Pulp and Circumstance

Pulp fiction is usually associated with cheap and dirty thrills. But Andrew Nette explains that there might just be some squeaky-clean secrets in the pulp publishing closet. Did pulp fiction aid post-War literacy? Has it played a role in furthering social enlightenment?

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

I’ve always been fascinated by how relatively insignificant objects you’ve lost in the course of moving around in life can later come to hold important meaning. An example for me is a black and white photograph of my father on holiday in Queensland’s Surfers Paradise in the early 1960s. It was destroyed when my friend’s shed, in which I stored all my possessions while travelling overseas, burnt down. I find it hard to recall what else was lost, but I remember that photo. Dad is sitting in a chair on the beach, wearing dark sunglasses and reading a paperback by the prolific Australian pulp writer Carter Brown. 

Two things gave me cause to think about this picture recently. The first was the hype around the Anzac Day centenary commemorations – I’ll explain that connection later. The second was reading US academic Paula Rabinowitz’s beautifully written, highly original work, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street.

Book cover: American Pulp by Paula Rabinowitz

Most people view pulp as either exploitative lowbrow culture or highly collectable retro artefact. Yet pulp has a secret history which Rabinowitz’s book uncovers. Her central thesis is that cheap, mass-produced pulp novels not only provided entertainment and cheap titillating thrills, but also brought modernism to the American people, democratising reading and, in the process, furthering culture and social enlightenment. 

Writers often lament the state of the publishing industry, but books have never been more available than they are today. As Louis Menand wrote in the 5 January 2015 edition of the New Yorker: ‘Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs.’ 

In American Pulp, Rabinowitz shows how this situation changed via a series of episodes in the history of the paperback, starting in 1935, when Englishman Allen Lane launched the first, very successful, series of mass-market Penguin paperbacks. This was replicated four years later in America by Robert de Graff, with the launch of Pocket Books, the country’s first inexpensive, mass-market paperback line. These books cost 25 cents and were available at kiosks and newsstands. A hardcover would have set the buyer back two to three dollars. Other publishers followed suit, including Avon, Gold Medal and New American Library.

Rabinowitz asserts that in a heavily coded way, pulp also helped the American public to discuss and process difficult or taboo social issues.

American Pulp is also about Rabinowitz’s own memories of books and about the role that books have played in her life. She writes of the illicit thrill she got from reading her older sister’s copy of Dr Zhivago in the backyard of her suburban home one long, dull summer. She had trouble following the story but luckily the cheap paperback edition she was reading had a catalogue of all the main characters at the back. Rabinowitz also remembers the paperbacks she saw on her mother’s nightstand all throughout childhood, including the New American Library range of paperbacks, reprints of classic literary works, as well as books on self-help and popular psychology, history and philosophy.

The key innovation of American paperback publishers was the gritty, highly sexualised cover art, designed to stand out on a crowded newsstand. This packaging was not limited to detective or juvenile delinquent fiction. George Orwell’s Burmese Days was given a pulp makeover as a tale of interracial lust for its 1952 publication in the United States. Hungarian writer Olga Lengyel published her Holocaust memoir, Five Chimneys, in France in 1946 but the book became I Survived Hitler’s Ovens, with a dramatic red cover, in a later US release.

Rabinowitz asserts that in a heavily coded way, pulp also helped the American public to discuss and process difficult or taboo social issues. Chester Hime’s 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, became a groundbreaking text on race. The book concerned a black shipyard worker in Los Angeles who, despite being promoted to the role as a supervisor, still has to deal with racism from his white colleagues. Ann Petry’s 1947 book about small-town suburban American, Country Place, examined the issues facing women left alone during the war and what happened when their traumatised husbands returned. 

Book cover: Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres

(Scan: misen 23 on Flickr)

The cover of Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks, a fictionalised account of the author’s time with Free French Forces in London, portrayed the book as a tale of torrid lesbian lust. Published in the US in 1950, it sold four million copies and ushered in a wave of lesbian-themed pulp. Written primarily by women but marketed to men, the books also became underground samizdat documents and how-to guides for isolated gay women. Rabinowitz quotes Katherine Forrest in the introduction to her book, Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965: A ‘lesbian themed pulp paperback first appeared before my disbelieving eyes in Detroit, Michigan in 1957. I did not need to look at the title for clues; the cover leapt out at me from the drugstore rack: a young woman with sensuous intent on her face seated on a bed, leaning over a prone woman, her hands on the other woman’s shoulders.’

Book cover: Horwitz's edition of The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

Many books now considered classics of Australian literature had a double life as pulp. Horwitz’s 1962 version of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, about a working class Catholic Irish family in war-time Sydney, had a sexy cover and was blurbed as a ‘candid, revealing story of Sydney’s seamy side’. D’Arcy Niland’s The Big Smoke, published by Horwitz in 1965, was described as ‘the shockingly immoral struggle in a life of terrible savagery…’ It is interesting to speculate on the degree to which these, and other Australian ‘pulp’ novels, functioned as an unofficial cultural narrative, helping us make sense of our history. 

Key to the expansion of publishing in the 1950s and 1960s was World War II and the distribution of free paperbacks to US troops fighting in Europe and Asia, which Rabinowitz examines in detail. A wide selection of free books was made available to servicemen and women, with an emphasis on shorter fiction, perfect for brief lulls in combat. The result was millions of men and women – many of whom had grown up during the Great Depression, often with minimal basic education – becoming avid readers and leaving the armed services wanting more.

For my father, who had returned from the war and was working in a mid-level public service job in a country still emerging from 1940s austerity, these books were cheap entertainment in the age before television took off.

My late father was educated to Year 12 in school, but he was not brought up in a book-friendly family and seldom read as a child. He served in the Australian Defence Force in Papua New Guinea during World War II, and was provided with free books by the army. He told me that this was how he got his first taste for literature. Only recently have I realised the link between this and my own delight in reading, particularly my fondness of crime fiction.

Carter Brown, the alias of English immigrant, Alan Yates, was a particular favourite of my father’s. Yates moved to Australia in 1948 and wrote more than three hundred books under the Carter Brown moniker, mainly crime yarns. The majority of his stories were set overseas, often in America, because that’s what writers like Yates thought his readers preferred. He was probably right. For my father, who had returned from the war and was working in a mid-level public service job in a country still emerging from 1940s austerity, these books were cheap entertainment in the age before television took off.

Book cover: The Big Smoke by D'Arcy Niland

Dad had a large selection of pulp paperbacks in his den, including books by Australian authors as well as the likes of Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane. These books fascinated me – their breathless, hard-hitting titles, the distinctive stained edges, and especially the covers. As US academic Susan Styrker put it in the introduction to her fascinating 2001 book, Queer Pulp, they were peepholes; ‘suggesting stolen glimpses into exotic interior territories’.

I spent many hours in my teens thumbing through Dad’s books. This, in turn, led to progressively longer forays on my bike in search of secondhand bookshops to feed my desire for paperback thrills. These shops seemed to be almost always hidden down a side street or deep in the bowels of a suburban arcade. They were darkly lit and smelt musty. The more crammed and chaotic, the happier I was. It gave me a chance to rummage. A curtained-off section (where the adults-only stuff was kept) was even better, adding to the furtive nature of my expeditions.

Rabinowitz knows what I mean. ‘I cannot remember when I began amassing pulp,’ she writes. ‘They were books my parents owned, bought to be read because they were cheap. I took some of them with me when I left home as a teenager. Something about their size, their covers and their smell attracted me – mementos of my childhood hauled from apartment to apartment.’

Portrait of Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. His non-fiction has appeared in various print and online publications. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950–1980, forthcoming in 2015.