Talking Paper Interview Series: Paula Rabinowitz

Paula Rabinowitz is an author and professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Her latest work is American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Mainstream, out now from Princeton University Press, about how inexpensive mass-produced soft-cover books with often-salacious covers helped democratize the reading of literature in America, and beyond. Rabinowitz explores the golden age of pulp paperbacks, spanning from the late-1930s to the early 1960s, with a focus on publisher New American Library (whose imprints include Signet and Mentor). For the price of a pack of cigarettes, readers could pick up pocket-sized tales of hard-boiled crime, sweaty romance, or bizarre science fiction from racks and shelves at bus stations, candy shops, bodegas, and a variety of other sales locations beyond the bookstore market. The covers of these books featured era-defining artistry promising tales of sex, murder, and other intrigue by artists like Robert Jonas and James Avati. The cover of American Pulp, however, is an elegant oil-on-canvas painting by Guy Pène du Bois, entitled "Portia in a Pink Blouse." Created in 1942, it features the fashionably dressed Portia Lebrun sitting at a small table, her hands set upon a self-authored paperback book. Meanwhile, overseas, American soldiers were reading pulp paperbacks by the millions during the quieter moments of the Second World War. In the post-war years, Americans continued to buy tons of literary pulp, which caught the attention of government committees unhappy with certain subject matter for sale starting at 25 cents. Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torrès became a bestseller in part thanks to its profile being raised by its1952 targeting by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, over depictions of lesbian relationships. I spoke with Rabinowitz by phone from her home about the themes explored in pulp paperbacks, and the artists whose work adorned their covers. Many adorn her bookshelves, from which she pulled several to cite as examples during the course of our conversation.

On Innovations in Paperback Distribution

The great innovation that comes from Robert de Graff—and Ian Ballantine brought to the US from Penguin Books in Britain—was the idea that these should not be sold in bookstores. Because there weren’t that many bookstores in existence, as Louis Menand points out in The New Yorker, books should be sold and distributed the way that magazines were, the way that candy bars were, the way that cigarettes were: through department stores, through drug stores, through grocery stores, in train stations, bus stations, and then, of course, airports. In other words, they should be where people go to buy things—and buy things in the casual way that they buy the everyday things they need.

They need to be in front of people’s faces. And they should be, in the same way as a candy bar or a magazine—constantly changing so that, as part of a routine, people pick one up each week. Of course, the other locations are places of transience, where people need to fill in the time during their boring travels—kiosks at bus stations, train stations, and so forth. So in that sense, [Pocket Books] picked up what was going on in England. But the US is huge, with large areas to be covered. There were so many more of these small sorts of depots and local stores that it was an enormously successful model.

The big difference [in marketing] here was that in Britain, the books toned down a kind of sensational cover that was connected to magazine culture with these very severe orange and cream­-colored and striped covers that reference Penguin. In the US, these paperbacks were competing with an army of magazines and of course movie theaters, as well. Even small towns had their own movie theaters with posters advertising the coming attractions. There was a kind of visual sensation going on. Part of what was important about the American version of paperbacks was having these covers that were flashy. And in the US (well, I guess everywhere), sex sells. So they were not just flashy—they were flashy in a particularly salacious way.

On Cover Artist Work During the Pulp Paperback Era

Actually throughout most of it, there are very limited numbers of people who were doing these. Each house pretty much had its own kind of resident artist, or a few people who were on call for them, because they each wanted to develop a distinctive style, so that you would look at the book and kind of recognize its continuity with others. I mean, what’s important to understand about paperbacks is that they have this odd connection to fashion. They have to grab your eye so that you’ll look at it and buy this book, as opposed to this other book. But they’re also ephemeral. You have to grab it, because next week there will be another one. So there is a sense of both instantaneous attraction, and the need to process it quickly.

In terms of the artists, depending upon the different houses, some of them were named, and they signed their works, and they were quite well known in the art world. For other houses, they specifically kept the names of the artist invisible, and they were not necessarily well known.

