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American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

by Paula Rabinowitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2014 (trade), 2016 (paper)
408 pp., illus. 24 col. & 42 b/w. Trade, $29.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 9780691150604; ISBN: 9780691173382.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This is the paperback version of a 2014 award-winning and widely acclaimed study on paperback culture in the period between 1939 (when the UK Penguin formula was introduced –and creatively copied– in the US by local publishers) and 1952 (the year of the Gatthings Committee that investigated on the pornographic and other morally debatable material in reading material for sale in newsstands). As Paula Rabinowitz convincingly demonstrates, US pulp books in this period did not resemble the cheap books that existed before and were also very different from the new paperbacks that would be launched afterwards. The English Penguin model that will be ruthlessly exploited on the other side of the Atlantic obeyed an ideal of decent reading at an affordable prize ("good", that is "classic" books for sale in train stations with no bookshops), whereas the American pulp paperback will emphasize, although never in an exclusive way, "modern", that is "popular" values of shock and thrill, directly in line with the mass culture and cultural industries of the era. And the trade paperback that will emerge during the 1950s, after the economic crash of 1953, and the collapse of the pulp paperback market (due to overproduction as well as to legal complications after the Gatthings Hearings) will no longer have the taste of dangerous stuff and forbidden fruit but cater to the new and exploding college market.

The idea that Modernism was an elite movement characterized by the great divide between high and low has been shattered for many years now. The blurring of boundaries between literary studies on the one hand and media studies, and material culture and book history studies on the other, have produced rich evidence on the permanent interaction between stylistic, cultural, and ideological registers without which the complexity and utter diversity of Modernism can no longer be thought. In this currently well-studied field, Rabinowitz's work introduces very refreshing thoughts and insights, however, which make this book stand out in the overwhelming production on the writing business before, during and after World War II. First of all, there is of course the very corpus she analyzes. We all know today the cover art work by James Avati, the Rembrandt of the pulp paperbacks and his steamy illustrations regardless of their content (any book was turned into a "sex and violence" book thanks to his and others' illustrations, all turned towards a new public that would never think of entering a "real" bookshop). Yet, Rabinowitz's detailed investigation in all kind of archives offers a much richer picture than the stereotypes reinforced by Taschen reprints of mere covers, interesting as they may be. Rabinowitz takes us on a voyage to the places where these pulp paperbacks can still be found and her descriptions make clear that the material survival of these books is not guaranteed at all: materially speaking, they are very fragile and to store and restore them in scientifically adequate conditions has become so expensive that the future of the pulp paperbacks is now highly problematic. It is not unthinkable that within a couple of years the major sources of this half-hidden continent will be no longer the items themselves, but their fictional and nonfictional representations in literary and other testimonies (this is the last chapter of the Rabinowitz's book: a nostalgic reading of the ways in which we remember, either in oral history or in fictional testimonies, these books that seem to be lost forever).

The material description of the paperback industry output is however just one small part of the story. What Rabinowitz is mainly interested in is the cultural history of the paperback, not as a specific category of books, but as an "interface" between social practices, ideas, forms, behaviors, on the one hand, and the life of those who were buying these books, on the other hand. Initially their prize was 25 cents, which made them as cheap as a packet of cigarettes (the prize of a comparable hardback, until then the sole way of publishing "normal" fiction, i.e. fiction other than that of the "dime novels", was two dollars and up). Yet prize was far from being the only reason of their colossal success (the minimal copy run of a pulp book was 150,000 copies). At least as important was the fact that these books were not sold in bookshops, but together with other basic items of mass consumption such as newspapers, soap, chewing gum or sweeties, and that they were on display even for non-buyers. The most vital aspect of the pulp revolution, for that is the only correct word to name the cultural changes produced by the access to hitherto forbidden or unapproachable stories and ideas, was however its disruptive content and power. Even if many series also published upscale and classic material, pulp paperbacks were attractive because they offered the reader a flavor of real life (sex, violence, murder, class and race struggles, gender and queer issues, etc.) while doing so in a way that was completely regardless of all known cultural divisions, for instance that between high and low, between the verbal and the visual, or between the moral and the immoral. From that point of view, paperbacks introduced many elements of bohemian and less conventional life styles to a larger middle and working class audience, which used these books as "how to do" manuals in its construction of new life styles, identities, and social and political behavior. As the chapter on censorship establishes with great clarity, the trouble with the immoral paperbacks was less their content than the fact that these books could now be purchased by virtually everybody. Here as well, the message is the medium: books are considered dangerous, if not frankly demoralizing, because there is no longer any threshold to their reading, because their use is literally getting out of control.

Paula Rabinowitz is a wonderful storyteller and the way in which her thoroughly researched study is told is that of a page-turner as if the author had really planned to give us an idea of the excitement given by the reading of a pulp paperback. The reader is taken on a ride to a territory that may seem well known, but that is rediscovered and estranged on every page. American Pulp contains remarkable chapters, such as that on the importance of paperbacks for gay and lesbian subcultures, that on the propaganda use (both by left wing and right wing authors and organizations) of science fiction, but also that on GI reading during the War. The war effort of the US generated "Armed Services" editions, an astonishing and very broad and liberal selection of paperbacks sent for free to soldiers fighting overseas –a selection that Rabinowitz studies through the letters sent the publishers as well as their replies to all sent-in letters. But on top of all this, there is Rabinowitz's passionate style, a reflection of her no less ardent love of this material that did more to change the world than most of the "real" or "serious" books we like to think of as game changers.

Last Updated 3rd November 2016

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