951)

I have a fascination with books outside of a pure reading experience: the evolution of genre, the pop-culture history of books as historical artifacts. Rabinowitz’s American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street is a scholarly history of pulp paperbacks, the legacy and impact of those moldy bits of paper with creased spines and yellowed covers. The book is a series of episodes within the history of paperback books, spread throughout the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. Her argument is what affordable paperback books brought to the masses: a kind of secondhand modernism, a democratization of ideas, a wealth of new perspectives. All wrapped up under bright and risqué covers, their pages stained at the edges, small enough to fit in a pocket and cheap enough to become an impulse-buy.

Rabinowitz begins by looking at the packaging, how the books were marketed—cover art depicting a gritty, violent, sexualized version of our world. Some of the most prestigious authors in the English language saw their masterpieces released as part of Signet’s New American Library or under Avon’s watchful Shakespeare head icon, dressed up in evocative cover art that has little to do with the novel’s plot—these authors were “pulped” as Rabinowitz puts it, pulping as a process that took literature and repackaged it in the form of paperback reprints:

The mechanism of pulping a work entailed a process of redistribution or, more precisely, remediation: writings often created for an educated and elite audience took on new lives by being repackaged as cheap paperbacks.

Penguin—the first company to release paperback books, back in the ’30s—released books whose covers looked more fitting as brochures or subway maps, a very simple design format that relied on white space, crisp black text, and two bands of color. While Penguin revolutionized the publishing industry, giving readers a 25-cent option in addition to hardcovers costing two or three dollars, the aesthetic did not survive the voyage across the pond. American publishers went another route, that of brilliantly lurid covers—from Dell’s crude mapback mysteries to the more sensational covers of Avon or Gold Medal, renaming books for shock value (Five Chimneys becomes I Survived Hitler’s Ovens).

That, Rabinowitz argues, triggers a paperback revolution: reading becomes not just democratic, but demotic. Those beautiful covers of sleaze and death brought books into the hands of millions of people who otherwise wouldn’t be readers, exposed them to highbrow literature. Until Gold Medal introduced the paperback original, paperback books consisted of reprints. The original intent of the New American Library is revealed by its name: reprinting works of literary esteem to create a new library for American readers, starting with Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Steinbeck in 1948. You could pull one of those classics off a wire rack in a drugstore or grocery, then buy it for the same price as a pack of smokes or a gallon of gasoline.

Some of the episodes Rabinowitz focused on were more interesting to me than others:

A lengthy chapter covers the creation of the Armed Forces Editions, printing cheap (free!) paperbacks for troops fighting in Japan or Europe; while designed for even the most illiterate reader, the editors managed to include a wide spread of both popular and literary fiction, with an emphasis on short fiction (for soldiers at war rarely have the luxury to do nothing but sit and read). Thus, postwar demand was born, aided by servicemen picking up Penguin books while stationed in England.

Rabinowitz’s specialties include women, minorities, and the working-class, and American Pulp takes a look at the impact of two black authors: Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941) which drew from true crime magazines, and Ann Petry’s forgotten second novel Country Place (1947), a tale of crime and adultery in rural New England. There’s an intriguing chapter on Jorge Luis Borges, getting his early short fiction published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. And there’s the way women writers were marketed towards male readers, such as the Armed Forces Editions hyping the masculinity of Isak Dineson (a gender-concealing pseudonym for writer Karen Blixen).

The rise of the 1950s saw a rise in sleaze as a genre, from violent tales of juvenile delinquents to the large subgenre of lesbian fiction. While the latter was marketed towards heterosexual men as erotica, the lesbian pulps became how-to guides for lesbian women, ways to understand the culture even as the books created it: their cover art influenced fashions and dress, become how-to-dress manuals for awakening young lesbians. The reaction to the risque covers and non-conventional content lead to congressional hearings, debating morals, the fine line between freedom of speech and censorship, a recurring element of the paperback revolution.

American Pulp makes a persuasive argument for such enduring yet overlooked pop artifacts—a physical media declared dead every few months (ironic that I read an ebook version).  As a scholarly work it can make for dry or heavy reading, though it’s well-researched and contains a number of book covers and photos to give examples to the reader. Its analysis is impressive, showing keen insight and an attention to details which may otherwise have slipped through the cracks of history. Rabinowitz writes with authoritative power, backed up by the human element of personal interest—in the preface, she relates that “American Pulp is about the kind of paperback books that sat on my mother’s nightstand all through childhood,” the kind of books that have left a strange but enduring legacy to millions of American readers.

Reading a scholarly history and discourse on pulp paperbacks is not going to interest everyone, as it doesn’t exactly make the best bedtime reading material. But if it’s an area that interests you, there’s a lot of good material and some very poignant ideas in American Pulp. (Disclaimer: My copy was provided free via Netgalley, in exchange for an open and honest review.)

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