I was particularly interested in, and most of my research was on New American Library, which is a later imprint [1948] that grew out of Penguin in America. They really had essentially two major artists. There were many others who worked. But they had two major artists who sort of formulated two different styles. One is Robert Jonas, who was roommates with Willem de Kooning, and they had a studio in Union Square next door to Arshile Gorky. They were part of this 1930s radical art scene. [Jonas] was editor of a radical art journal, Art Union. He and de Kooning were both window dressers in Beck’s Department Store. Gorky and de Kooning went on to become abstract expressionists. Robert Jonas started doing these covers. But if you look at them, you can see very clearly that he is quoting contemporary modern art of the ‘30s and the mid­century. So there are quotations of surrealism, and also of cubist aesthetic. He was replaced in the late ­‘40s and early­ ‘50s by James Avati, known as “the Rembrandt of pulp.” Avati was really responsible for these deeply complex narrative imageries, very, very much more of the Norman Rockwell side. Except that instead of being wholesome, they were really sleazy.

He lived in New Jersey, and he used his family members and members of the town as models. So he developed what we think of mostly as the pulpy style, and he was very, very, very dedicated to depicting a scene from the book. He would make sure that whatever he was putting on the cover—which invariably had a woman whose tight shirt was coming undone, and some sort of anarchic scene in the background of either a messy bedroom or a wild street scene—they all represented a scene from the book, even if it was one sentence in the book. So he was devoted to realism in a very complicated way.


On Her Book’s Cover

I happened to see the painting in the Indianapolis Art Museum. Guy Pène du Bois was a painter I didn’t know about. I saw it, and I said to my friend who I was with, “I bet that painting was probably done in 1942, and it may be the first American modern painting of a paperback book.” So we went over, and sure enough it was 1942. And I just said, “This has to be on my cover.” So then I started doing a lot of research into him as an artist. He was an art critic and an artist. He was friends with Edward Hopper. In fact, Hopper did a portrait of him, and he did a portrait of Hopper. He wrote a book about Hopper. And he specialized in a kind of portraiture for well-­to-­do people. So that was how he made his living. But he was also interested in the new kind of sub­cultural world of modernity. He lived for a while in New Orleans, did a lot of paintings in transvestite and gay bars. So he was sort of interested in depicting both high society and the lower, or more subterranean, parts of American culture.

So [my cover] is interesting, not only because I think it’s the first modern paperback in a painting. But also because he had actually done an earlier portrait of her a couple of years before in 1939 or 1938, before paperbacks emerge in the United States. And in that one she is sitting and wearing a rather severe man-­tailored suit of a kind of rust color, and sitting on a brown upholstered chair looking straight ahead. They were both commissioned by Mrs. Booth Tarkington, wife of the writer. So again, this is a commission by a well-­to-­do person, which was typical. What’s interesting is three years later she commissioned another painting, and it absolutely alters the persona of Portia Lebrun, who’s the subject of the painting—who I guess is some minor poet. Because in the later one she’s got a black veil on tightly around her face, a sort of ‘40s film noir­-type look. She is sitting at this café table, and she is looking off to the side, and she is wearing this bright pink blouse. And she has her fingers in this paperback book, which is, if you look carefully at the cover, written by her and titled All is Crass or All is Grass. It is not exactly clear. It says “by Portia Lebrun.” So it is a picture of her own self­ representation on display, sort of icon of modernity. You know, the woman alone in a café, and so forth. So I think it’s particularly interesting, her move from being a sort of hardcover book in the 1930s, where she’s literally wearing the same colors as most hardback books—that kind of brownish-reddish color of the cloth that covers so many of them—until she moved to the paperback. While the paperback is very plain, and it just has the three color bands that represented New American Library, her presentation could easily be an image that should have been o n the paperback cover. Because pink blouses and pink sweaters were all over paperback book covers at this time. So I’m fascinated by it. The history of the painting, in a sense, records in its images the history of the book covers.

