Paula Rabinowitz

Talking Paper Interview Series: Paula Rabinowitz

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.

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