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November 15, 2006

1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another installment in my all-too-occasional series of looks at culturally-significant, underknown phenomena and events, "1000 Words."


1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books

What if you could trace the French New Wave, Sam Peckinpah, cyberpunk, "Pulp Fiction," "Mulholland Drive," and "Sin City" back to one business gamble taken by a third-tier publisher in 1949? In fact, you can, and without being guilty of too much overstatement. A little, sure, but not that much.

The publisher was Roscoe Kent Fawcett of Fawcett Publications, and his gamble was to try something no one else had tried before. He decided to publish original novels in paperback. In 1950, his new line of paperback originals was launched. It was called Gold Medal Books, and it became not just a tremendous commercial success but a culture-shaping one too.

Before discussing the impact of Gold Medal Books, let me take a few paragraphs to situate Gold Medal in time. The immediate post-WWII era was an interesting moment in publishing history. A variety of vectors were in collision:

  • One was the existence of paperbacks themselves. In 1949, paperbacks were still a recent innovation. The first large-scale experiment in paperback publishing had only taken place 1935 with Britain's Penguin Books; soon after in the States, Pocket Books began selling paperbacks. During WWII, soldiers developed the habit of carrying around, reading, and trading paperbacks. Tastes were shaped; new readers were reached.

  • Another vector: the era of "the pulps" was drawing to a close. The pulps were cheap magazines that published sensationalistic fiction. They had their origins in the late 1800s; Frank Munsey's "Argosy" is usually cited as the first pulp magazine. The pulp magazines often specialized in male genres: adventure, sci-fi, war, crime, western. And they were often seriously popular. The most successful pulps often had monthly print runs of over a million copies. They also had their artistic achievements. The pulps were where sci-fi flourished. And, under the editorship of Capt. Joseph T. Shaw, the hardboiled detective fiction of Black Mask magazine developed into something remarkable. But by the late 1940s, the pulps had begun to run out of commercial steam. Even so, the demand for hard-hitting and juicy fiction persisted.

  • Another: the new taste for comic books. Comic strips may have been around for a while; Fawcett Publications itself got started in the late 19-teens with a joke-book / comicstrip publication called Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. But comic books per se were an innovation of the 1930s (and Fawcett -- as much a distributor as a traditional publisher -- had had a major hit with Captain Marvel). Superheroes, adventure, crime ... Once again, fans were won over and expectations were affected.

  • And a final vector: Mickey Spillane. Spillane (who died only this past July, aged 88) was the author of the Mike Hammer detective novels. As a publishing phenomenon, Spillane was like nothing ever before witnessed. His first novel -- the two-fisted, paranoid-macho, hardboiled "I, The Jury" -- sold only a couple of thousand copies when it was released in hardcover in 1947. But when Signet released the book in paperback the following year, it stunned the book industry by selling many millions of copies. Former GI's and flyboys had seen a lot of tough action, and they'd brought back to the States the habit of comic-book and paperback-novel reading. Mickey Spillane's hard-hitting fiction appealed to them strongly. Was it pure coincidence that Mickey had, before turning to novel-writing, written for the comic-book industry?

In any case, Roscoe Kent Fawcett wondered why he shouldn't cater to the comic-book / pulp-fiction / former-GI market. And why not, he wondered, skip entirely over the whole damn hardcover-publishing ritual and offer readers tough, pulpy, hard-hitting novels in easy-to-obtain, cheap, straight-to-paperback form?

No one would dispute that Gold Medal revolutionized American book publishing. For one thing, Gold Medal represented the first serious challenge to the traditional hardcover-publishing game. In a famous response, Doubleday's LeBaron R. Barker said that paperback originals could "undermine the whole structure of publishing." (Yippee to that!) Even in the line's first year, some Gold Medal novels sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Very quickly, other publishers (Dell, Lion) moved to imitate Gold Medal's strategy.

For another, it may also not be an overstatement to assert that Gold Medal had a greater impact on the content and form American fiction-writing than any other postwar book publisher. Gold Medal novels were intended as reliable, disposable entertainments: fast, short, and full of action. Noir-ish intrigue, westerns, and adventure tales were the general rule; sensationalism and sleaze were encouraged. Despite that, though, writers -- in TV and movies as well as on-the-page fiction -- as well as audiences are still looking to these books for inspiration.