On Salacious Covers Driving Sales

Rather than see the argument that, “Oh, these sleazy covers were debasing literature,” or, “Making these books available in this kind of sensationalized way was a contribution to the decline and fall of western civilization"—au contraire. They were exactly about getting all kinds of writing out to the broadest possibly publics, because these books were printed commercially in editions of hundreds of thousands, selling sometimes millions of copies. So what I’m calling “demotics of reading”—that is, there was a kind of democratization by the very spread of these uniformly similar books. So the fact that they all looked quite similar was actually part of the way that they became uniquely imbedded in people’s reading experiences. So it’s a kind of strange conundrum, or seeming contradiction.

There is no question that by the 1950s, high school education was almost universal in the United States, and that was unprecedented in the world. During the Second World War, this consortium called “The Council of Books in Wartime”—publishers , librarians, booksellers—put together a proposal that went to the Army and Navy to disseminate these really cheaply ­produced teeny tiny paperback books to members in the armed services for free. They put out almost 150 million copies of books. I mean, just a phenomenal number. Thirty or 40 new titles a month between ‘43 and about ‘46. They were just shipped out, giant cartons of these, all over the world. The stipulation was that, along with your weapon and your ammunition, you had to resign these books when you were decommissioned at the end of the war. Because the publishers were afraid these free books circulating amok everywhere would destroy the publishing industry—instead of doing what they wanted it to do, which was to generate readers.

Now partly, this was the fact that there were fewer means of entertainment for troops, and they were sitting for long periods of time on ships being transported from one place to another, or even in battle. Mostly battles are not raging. People are sitting around. These were designed to fit inside the pockets of the uniforms, so people could whip them out and read them, and they were enormously successful. So while there is no actual data that says “as a result of this, there was an upsurge in interest in reading”—combined with the GI bill, which sent millions and millions of service people to college after the war, and the explosion of this paperback revolution that really took off after the war, there is no question that this set the tone that reading was something that you could do in your spare time in a democratic fashion. Again, the books chosen were extremely eclectic, and they all looked the same. They all had a yellow cover. So again, it was this sort of uniformity and non ­differentiation between one kind of book and another that just sent people reading a Lytton Strachey on the one hand; and Shelley on the other; to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Forever Amber, or The Robe, or joke books, or whatever. There was a wide range of things. I can’t say that they caused this upsurge in reading, but they were part of a whole post­war phenomenon that (because of the war) had increased access to literacy and education among wide ranges of people.

Of course, you can find these around. So obviously some people were bringing them home, even though they weren’t supposed to. But I do have some interesting stories from Japanese and Italian colleagues of mine who both said they got interested in American literature because they found these books. Their grandparents had them. So in other words, the soldiers had to dump them where they were when they were decommissioned after the war. So they ended up in these foreign countries. And this is only anecdotal from a couple of my friends, but I have a number of people who’ve told me the same story. That they saw these books, their grandfathers or their parents had them, and this sparked their interest in studying American literature, and they became American literature scholars.

So they were disbursed around the world. They were really on junky, junky, junky paper, so a lot of them probably just disintegrated. Then of course some got brought back, because I own some, and you can find them in used books stores here and there. So people were violating the rules, but the book industry was able to weather the end of the Second World War. I mean, that was sort of the heyday of paperbacks, between the end of the Second World War and the early 1960s. It was actually the end of the Korean War and the recession of 1953 that had a deep, really bad impact on the paperbacks. Well, all book publishing, but paperbacks particularly. And there is this apocryphal story that the publishers were pulping—in the sense of ripping the covers off, and dumping them—and that the banks of the Erie Canal are lined with these books. You know, paper doesn’t disintegrate as quickly as one would believe. Even this crappy pulpy paper. So there are stories that you can go around, and dig them up, and find them. But I don’t know if that’s true or not.

On the Economic Apportioning of 25-­cent Paperbacks

Authors would likely get one or two cents a book from this deal. But if hundreds of thousands of them were being sold, that’s not too bad. So a couple of pennies a book was kind of standard, at least for a press like New American Library. That is the one I know best. They specialized in reprints, and did not do paperback originals. They only did paperbacks of books that had been published first in hardcover. And they negotiated with publishers, not with authors or their agents—although, sometimes they were sent to the authors and the author’s agent. But the standard was one or two cents a book, depending upon their prestige, the possible run of the book, and so forth. For paperback originals, I think it was the same, but the authors mostly got paid up front with a lump sum, and then maybe would be able to negotiate some extra royalties later on.

