From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 24 Sep 2006

The pulp magazines had their heyday during the time period between the two World Wars. After World War II, paperbacks slowly squeezed the pulps out as the preferred media for cheap fiction. Subtitled The Sensational Age of the American Paperback: 1945-1955, Lee Server's Over My Dead Body presents a wonderful visual tour of the glory years of the paperback revolution. Color copies of many of the lurid covers dominate the book, and Server's brief text provides suitable background for the bold and bawdy show. The book conveys the tension and the contradictions of the era. The deadliest war in history had been fought, and two terrible enemies had been vanquished. Win or lose, right or long, violence had not lost its allure and, coupled with sex, it was an intoxicating theme.

Server marks the 1938 paperback printing of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth as the beginning of the paperback era. From there, fueled by a demand for cheap entertainment for American troops, paperback growth was astronomical. When World War II ended, demand for paperbacks lessened somewhat, triggering a marketing struggle that featured ever-increasing promises of sex and violence as its main selling point. They indulged the seven deadly sins, and came up with a few more. Server writes, "Whole genres would develop around such shocking subject matter as drug addiction, racism, homosexuality, and juvenile delinquency." Free from the tight media regulations that dominated radio, television, and cinema, paperback sensationalism peaked out around 1951 when publicity made them the focus of several government investigations.

Of the hundreds of authors published in paperback during this period, Mickey Spillane was the most popular. As today, when paperbacks first became popular it was traditional for the first edition to be hardback with later editions in softback. Spillane's I, The Jury followed this pattern. It sold poorly in hardback, but unprecedented millions sold in paperback, firmly establishing the paperback media and affirming the significance of its market niche. Soon after I, The Jury hit the streets, Fawcett publishers broke from the tradition of first print hardcovers with their Gold Medal line of paperback originals. The snob appeal remained with a hardcover first edition, but Gold Medal paid as much as two or three thousand dollars advances to the authors, and this is where the money was. Marijane Meaker notes in her autobiography of Patricia Highsmith that Highsmith liked the highbrow appeal of coming out in hardback but resented making far less money than Meaker who, writing as Vin Packer, was raking in the cash through Gold Medal.

The Gold Medal label, more than any other, has come to represent the era. The cover art was superb, and the list of authors is a who's who of hot ticket writers, including J.D. MacDonald, W.R. Burnett, David Goodis, Charles Williams, Day Keene, Louis L'Amour, and Gil Brewer. Server points out that Gold Medal picked up many authors from the dying pulps, such as Cornell Woolrich, Bruno Fischer, and Harry Whittington. The popular and outrageous Shell Scott detective series by Hugh Prather were Gold Medal. Psychology doctorate Peter Rabe wrote seventeen. Several of Chester Himes's Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Harlem detective novels came out as Gold Medals. Server notes the label covered a wide variety of topics, ranging "from Westerns to horror to exotic adventure, as well as such exotic 1950s fiction genres as lesbianism and juvenile delinquency." The first 78 titles sold a stunning 29 million books.

Sex was king in the paperbacks, even trumping violence. Server notes that beyond it being an important undercurrent, some of the sleazier publishers, such as Venus Books, Quarter Books, Cameo, and Esctasy Novels dealt exclusively in overt eroticism. No less than the great Charles Willeford played to this tune in Pick-Up, Server quoting the blurb, "He holed up with a helpless lush. A story that builds to a shattering climax." With Willeford as a notable exception, the over-the-top sex themes did not age well, and most of the authors reside in well-deserved obscurity. Jack Woodford wrote a few. Family man Orrie Hitt wrote over a hundred, cranking out a novel every two weeks. Lesbian sex fared at least as well as heterosexual. Vin Packer's Spring Fire about lesbian college girls broke the two-decade sales record established by Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. In this case, it wasn't all sensationalism. Packer was a solid writer whose talent at portraying life's losers ranked her along with David Goodis.

Many of the novels of the period could be loosely grouped into subgenres, many of them inspired by books from years earlier. Erskine Caldwell's famous Tobacco Road spawned a bawdy backwoods genre visited by John Faulkner, Charles Williams, and Gil Brewer. Bildungsromans by J.T. Farrell, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, and Wilmer's Knock on any Door provided inspiration for a juvenile delinquent genre. Irving Shulman's famous Amboy Dukes served as a cornerstone for Hal Ellson's Duke, Evan Hunter's Blackboard Jungle, and over two hundred other tough kid novels. A Shulman screen play immortalized James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Server ropes in the Beat authors also, although with the exception of William Burroughs's Junkie and a few others, such as Kerouac's Tristessa, their intellectual meanderings seem strangely out of place.

The cover art evolved through this period. During World War II, the paperback covers followed
"commercial art techniques of abstraction and symbolism" that closely paralleled hardcover art. It was after the war when the style shifted to gaudy oil covers reflecting an emotionally charged realism. Motifs included tough angry men, beautiful fearful women, liberal cleavage, alleyways, unmade beds, smoking cigarettes and smoking guns. Many of the cover artists had a long resume of pulp magazine experience. Rudolph Belarski is credited with hundreds of Popular Library covers, while James Avati's work adorned Signet novels. It was the erotic and violent laden covers that attracted government investigation in the early 1950s. Although the Gathings Committee imposed no fines and initiated no new regulations, the publishing business took heed, and the end of the decade saw toned down cover themes and a gradual shift away from the style that was an icon for the era.

Server wraps up the book with a brief discussion of paperback collecting and then a respectful eulogy for the many paperback writers who wrote so much and got so little. For every J.D. MacDonald success story there were a hundred struggling in a tough world during the day and fighting inner demons alone at night. Some, like David Goodis, lived dangerously close to the nightmare world they wrote about. Others, like Cornell Woolrich, lived lives of quiet desperation. Many, like Jim Thompson, succumbed to the writer's disease and drank themselves into an early grave. Geoffrey O'Brien, in his Hardboiled America, saw these racy paperbacks and their risque covers as an anachronism, disconnected with the present and frozen in the past, but Lee Server disagrees with this assessment, declaring that they have "lost none of their power."


__________________________________________________ Do You Yahoo!? Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around http://mail.yahoo.com

RARA-AVIS home page: http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/
  Yahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
    Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
    (Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:
    mailto: rara-avis-l-digest@yahoogroups.com
    mailto: rara-avis-l-fullfeatured@yahoogroups.com

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 24 Sep 2006 EDT