Gold Medal was emphatically a business, and anything but a high-minded one -- reserving, for example, the right to do with the books' covers what it pleased, which included not just choosing the art but also the title. Still, the writers generally liked the work. Gold Medal dealt with them fair and square, relatively speaking. Editing was quick and to-the-point. Snobbery was nonexistent. If Gold Medal retitled your book, well, what the hell, and on to the next one.

The writers did OK financially too. They were tickled that they didn't have to split their royalties with a hardcover house, and that they were paid instead on the actual number of copies sold. Was it a coincidence that Richard Carroll, the best-known of Gold Medal's editors, wasn't a longterm publishing guy? Instead, he had previously worked as a Hollywood story editor.

And get a gander at some of the writers Gold Medal put into print: Elmore Leonard, Peter Rabe, Kurt Vonnegut, Day Keene, Jim Thompson, William Goldman, John D. MacDonald, Louis L'Amour, David Goodis, Richard Matheson, Charles Williams, and John Faulkner (William's brother).

Depending on how you read the history, the glory years of Gold Medal-style book publishing were over by the mid-1960s. But the influence of the era lives on. It's in the very air around us.

To illustrate, let me connect a few dots. French New Wave titans Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut both loved Gold Medal books, and both based films on novels by Gold Medal authors: Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" was based on a novel by Lionel White; Truffaut based "Shoot the Piano Player" on a novel by David Goodis. By the way, did you realize that Godard based "Made in USA" on a novel by Donald Westlake? Hey, I see that Donald Westlake wrote a few books for Gold Medal himself.

Closer to home, the movies of the American film renaissance of the 1970s were partly inspired by such New Wave artists as Godard and Truffaut. "Bonnie and Clyde," for instance -- one of the two films that's generally said to have kicked off the American film renaissance -- was a deliberate attempt to make a New Wave-esque movie. The script of "Bonnie and Clyde" was at one point even offered to Truffaut to direct.

Moving into the present ... David Lynch is an example of a guy in love with the dreamy mood of exploitation and noir. On a couple of his films, Lynch collaborated with the noir specialist Barry Gifford. Gifford in turn was, in the 1980s, the creator of Black Lizard Books, an outfit that brought a number of Gold Medal titles back into print.

The recent and current indie movement in American film considers itself inspired not just by such Gold Medal-influenced auteurs as Lynch, but by the Gold Medal-influenced American films of the 1970s. P.T. Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino are directly inspired by '70s films. Rodriguez is now making a sequel to his (and Frank Miller's) ultry-pulpy "Sin City" ; Tarantino of course directed a film straightforwardly entitled "Pulp Fiction," as well as another that was an adaptation of a novel by onetime Gold Medal novelist Elmore Leonard -- who, like Westlake, continues to create wonderful fiction. (Here's a brand-new interview that Christopher Bahn has done with Westlake.)

And the noir, violent mood of many current video and computer games? Straight out of -- or at least partly out of -- Gold Medal fiction.

Moviebuffs revere the careers and influence of Roger Corman and AIP, hardheaded exploitation-meisters who nonetheless created tons of fun movies and gave many talented people their first breaks. Music buffs love plunging into the seedy, exuberant, unself-conscious early years of rock and roll. Perhaps it wouldn't be unfair to say that the Gold Medal (and Lion and Dell, etc) years were the fiction-writing equivalent of these more-familiar artistic Big Bangs.

So why aren't they better known than they are?

The canon-maker-wannabes of respectable culture are people you'd expect to be foot-draggers, of course. And where Gold Medal fiction is concerned, they haven't disappointed. Back when Friedrich von Blowhard and I were in college, the official story of postwar American fiction recoiled entirely from the Gold Medal writers. At the time, the line of descent went: Capote, Cheever, Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Pynchon ... Actually, even Pynchon was considered a little too poppy by the era's profs and critics.

Incidentally, I have nothing against this stuff, which I've read a great deal of. It just doesn't represent anything like a fair account of postwar American fiction.

These days, it appears that some academics and intellectuals have finally seen fit to make room -- a little room -- for Gold Medal-style fiction. Many colleges now offer a course or three in the history of hardboiled and / or detective fiction. Even the disntinguished Library of America publishes a couple of volumes of pulp fiction.