To keep the prices low, they were constrained by the numbers of pages. So for instance, any really long books were first usually abridged. Then it became very, very important to be able to say “Complete and Unabridged” on your cover. First of all, that signified a kind of “Ooh, the sexy parts didn’t get cut.” But it also said, “We’re not cheapening these books. We’re not defacing them in any way. We’re giving you the whole picture.” So if you wanted to have more than 175, 195 pages ­­ whatever the number was. It depended on the different presses ­­ you were going to charge more. So they started experimenting with what they called “giants,” and they went up to 35 cents, and it didn’t seem to bother anybody. So then they went to 50, and then 75, a dollar, a dollar twenty­-five. So it just has gone apace since then. They’re still more or less the same price as a pack of cigarettes. In New York at least, cigarettes are about $10–­13 a pack, and the books are about the same still. So once they decided to raise them to this bigger page limit, it became clear that it didn’t really affect the sales. I’m just here randomly pulling off my shelf a Bantam, Since Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen’s history about the Great Depression. So it first came out in 1940 in hardcover. It came out as a paperback in ‘61. I’m reading the seventh printing from 1965, and they were charging by then 95 cents. So they would just kind of continue up. But if I pull out a book from much earlier from my shelves here—say, Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine. It’s a very early Penguin one with a George Salter cover. He was one of the great book illustrators from Germany who immigrated to the United States because of the Nazis. This book came out as a Penguin edition in 1946, and it is 25 cents.

On the Most Successful N. A. L. Paperback Writers

Hands down Mickey Spillane. H e is the one who kept the place in business, and allowed them to do all their other sales. But [William] Faulkner was a giant seller for New American Library as well. I mean, millions of copies of Faulkner novels were being sold. So part of what I’m so fascinated by is this sort of democratization where, if you look at the covers of either a Faulkner or a Mickey Spillane, they don’t look too different. Mickey Spillane’s are more urban. Faulkner’s are more of this particular southern gothic look, which was in its own subspecies. Obviously Erle Stanley Gardner, I think he published with Bantam or Ballantine. Detective stories always sold, and crime stories and murder mysteries, and so forth. Agatha Christie, all these people, they’re very big. But so was the biography of Marie Curie by her daughter. That sold millions and millions of copies. I guess biographies are still big sellers.

[Spillane] actually negotiated toward about the second or third or fourth book, I think, a higher rate. If you are selling 6 million copies of a book, even for a quarter, and you’re getting one cent, you’re still at that time doing pretty well. They all went through their publishers. They went back and forth sometimes with their agents. Because what I found in the New American Library archives often were letters from writers who were either trying to convince the press that it should pick up their books, or who had been published already—but then said, “Look, I am also writing detective stories or murder mysteries under this pseudonym. Aren't you interested in those?” There also were efforts to lure people from one company to another. They might go to the agent and say, "Why don't you get this guy to leave Dell, and come over here? We will give a better deal. We are a classier outfit. He’ll be on a list with these authors, instead of those authors." So there were certainly lots of communications. Someone like [J.D.] Salinger was front and center arguing with New American Library about the cover of The Catcher in the Rye. That’s a famous, famous apocryphal story that I tell in my book – although I couldn't quote him. He also designed the Nine Stories cover, which has got just these orange, yellow and black diamonds that are kind of interlocking. He designed that and said, “No, I don't want any pictures there.” But the communication back and forth [on the Catcher cover] with him saying, “If you want to have a picture, you should have Holden sitting in the park looking at the carousal from the back . ” And then James Avati is writing, “That’s a very quaint and interesting charming idea, but we think that [our picture cover] says more about what the book is about.” And then you have Victor Weybright chiming in, “Yes, and our designers are experts in knowing what sells. And after all, that’s what you most want is to sell your books.” And Catcher and the Rye sold like crazy with that cover. So I don't know what he was complaining about.

