To close the week, a throwaway interview for a forgotten book that I enjoyed from start to finish, and learned a lot from, too. I love pulp paperbacks. This guy really knew his stuff. From March 2002. Thanks for bearing with me during Ancient Archives week; we’ll see you back here on Monday.
The blonde stands before a man at a desk. He regards her with a certain professional distance, all the more surprising given that she’s caught in the middle of ripping open her blouse, exposing her lacy underthings and ample attributes.
No one could fail to see the immediate appeal of Henry Lewis Nixon’s “The Golden Couch,” described on its cover as “a novel of the private lives and loves of psychiatrists.” The contents have been forgotten, if they were ever remembered long. But the blonde, the blouse, the 25-cent price – these things endure.
They’re the subject of “The Great American Paperback,” writer and cultural historian Richard Lupoff’s coffee-table tribute to the dime novel, pulp fiction, the sensational story – the great 20th-century innovation that took literature out of the library and brought it to the revolving rack in your corner drugstore.
Lupoff will be in Fort Wayne Sunday, appearing at Little Professor Book Company in support of “The Great American Paperback,” as well as his latest short story collection, “Claremont Tales II.”
“The Great American Paperback” is Lupoff’s “wow” volume, however – a fascinating, hilarious, comprehensive look at the forces that came together to make paperback books an institution.
Although the softcover book can be found as early as the 1930s, what we think of as the modern paperback did not arrive until 1938, when the U.S. holder of the Penguin imprint sought to test the waters for such a product with a 2,000-copy printing of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.” The concept was revolutionary – a book small enough to fit in one’s pocket, bound only with glue. It had no dust jacket, just a brightly printed cover to draw the eye in the crowded confines of the marketplace.
And the price! About the same as an hour of labor at minimum wage, a figure that Lupoff says has remained remarkably consistent through the years.
“People loved it,” he said of the paperback’s debut. “You didn’t have to wait for the public library to get a book, or visit a lending library” – the early, literary version of a video store, where books could be rented for a small fee. “You could own the book, and it didn’t cost much at all.”
Within a year, the paperback was everywhere, and competition for the reader was pitched. Although an almost immediate struggle began between art and commerce, most publishers were savvy enough to realize they were competing for sometimes indifferent readers, and cloaked their books accordingly.
Thus, the blonde ripping open her blouse. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was never so true as during the heyday of the paperback, when scantily clad cover girls often promised literary titillation that the pages behind them didn’t deliver.
“I’m competing for the customer’s beer money,” sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein once said, approving this rather mild bait-and-switch. Much quality literature has appeared between paper covers, and if it takes a white lie to get readers to it, it seems forgivable. Besides, such disconnects make for great collecting: Nathanael West’s classic novel of depraved Hollywood, “The Day of the Locust,” once appeared behind a cover that suggested the book was about a plague of insects.
That cover appears in Lupoff’s book, along with hundreds of others that illustrate the signposts along the way since 1938 – the genres, the publishers and the gimmicks. These include the Ace Double, two novels in one cover; finish one, then flip the book over and start the next. Such hooks now make collectors happy, who prize paperbacks not so much for what’s in them (although some do) as what’s on them.
Lupoff, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., said his local dealers report collectors with amazingly specific tastes. “One only wants books with hypodermic needles on the cover,” he said. (Fortunately, due to a strong horrors-of-drugs genre in paperback, there are plenty to choose from.) “Another only wants cover art that features women being menaced by gorillas.”
Others like campy sci-fi covers or content, or collect the work of specific artists, who labored in obscurity throughout their careers. But what really made collecting take off, Lupoff said, was the introduction of ISBN (International Standard Book Number) numbering around 1970. Before that, publishers kept track of their work with simple cover numbers: “D-150,” for instance, might refer to the 150th work of detective fiction produced by a given house. Where 150 exists, there are 149 others to collect, and many do.
“The Great American Paperback,” like great American paperbacks, is doing well since its publication late last year. “At one point I had simultaneous reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Playboy and the Wilson Quarterly,” Lupoff noted with amusement. Just like the volumes it honors, “The Great American Paperback” has appeal that crosses cultural lines.