STATEMENT OF GOALS, TOGETHER WITH A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PAPERBACK BOOK, OR,
WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU DO A WEB PAGE ABOUT THAT??!!
To explain why I find these books to be of interest, allow me take you back to the year of 1945. Hundred of thousands of veterans were returning to the United States. During the war, the Department of Defense had hit upon a brilliant idea to keep the troops entertained during the quiet moments -- they has supplied them with little paperback books, about half the size of the books we know now, designed to be stuffed into uniform pockets. Some of these books were a bit on the racy side, but the Armed Forces, as is their wont during wartime, just looked the other way. The troops accordingly developed a taste for exciting portable literature. They had also, during their terms of duty in such places as France, Italy and occupied Japan, been exposed to a broad range of unusual cultural experiences, some of them, shall we say, a bit more vivid than what the boys were used to back in Des Moines and Waukegan. Upon their return, these soldiers found the available literature a little, well, ORDINARY.
At the same time, the women back on the home front were coming out of a period during which they had been thrust into unfamiliar roles -- as factory workers, military officers and family breadwinners, they had found that what they had been taught about their real potentials was so much nonsense, and some came to resent the traditional image of the subservient caregiver presented by much of the available literature, and they came to look for books that presented more exciting female characters, leading to an explosion in the publication of mystery, gothic and romance novels.
Another important change, this one technological, had occurred just prior to the war -- the printing industry had finally figured out had to make inexpensive literature in a more attractive format than the "pulp magazine," and, in 1938, the paperback book industry was born with Pocket Books' publication of The Good Earth. Following the war, it suddenly occurred to a variety of writers, editors and entrepreneurs that just about any schmuck could publish a book at little cost and, it just so happened, the format in question not only permitted inexpensive printing, the books themselves were small, light, and easily transported and, if necessary, easily concealed.
The last ingredient was the upheaval in traditional family mores that occurred following the war. With the establishment of the suburbs, many families found themselves thrust into conditions of luxury, some might say decadence, they had never known, and their ties with their churches and their old neighborhoods became a bit strained. The increasing availability of laborsaving devices left some housewives with a little more free time on their hands, and they began to explore the possibilities. And the kids? Teenagers across the country also began to feel a greater sense of freedom and not only gave rise to a new industry of books and movies intended to supply their needs, but also began to engage in a wave of activities intended to appall their forebears - soon to be better known as juvenile delinquency. In 1948, Dr. Albert Kinsey and his associates at Indiana University published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1951 (collectively known as "the Kinsey Report") and middle America was suddenly confronted by scientific evidence that the sexual conduct of the average Joe and Jane was not quite so drab as previously thought.
Into this new world, publishers leapt by the dozens to supply a growing demand for new books, and they hired writers by the hundreds to supply the stories. Most were hacks, a few were geniuses, and some couldn't write the copy on the back of a matchbook cover, but they combined to pump these books out on the streets by the millions. As is usually the case, the laws lagged behind the changes occurring in the streets, and the publishers were still all too aware that they and their bookselling clients could get in serious legal trouble by putting too much too overt sexual content in their wares, so they made a few decisions. Firstly, if their characters were not to be permitted to have graphic sex, then, by God, they would be the most greedy, grasping, evil, vicious, amoral human beings to ever walk the face of the earth, so that the reader knew damn well that between "...they sank toward the bed" and "The next morning..." something really nasty happened, if only in the mind of the reader. Secondly, the books should be full of action, violence, crime, and whatever other reprehensible conduct that would possibly get past the censors. Thirdly, these books should attempt to embrace the latest forbidden societal trends. So what if the writer never smoked a "reefer" in his life, never met a beatnik, never went to a rock concert or attended a suburban "swap party"; the average reader would never know the difference. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the covers of these books were to be salacious as legally possible, so that the average citizen would develop a case of whiplash walking past the newsstand or drugstore or back-alley bookstore selling them and would feel compelled to dash in and buy this book promising previously unheard of delights. Of course, many of these purchasers, when they got home, slammed the door and repaired to a private place, found that they had purchased a literary classic, a typical detective novel, or, at the best, a book with limited sexual content, but by then, HAR HAR, the cover had done its work. (In traditional carnival parlance, this is known as "selling the sizzle, not the steak.") This practice might seem a bit dishonest, but it did lead to some truly striking covers.
An unexpected bonus of this industry was that many significant authors were published by these low-rent publishers. Some, such as Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolridge and Chester Himes, wrote books within the accepted category of "hard-boiled' fiction, and only came to be appreciated years after they started writing. Others, such as William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, put out just the right tawdry book at just the the right time, and were swept into quick recognition. Still others, such as Ed Wood, initially wrote books as a sideline, and their books were rediscovered only after they became cult figures for their efforts in other areas.
In the mid-1950's, threat of governmental pressure led some publishers to tone down their artwork and subject matter, but in the long run public demand won out. A select few authors and publishers finally put out books that the accepted legal standards of censorship and started the movement toward substantial changes in laws governing freedom of speech.
By the earlier 1970's, the tacky paperback had fallen on hard times. The legal standards that had originally been challenged by these books had become so lax that any Mario Puzo, Joan or Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele or Jacqueline Suzanne could write a book with impunity that twenty years earlier might have lended him or her in jail, and the "adult market" came to be dominated by plotless, mechanical efforts that graphically but tediously depicted whatever sexual activity appealed to the reader. Books such as this continue to be produced to this day, but who cares.
This page is devoted to that small selection of books -- casually produced and marketed, ignored or reviled in their day - that survive to document a world in transition, and a nation in upheaval. And, what the hell, to those books that, if nothing else, produce a good laugh today.
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