[Covers] were also really, really cheesy. You know, paperback­only editions of Make Mine a Mattress, Big Sue. There was pulp pornography that was sold kind of under the counter. They didn't look all that different from the others. They were the same size. They were the same shape. They had the same garish colors. They had the same print on them. So it looked like a debasement of literature, and it looked like a cheapening of it, and it was going to “destroy the book industry.” Because, “Who would buy a hardcover, if you could buy these cheap ones now?” But as fashion theorists have pointed out, au contraire, it is the opposite phenomenon. Like I said with my point about the “demotics of reading,” this just broadened the possibility of who might have access to a book, and who might read it. It in fact saved publishing to a large degree. Especially in the long haul of the postwar years, after the really wacky covers begin to diminish because of threats of censorship, and because of financial constraints that were happening because of this post­-Korean War recession, and the congressional hearings that happen in 1952, and various court cases that had been going on throughout the United States and then into the Supreme Court—and mostly because of the GI Bill, and the explosion of people going to college. So now paperbacks began to be college textbooks. Instead of buying an anthology of literature for your English class, your English teacher might assign the actual book. And then you wouldn’t want to carry this cheesy thing with you into class. So the price went up, and things like Anchor Books and Vintage Books came out, and they became much more staid, and so forth. But during this heyday moment, my argument is that the exact opposite process was going on with “cheapening” these books. They were actually expanding the realm of what could even be understood as things that people might read.

So I am just looking at one of my myriad shelves here, and I've got the paperback Mentor book of The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset; on top of The Theory and Practice of Hell, one of the early paperback Holocaust books by Eugen Kogon; on top of Theodore Dreiser, The Bulwark; on top of Maysie Greig, The Professional Lover, which is a Pocket Book (“She felt his kiss on her lips, on her cheeks, on her throat” is that tagline); on top of Frankie and Johnnie and Ninety Others: A Treasury of Folk Songs; on top of Love Among the Haystacks, seven great D. H. Lawrence stories; on top of Shirley Jackson's The Road Through the Wall (“A married woman prowls the back streets.”), but that’s a Lion Books which is a very low on the totem pole cover (still, we are talking about Shirley Jackson); on top of George Gamow, The Birth and Death of the Sun, a physics text. I could go on and on. But you can see the eclectic levels of things. And like I said, this is literally one pile that I have. I have dozens of others. The End of a Primitive, Chester Hines; Amazon Head­hunters, Lewis Cotlow; A Dangerous Adventure ...

On Women’s Barracks

That book is alternatively understood to be an autobiography or a novel, depending upon whose story you believe. [Tereska Torrès] had been in the Free French Army. It was shaped by Meyer Levin, her husband, who had been a war correspondent. He was also the author of Compulsion, which is the novel about the Leopold and Loeb case that became the Hitchcock movie Rope. He said, "Hey, this thing could really sell.” So he helped shape it into this story, and it had this incredibly famous cover by Barye Phillips of these women in an army barracks taking off their uniforms. They are in various states of undress, and in the foreground there is a kind of butchy­looking woman. She has got short­cut hair, and is wearing her cap still, and her uniform, and she is smoking, and she is eying these women. This book sold pretty well, because people are always interested in the war. It came out in 1950, and people are still fascinated by the Second World War, and it had this salacious cover. But its sales really took off because it became the object of the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials that was convened by Ezekiel Gathings of Arkansas. They were using this volume as exemplary of the sort of, as they called it, “current pornographic materials” that were flooding the market. So as a result of this publicity, you know, there is nothing like saying that something is pornographic to make sure that it gets well sold. To the point where by the 1960s, the tag line for Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson's novella from the ‘40s which has a whole section entirely in French, was blazoned with “Not for sale in the state of New York.” That was a way to sell the book. Anyway, as a result of this congressional hearing, and all of this fanfare that went on, it sold in the millions of copies. So a good thing is always something that everyone wants to imitate, and so all these other publishers [did that].