All that acknowledged, I also have to report that I have found it astonishing how stuffy the New York City trade publishing biz remains. Many people in it know little about the early days of Gold Medal, and few of them have read much of this fiction. Imagine finding yourself among movie people unaware of Roger Corman, or rock musicians unfamiliar with the Sun Sessions. Bizarre.

But the hell with the prisses, eh? Hipsters and fans of lowdown fiction keep the era alive. They also keep trying to kick some raw energy back into fiction-book publishing. It's hard to manage, though. Much has changed. Publishing has become feminized and corporate ... Many people no longer read the way they once did ... Fawcett still exists, but in name only; it was sold in 1972 to CBS, and was then acquired by Ballantine (a division of Random House) in 1982. Black Lizard was bought by Vintage in 1990.

Today, Max Phillips and Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime reprints some of the Gold Medal books and promotes Gold Medal-style new work too, complete with ultry-pulpy covers. The excellent Stark House Press reissues a lot of old-school fantasy, mystery, and suspense -- including early lesbian tales by the Gold Medal novelist "Vin Packer," which continue to inspire today's queer authors.

But these are cult / coterie phenomena. Excellent as it is, Hard Case Crime bears the same relationship to Gold Medal that Chris Isaak does to Elvis Presley. (Nothing against Hard Case or Chris Isaak, both of whom I like.) So who are the innovative, earthily-opportunistic fiction publishers of today? There are great, buccaneering publishers alive: Peter Kindersley, Jack Jensen, and Benedikt Taschen come to mind. But these guys publish little if any fiction. Some small presses have done shit-kicking work with fiction. But none have been able to connect with a large audience.

Why should this be so? Have movies and television usurped the creation of and the taste for pulp fiction? Has the multiplication of entertainment options meant that Americans now look to books for respectable pleasures and leave the gritty fun to other media? Are today's wild-ass and funky cultural energies more likely to go into music and YouTube than into novel-writing?

Perhaps all the above are true. In any case, the takeaway lesson, as far as I'm concerned, is: It's nearly always a mistake to think of the on-the-page-fiction thang as a matter of high-mindedness, let alone of writers-writing. "Fiction" certainly involves writers writing, of course. And high-mindedness makes the occasional appearance. But on-the-page-fiction is nearly always a matter of commercial calculation, publishing, design, timing, money, promotion, luck, and audiences as well. Oh, and criticism too. Sometimes.


Here's a CNN article about Hard Case Crime. You can tickle the eyeballs for hours with great pulp visuals at the Pulp Gallery. Bill Crider has written a number of columns about the glories of Gold Medal fiction; they're collected here. An interview by Ed Gorman with the Gold Medal novelist John D. MacDonald is here.

Lee Server, Martin Greenberg, and Ed Gorman's "Big Book of Noir" is a wonderful compendium of all kinds of noir and pulp fiction goodies. I'm also a big fan of Server's "Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers," and "Over My Dead Body" a fast survey of the early years of paperback originals. Here's an interview with Lee Server.

Stephen Alexander Loeb proclaims Gold Medal Books his favorite publisher ever.

In previous postings with popular-fiction themes: I praised James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce"; I marveled over the excellence of Ira Levin; I listed the contempo authors who make me happiest; I sketched out the origins of the vampire novel; I saw a lot of virtues in Jackie Collins; I rapped about the differences between literary and non-literary fiction; I riffed on the differences between film people and books people; and I wrote an introduction to film noir.



posted by Michael at November 15, 2006


This was a bit longer than 1000 words. What did 1000 words have to do with it?

That said, Gold Medal does sound like an important force. Mostly, I was riveted on your lit-list from college: Capote, Bellow, Mailer, Updyke...zzzzzzzzz...oh, sorry!. What happened to Ann Tyler and Sylvia Plath? Two more names guaranteed to jazz up a party! I remember being in junior high and trying to read Mailer's book on Marilyn Monroe. (I think this was Mailer's attempt to "join the people.") I literally wasn't smart enough to follow it. I just remember getting tangled up in his (endless) theories about "The Misfits" and Marilyn having sex with her "dad" (Gable)...blah, bah, blah.

That and Saul Bellow's endless description of middle-aged men with pot bellies and wrinkled blazers and depressions.

Back to Gold Medal. No wonder it was a hit! Men in foxholes would certainly not waste their time reading anything but the zingy best! No time for depressed middle-aged assholes.

