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Friday, July 15, 2016

Exploring The Lurid Years Of Paperback Books


As I started to read Hardboiled in America:  The Weird Years of Paperbacks by Geoffrey O’Brien, I realized that I was becoming addicted to old books about old books.  Consider it a specialty fetish.  But it’s true.

This 1981 book is a mere 35 years old but it harkens back to another era.  Plus its subject matter dates to another era, primarily the 1940s and ‘50s.

O’Brien’s book details the popularity of a certain genre in paperback form, one that made an indelible impression on the author.

He saw these books to be revealing something about Americans. He wrote:

“The paperbacks were a microcosm of American fantasies about the real world.  They took the ordinary streets, the dives, the tenements, the cheap hotels, and invested them with mystery – with poetry even – turning them into the stuff of mythology.  Shamelessly exploitative, they made their points with a maximum of directness.  No trace of subtlety was permitted to cloud the violent and erotic visions that were their essence, and that very lack of subtlety lifted them out of this world.  The people they depicted seemed to exist in some impossibly energetic super-America parallel to the one we know.

“The covers were voyeuristic rather than decorative.  They permitted, by means of a hyperrealism weightier than any photograph could be (after all, a photo would show the people to be mere humans), a peep through a window, and thereby proposed an answer to a society’s secret question:  What is really going on out there? The answer could not, of course, be pleasing to all.  A Congressional committee feared that “the casual reader of such ‘literature’ might easily conclude that all married persons are habitually adulterous and all teenagers devoid of any sex inhibitions.”  Readers today, inured to adultery and uninhibited sex, may still feel considerable qualms about an art that never hesitated to equate sex and violence.  The persistent necrophilia is indeed troubling, since the paperbacks were presumably a faithful mirror of the inclinations of the American males for whom they were created.  As a man in his forties remarked when looking over some vintage covers, “I got all my sex education from books like this.”

Times were changing during the middle of the last century, and these books clearly fed pent up desires of their readers.  And they were being sold on the cheap. The author wrote:

“Paperbacks such as these, which made their first appearance in 1939 and had their heyday of licentiousness in the decade following the Second World War, were from one point of view merely a physical format, a new way of packaging discounts books. But in the unconscious fashion of forms set adrift in a society, they became both a source of new imagery and a synthesis of certain old images that found in them their perfect incarnation.  They were a new kind of book, most definitely an American kind of book. The earliest Pocket Books gave rise to paeans of praise to the democratic spirit, praise that would ultimately evolve (sometime in the early Fifties) into cries of horror at the degradation of mass taste.”

Crime fiction grew in popularity with the advent of these books.  O’Brien wrote:

“Although the first paperback publishers strove with reasonable earnestness to provide their public with the finest in world literature, it was inevitably popular taste that triumphed.  Popular taste, circa 1939, meant to a large degree whodunits, and the early paperbacks, relied heavily on the works of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, and other classicists of the mystery genre.  But in time it was another brand of crime story – the hardboiled kind, initiated primarily by Dashiell Hammett and carried on industriously by a long line of descendants – that was to become peculiarly identified with the format, so much so that Hammett, even though his last novel was written years before the paperbacks come into existence, can easily be thought of as a “paperback writer.”

O’Brien writes of these paperbacks perhaps as one would write about today’s e-book erotica popularity:

“From one point of view, the paperbacks can be seen as just another aspect of the media bombardment to which Americans have (with no apparent unwillingness) been increasingly subjected. What other culture has had its fantasies depicted for it in such profusion and in such a variety of forms?  The most determined cultural archaeologist cannot cope with the flood of material that the marketing directors of America have come up with:  pulps, comic books, paperbacks, movies, television shows, record albums, trading cards, radio programs, stamp books, colorings books, posters, illustrated lunch-boxes, illustrated T-shirts, decals, badges, laser beam concerts. The list goes on and becomes ever more inventive as technology discovers new ways of delighting the sense of the citizenry.”

Though O’Brien notes that publishers didn’t intend for these kinds of books to be classics, as evidence of his book, these materials still left a lasting impression:

“These books were not intended by their publishers to endure, but merely to fill a few hours for someone looking for entertainment a bit grittier than the more official culture of the time, those elaborate glories of the Forties and Fifties that have since been recapitulated almost to exhaustion:  the ceremonial music of big bands and crooners, the grand rituals of television history, the formal splendor of never-to-be forgotten MGM musicals –in brief, the world as reconstitute by Life magazine, a world ultimately reassuring and meaningful.”

So did these books reflect a new America that already existed or were they predicting, almost advocating, for what would come?  He writes of how these books touch upon powerful forces:

“The paperbacks, on the other hand, tell a dark world below the placid surface, a world whose inhabitants tend to be grasping, dissatisfied, emotionally twisted creatures.  Here, all is not well; from the looks of it, all could not be much worse.  This other America, when it is not a bleak rural wasteland inhabited by murderous primitives, is a glittering hell ruled by money and violence, flaunting images of beauty that are either deceptive or unobtainable.  The temple of this world is the barroom, and its holy of holies the booth where the blonde sits, always just out of reach.  The precincts are guarded not by priests but by cool psychopathic bodyguards who wisecrack as they bludgeon.  It is a world whose governing forces are, as in the title of a film of the era, Fear and Desire.”

Will we see another trend or revolution in books the way these pocket books took over a generation?  Most likely.  I leave you with the author’s description of when the paperbacks launched:

“Cheap reprints and books bound in paper arose and flourished sporadically in America from the nineteenth century onwards.  Although most of these were purely commercial efforts, a significant percentage were associated with a zeal for bringing culture to the masses. Nevertheless, and despite the obvious practicality of cheap mass printings, no one had been able to give that kind of publishing any permanence until June 19, 1939, when the first ten releases of Pocket Books saw the light of day. Robert DeGraff, the company’s founder, may have been influenced by the success of Penguin Books, which had begun publishing several years earlier in England.


“The kickoff of the paperback industry was heralded by a full-page ad in The New York Times:  “OUT TODAY – THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY REVOLUTIONIZE AMERICA’S READING HABITS.”

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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