One of the stories is that Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the name “Vin Packer,” was working for Fawcett publishers at the time. So in addition to Woman's Barracks, “Claire Morgan,” the pseudonym for Patricia Highsmith the famous mystery writer, had published The Price of Salt, her novel about a lesbian love affair. And that was also doing very, very well. So, the Fawcett publisher said to Marijane Meaker, "So you went to an all-­girls college, right?" Because I think she went to Smith. "Was there any lesbianism going on there?" She said, "Oh, sure." So apparently she became this author, and then she also under another name became the agent for the author. Then she invented a few other names as authors. So she became a quite prolific lesbian pulp novelist. She was the publisher, the agent, the editor, and the writer. She was getting her cuts on every level. So she was right there at the kind of nodal point at one of the publishers. Then of course, in the typical fashion, once something takes off ... Gale Wilhelm for instance, one of the people I write about who had published quite lovely novels in the 1930s, all with lesbian themes—but also tied to the politics and economics of the Depression, and so forth—her books got rediscovered as well. They had been published by Random House, with book design by Ernst Reichl, who did the cover for Bennett Cerf’s edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. He did her covers, and they are very beautifully designed and understated. She also got turned into this pulpy version of a lesbian writer—although, literally, the lesbian scenes in most of her novels take up two or three pages. Her second or third novel, Torchlight to Valhalla, the title got changed because that clearly wasn't going to appeal to pulp people, to The Strange Path. Because “strange” was one of the code words for queer and lesbian and gay sexuality. So it got picked up, and then it got picked up again, and again, and again. These things would have multiple lives, because they had an audience. And my argument is that it was not only the content, but the covers that had a kind of galvanizing impact for producing a lesbian sensibility and a lesbian consciousness. In the sense that, as many queer theorists have argued, gay male culture had established locations and geographies of understanding how to meet other men—men meeting men at bars, and the navy. That really wasn't the case so much for woman. I mean, except for maybe a few bars in New York and San Francisco. But for the vast majority of the United States ... you find tales of lesbians saying, “Look, I became a nurse because I could never figure out what to wear. And at least I had uniform, and then I wouldn’t have to think about it.” So I argue that these covers, which always had that kind of butchy woman and the sort of femmee woman, actually helped lesbians come to understand how they might identify themselves as lesbians through their clothing, and identify others. Thus, these books served as how-to manuals. Not only because of the content, but also because of the cover. The covers meant something more than just being flashy and catching the eye of readers. They were kind of like instructional manuals. They helped people recognize themselves, and recognize each other in these identities. So they had an inadvertently communitarian effect, even though they were meant to be read in the privacy of your home.

On Hardcover Publishers Reacting to Pulp Paperback Trends

There was a back and forth going on between what could be sold in paperbacks, or what appeared in paperbacks—particularly paperback originals, where a lot of the gay material was first published—and then hardcover publishers picking up and saying, “Oh look, there is an audience here. There is something to do.” And then the other way around as well. I just pulled out Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which came out in 1948, and immediately became a paperback in 1949 with this famous Robert Jonas cover of his broken window. You look out through the window to see this couple outside. They are sort of indeterminate sexuality, but they are two naked people sitting in the grass. It could be a woman and it could be a man. But it could be two women, and it could be two men. But the main thing is that there is a picture of Truman Capote on the back lying on this divan, wearing this check vest, and provocatively staring out from the cover pages. Much in the same way as Walt Whitman had established that gay male writers have to have a picture of themselves provocatively staring out, from his first edition of Leaves of Grass. So there was this back and forth interchange of what was there, and what wasn't there. And because these books cost a quarter, this was part of the uproar of hysteria about them. Because it is one thing to have a hardcover book that’s going to require some amount of money. It is another thing to have a book for sale for a quarter that any kid might have to go and buy a yoyo with, or a Spalding ball, or some Tootsie Rolls. And this was the big kind of moral panic fear—that these books were ubiquitously available, and they weren't being monitored by booksellers. I mean, that's the whole point where the sort of questions of distribution and the questions of accessibility and the questions of censorship get all mixed together. Because a hardcover book is not going to be sold in the same way as a paperback. It’s not going to be sold in the same numbers—at least at this time—and it's not going to be available at the same venues. So it's got a kind of exclusiveness that will on its own terms limit who has got access to it, whereas, these paperbacks were accessible everywhere. And as I said, because they all looked the same, you would have to be reading them to know what was in them. Apparently, the Detroit police force was actually paying cops overtime to read through these paperbacks to determine which ones were pornographic, and which ones weren't. And the definition of pornographic varies from place to place. But they were always looking for homosexuality as one of the key signifiers of pornography.