Posted by: annette on November 15, 2006 4:40 PM

Originally "1000 Words" meant I was going to keep these installments to 1000 words in length. It was a writing-discipline challenge to myself! Now it has come to mean that I try to keep them to that length and fail. This one clocks in, I see, at 1973 words. Oh well.

Time to go have a drink and boogie down with Anne Tyler...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 15, 2006 4:51 PM

Aren't you overemphasizing the dichotomy between the academy and pop culture just a tad? They discarded the canon quite some time ago to the chagrin of the folks at the New Criterion and elsewhere.

That said, the only contemporary author I remember reading in college was Pynchon. James Joyce was about the most recent outside of him, which may have been a matter of personal choice, I really don't recall. But I did discover mystery novels on my own in college. They were a nice break from Ulysses and while I've ignored Joyce for the most part since then, I continue to devour mysteries of all kinds.

There's plenty of room for both.

Posted by: Rachel on November 15, 2006 7:28 PM

The death of Gold Medal and their imitators was due to several things, but they shared one characteristic: explicitness. beginning around the mid-'50s, you had first Playboy and then its imitators offering over the counter nude photos and literary sex, much of the fiction published was the kind of thing that used to appear in the pulps and paperback originals. Movies, trying to lure viewers back to theaters, started dealing with "adult" subject matter.

The covers, as much as anything, of the paperbacks promised sex and violence and a kind of raw immediacy that was not available in pop culture until Playboy and the rest surpassed them. I suspect that not only did the growing explicitness of other media render the paperbacks passe, but that, as in every genre that seems fresh and new, they dug their own grave through endless repetition with the usual diminution of genuine quality.

You mention the names of a few notable writers who wrote pb originals, but that's a handful out of how many thousand titles and authors? BTW, I find it revealing that today people value the books of those writers precisely because they transcended the formulaic restrictions of the publishing format, not because they were typical of it. The writers who emerged from the pb swamp that are cherished today are therefore closer to the highfalutin NYLE favorites than the average product of the pulp.orig. pb sausage factory, which undercuts your argument about influences to some extent.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 15, 2006 8:40 PM

Today I read two stories about OJ Simpson's new book, the one about how he would have killed his wife and her friend if he had done it, which the crime court said he didn't but the civil court said he did. So now it looks as though the literary idea is to really do something so you can write about it because then how can they challenge your authenticity? And we love authentic, don't we?

It's not how it's written, it's the reality of it. Like TV. Words can't compare. Only wusses read. Real men hire a ghost writer. It's the way to make lots of money and keep the public's attention.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 15, 2006 11:28 PM

My favorite Gold Medal author is James Warner Bellah. His Western and Cavalry stories from the Saturday Evening Post got collected in their paperback editions. Energetic, vivid and stirring - he ended up turning the best into screenplays for John Ford films: Rio Grande, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache. Nobody reads Bellah anymore and that's a pity.

His life almost reads like a novel. At 17 he made his way to France and flew for the Lafayette Escadrille and then flew for the US Army Air Corps after we entered WWI. After the war he flew as a mercenary pilot for White Russian armies in the Russian civil war. He came home and finished his degree at Columbia. He worked as a journalist, ran guns across the border to Mexican revolutionaries and took part in a number of questionable activities in Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai.

On December 8, 1941 he enlisted in the Army as a private, and by the end of WWII was a full colonel on Gen. Stilwell's staff. After the war he made his fortune as a writer/screenwriter.

Read his semi-fictional autobiograpy "Irregular Gentleman." I've never talked to anyone who knows anything about him.

And my second favorite is Robert Ruark.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on November 16, 2006 12:41 AM

I find it interesting that younger individuals who obsess over a film like "Pulp Fiction", never actually delve into the particular universe of that work. I feel for the most part that they do not listen to Dusty Springfeld records or read actual pulp fiction. I feel that the younger generation is afraid to face other sensibilities because their ideas about entertainment might change. They might be led down new roads that might make Pulp Fiction look puny in comparison. At the same time, teachers at institutions play into this game and make young readers disenchanted to literary works. Certain teachers should realize that students will become bored, and they should seek out works that will pertain to today's generation. Why isn't James M. Cain being taught at high schools and colleges?

