How Pulp Fiction Saved Literature

The covers were often trashy, the contents were often high art, but the low cost of the ubiquitous paperback created millions of new readers in America.

Princeton University Press

Paula Rabinowitz’s American Pulp, her analysis of the impact of cheap paperback books on American culture is so enthusiastic and informative that her occasional lapses into impenetrable academese can be forgiven. Readers scratching their heads over such phrases as “this period, modernity, emphatically ushers in privacy itself” are advised to turn immediately for relief to the marvelous color plates of early paperback covers in all their tawdry glory.

One of the many pleasures in American Pulp (subtitled How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street) is Rabinowitz’s knowledgeable survey of how those covers changed as a title “moved up or down the paperback hierarchy, [for example] from the relatively upscale NAL [New American Library] to the much less savory Berkley Books.” She’s also great on the lurid imagery’s coded messages, such as the slip strap falling off a shoulder that signaled post-World War II anxiety about unbridled female sexuality.

Transgressive women weren’t just pulp cover girls, Rabinowitz demonstrates. They were authors and readers, as were African-Americans, gays, and lesbians, all given voice and acknowledged as consumers by the paperback industry. Distributed to newsstands and drugstores, pulp books were accessible to a broad spectrum of society, including members of America’s newly prosperous working class. Paperback publishers were willing to sign up anyone whose writings would sell, and they were also willing to help sales along with suggestive art and tantalizing cover lines like the one that proclaimed George Orwell’s anticolonial novel, Burmese Days, “A Saga of Jungle Hate and Lust.”

Pulp paperbacks routinely blurred the boundaries between high art and low entertainment, serious nonfiction and salacious stimulation. One of the first books published in America about the Holocaust, a memoir titled Five Chimneys in hardcover, in 1947 was sensationally retitled I Survived Hitler’s Ovens for paperback, sporting the cover blurb, “The Uncensored Truth.” Cold War fears could be manipulated through misleading art to attract readers to daunting material. Fronted by an illustration depicting a white couple walking down a deserted road, the 1954 Bantam edition of Hiroshima packaged John Hersey’s sobering account of the devastation wreaked by a U.S. atom bomb as, in Rabinowitz’s sardonic assessment, “a garish nightmare of American annihilation—presumably, given the title, by the Japanese.

Pulps also blurred stylistic distinctions. Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices appropriated the tabloid newspaper format to relate the history of African-Americans. Jorge Luis Borges’s first story in English translation appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, sold on the same mass-market racks as novels like Ann Petry’s The Country Place and Vera Caspary’s Laura, which slipped modernist techniques—interior monologues, multiple narrators with conflicting points of view, stories told through (fictional) documents—into murder mysteries and tales of small-town scandals.

Rabinowitz calls the consumption fostered by this boundary-blurring “demotic reading, an experience of literature that traverses many social distinctions.” (The fact that she uses demotic rather than a more common equivalent such as popular or democratic is, regrettably, typical of a prose style that is not always as engaging as her subject matter.) She quotes an exuberant note from E.L. Doctorow, discovered in the archives of his one-time employer NAL, to capture the populist thrill of “getting paid to find and read good books and buy the rights and print up a hundred thousand, say of a good obscure first novel, give it a jazzy cover, and ship it out to all the airports in the country, all the drugstores and railroad stations, for people to buy for pocket change.”

This broad-based accessibility, Rabinowitz persuasively argues, worried the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, convened by Rep. E.C. Gathings in December 1952, just as much as the actual content of pulp paperbacks. “The scene is anytown,” intoned one brief submitted to the committee, decrying “the display racks of sex-exciting books and obscenely provocative magazines.” The committee feared that such material was “within the reach of any child or teen-ager with the money to pay for it”—and it didn’t take much money to buy a pulp novel. “What had been the greatest asset of the paperback revolution,” observes Rabinowitz, “became its greatest danger.”

At a time when the courts were relaxing obscenity laws to permit the publication of more adult material, the Gathings committee didn’t result in effective book censorship. The pulps’ racy covers were eventually toned down, not because of legal threats, but because paperbacks moved into colleges and regular bookstores in more expensive trade editions. “The sensation these objects presented receded as their cost increased,” notes Rabinowitz. “Sleaze was coming to an end.”

Yet for a vivid decade or so, sleaze was, somewhat paradoxically, a force for literacy and empowerment. The pulps brought new readers to serious fiction, making it less intimidating with alluring art and low prices. Isolated lesbians learned that there were other women like them via books whose covers aimed to titillate heterosexual men. Paperback publishers distributed their titles in African-American neighborhoods because it expanded their market base. American Pulp celebrates these unabashedly commercial books as “an expression of democracy” and an affirmation that culture was for everyone.