On the Decline of American Pulp Paperback Market Share

The recession after the Korean War severely impacted the book publishing industry—both paperback and hardback—as with all recessions and depressions. Book buying apparently is highly, highly sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. I say "apparently," because I am an exception. I’m an English professor, so I’m buying books all the time. But apparently one of the ways that economists actually can begin to see coming shifts in the economy is tracking how book selling and book buying is going. So money is number one. Number two were these different cases, and this congressional hearing, which came to naught. They were looking to come up with some legislation to control these “pornographic materials,” as they called them. And that was just completely blown out of the water. I mean, it was never going to happen. So it was totally unsuccessful, and in fact became the object of mockery in Hollywood movies and television shows, and books themselves began to make fun of this whole thing. Nevertheless, any time it looks like there may be some kind of censorship moving in, industries are quite likely to institute a kind of self­ policing, as with the Hays Code in Hollywood. Studios were in danger when the antitrust cases were going on in the 1930s, and they instituted the Hollywood code in part to get the government to back off.

There was a general consensus among publishers that they might want to tone down these really, really racy covers. So you start seeing in the middle of the ‘50s more pure­ text covers, or maybe just one small picture. Maybe a line drawing, instead of these rich multicolored paintings. So there is kind of a self­policing that went on within the industry. But finally, it really was the rise of college courses and these more upscale paperback lines like Anchor Books and Vintage Books that spelled the end of these mass­market ones. Because then you got this new category called “Trade Paperbacks”—bigger format, they could charge more money, and were publishing European titles. Not that the paperbacks weren't also publishing translations of great European literature. They were. But they were doing so with the eye toward this college market.

I was using Gilles Lipovetsky’s theory about attractiveness and ephemeralness as a key aspect of fashion. [Pulp paperbacks] were a fashion, and fashions have to change. They are ephemeral. So the style that was working, that came out of the 1920s and the pulp magazines, and then continued through the 1930s and 1940s with hard­-boiled prose and film noir—I mean, they’re all a kind of admixture—was dissipating. Then finally, there is television. Here was another mode of popular entertainment that was uniquely tied to your home, and not forcing you to go out, and that was visual and oral, and had great writers. Early television attracted really terrific writers. So the combination of all of these things sort of spelled the demise of that particular kind of paperback cover. Not of mass­-market paperbacks. They are still everywhere. You can go into any airport and find tons of them. So there is a series of complicated reasons that things changed. But in this heyday period from ‘39 to about 1962­ or so, and beginning to change in the mid­‘50s, one of the things that I find so compelling about these books is that they were really a particularly unique kind of mass media. Because radio or movies are really ephemeral. You don't own them. You can't have them. You can only hear what's on them, or see and hear them if you go to the movies. [Paperbacks] were things you could own. So in that way they are somewhat more like television sets, because people could buy them, and they were in your house. But even their content is ephemeral. So they’re akin in some ways to transistor radios, because you could have your own radio and walk around with it. But again, you own the object that is the radio, but you don't own the content. What is so unique about these is that the content and the object are linked in one place and you could own them. Anybody with a quarter could get them. So they opened the possibility for people to have libraries of their own. And of course, each of them is numbered. The key aspect of anything that you want to have collected is you number it in the same way that Matchbox cars in the little original boxes had numbers. You put them on your shelves, and they are all aligned. So [paperbacks] sparked a particular kind of consumerism that, as far as I am concerned, is really tied to a democratization of literacy.

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.