Posted by: David Brown on November 16, 2006 12:57 AM

I can't speak for the curriculum or reading lists of any English professors today, so I don't know for certain whether James Cain is being taught, but I suspect he is, somewhere.

Maybe its been a while since some of you attended college, but the consensus I'm picking up here that crime, detective and science fiction are being ignored is out of date. I had an English course on detective and science fiction in high school in 1974. I attended UCLA from 1974-78, and took an English course on science fiction in '77. Another course a friend recommended, which I audited, had Hammett on the syllabus.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 16, 2006 2:44 AM

The criticism of the academy is out of date. At my school, we have courses on The Vampire Tradition, Science Fiction and Fantasy (including a stand-alone course on Tolkien), mystery (contemporary and 19th century), and so on, in the English department. Over in Cinema they have Film Noir, Godard/Truffaut, French New Wave, The Western, The Road Movie, etc. etc. etc. We have a lot of young faculty who are doing really neat things in these areas.

Posted by: missgrundy on November 16, 2006 2:11 PM

Rachel -- I left academia behind 30 years ago, have seldom looked back, and couldn't agree more with your statement that "there's room for both." That said, my impression is that most English depts are still pretty obtuse where popular literature is concerned, although they've gone to great lengths since the '70s to incorporate theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer this 'n' that, etc. Always eager to get an update, though. Also very much struck and cheered by the way that "the academy" and its opinions seem to matter less and less every year ...

Peter -- The '50s-'60s were an interesting time in publishing, that's for sure. I wonder if that kind of vitality (or any similar kind) will be seen again in our lifetimes. I'm not sure I agree with your hunches about how and why some of the work of the PBO crowd survived, though. I'm less likely to make the case that some of the stuff I like (Goodis, Williams, Leonard) transcends the formulas so much as it fleshes the forms out really well. The early Elmore westerns that I've read, for instance, I enjoyed because they feel alive, are quickwitted, and have a sting. They're still formula westerns, though. (Which is a fine thing by my lights.) But I tend to be wary of the whole "transcend the form" argument, and maybe overwary ....

P. Mary -- Real men *have their agents* find and hire a ghost writer for them! That's the 21st century way.

Reid -- Yet more alluring books to read. Tks for the recs.

David -- It's weird that Cain isn't taught regularly in schools, isn't it? For one thing, he's a lot of involving fun to read. For another, he's significant. For a third, his good books are technically brilliant -- what fun (and what a great learning experience) it'd be to pull 'em apart. And kids today do seem to want to stay on the surface with things, don't they? I wonder why. Is it because the surface has become so tinsely, and so vast, that it's impossible to resist? It's weird, given the way that not-that-long-ago stuff like film history was considered a lot of fun. It was a treat to skip the new movies and explore film history instead. What happened?

Peter, Miss Grundy -- In the posting I'm only saying that 1) recognition of popular literature was nonexistent when and where I went to school, 2) the academic and publishing elites have been very slow to catch on to the value of popular literature, and 3) they're still often grudging about it, and ignorant of it. All that is true to my experience, anyway. As for colleges today, sounds like some of them have opened up a bit, which is good to hear. Yet I wonder if your experience isn't a bit exceptional. Here's the basic undergrad-English course list at NYU, for instance. I'm not seeing much about popular literature, let alone the history of publishing and reading. And I'm seeing an awful lot of the stuffy-old-canon and the theorized/multiculti new one. But, like I said to Rachel, what I'm really thrilled by is the fact that academic and lit-world opinion seems to count for less and less anyway ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 16, 2006 3:23 PM

I have just gone through the entire fall English curriculum at the University of Montana (which has a famed English Department), and find not one course dealing with popular fiction. I suspect Michael Blowhard is correct: there is little recognition of popular fiction in academia.

The curricula of other universities are posted on the internet; I would like to see some research submitted here, rather than opinionizing.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on November 17, 2006 12:52 PM

Pulp fiction died when it became respectable. The day Mickey Spillane appeared on Johnny Carson the mystique was gone. When movies took over as the best place to find the raunchiness of pulp fiction, people stopped reading it and started watching it. Gold Medal books were popular because that's where the good stuff was. Along with Argosy and Playboy, pulp fiction novels were the best reason to sit in the barber shop as a small boy and you didn't mind if there were 25 people ahead of you in line. Is it a coincidence that long hair and the switch to movie versions of our favorite naughty novels came about at the same time?

Posted by: Aussie Jack on November 18, 2006 3:29 AM

My alma mater's English department offers Mystery and Detective Fiction. The reading list:

William Godwin, Caleb Williams; Or, Things as They Are, ed. Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley (Broadview)

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford)

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. David Skilton (Oxford)

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (Vintage)

course packet with short stories by such authors as Maria Edgeworth, Edgar Allan Poe, J. Sheridan LeFanu, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James.

This is about as edgy as it gets at Dalhousie U.

Posted by: Phil on November 18, 2006 4:43 AM

Gold Medal (and other pulp novel publishers) gave the era's lesbians a glimpse of life and love. I will be forever grateful.

"In 1950, twelve years after Pocket Books published the first mass-market paperback, Fawcett began to feature the twilight world of women-loving women with its successful Gold Medal imprint series. Other publishers followed suit; soon the genre was so firmly established that readers could choose among several formulas or subgenres of lesbian pulp fiction: lesbians in institutions, love triangles, lesbians "saved" by straight men, etc. With their camp cover art and lurid prose, many of these books appealed to readers across lines of gender and sexuality, desires and tastes; although the narratives undoubtedly satisfied the prurient interests of many straight readers, they also catered to an entire generation of lesbian readers, who were anxious to find a reflection-albeit distorted and often cruel-of their own lives in a work of fiction."

Posted by: Carol Anne on November 18, 2006 8:50 AM

Sometimes I think I was born a generation too late. That's because I've always liked the pulps, and had I been born in, say, 1914, rather than 1934, I might have written for them. As a teenager I read all the paperbacks I could afford off drug store racks, and in 1951 I discovered Bluebook and its wealth of adventure fiction (12 stories per issue!), only to see the last of it about 1955. Not long after that, I discovered James M. Cain and have been pushing him on people every since. Much later, Elmore Leonard. I guess you'd call me a "serious" reader, but every so often I turn, with relief, to one of the great old pulp writers who keep me turning the pages with the sheer drive of their narratives. Good article. Love your website.

Posted by: Ross Klatte on November 18, 2006 2:26 PM

As a 22-year-old who has read a fair number of Gold Medal paperbacks (my grandfather's garage was filled with boxes of them) I suggest the equivalent today of the pulps, as well as the B movies, is the game box. The themes are all there: raw, visceral action and emotion, shock, power, imagery, the power of cheap music. Oh, and, um, (even if mommy and daddy can't figure out how to activate it). Never heard of Solid Snake or Utada Hikaru? Or the great legion of others coming on in an endless stream? Your kids and your grand kids have.

Posted by: Wanda Bohon on November 18, 2006 5:43 PM

I just got here via a link from Arts & Letters Daily, and now have a new must-read site!

Since I find myself in the presence of so many appreciators of the pulp tradition, forgive me for pimping my favorite read of 2006: You owe it to yourselves to read "The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril," by Paul Malmont. We now return you to your regularly scheduled literary discussion.

Posted by: wordwolf on November 18, 2006 6:43 PM

Coming in January to LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, a course about "comics": "Art and Story: Graphic Literature iin British and American Popular Culture," featuring Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," and "Watchmen" by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon, and two graphic memoirs,_Maus_ by Art Spiegelman, both volumes, and _Persepolis_ by Marjane Satrapi, an attempt to "sex up" the curriculum with something beyond the standard curriculum, and we've also got teachers doing courses in detective fiction, noir films, and American classic films -- all this from the English department.

Posted by: Michael Bishop on November 18, 2006 8:15 PM

have you read leigh hunt's "in defence of the penyy dreadful"/

Posted by: umashankar on November 18, 2006 8:17 PM

Thanks for not limiting yourself to 1000 words!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on November 19, 2006 11:24 AM

The gulf between literature and pulp is a well-flogged pony (or, as Louis L'Amour would say, "the choicest cuts of meat"), so I won't go into it. I will put in a plug for John D. MacDonald, who brought a lovely alacrity to the pulp he wrote. Almost as off-kilter as Vonnegut, John D. was able to stretch improbable simile and overly brusque dialog into tightly-woven plotty masterpieces. Add to that his penchant for what he called "the mini-lecture" (where a character essentially turns to the audience and delivers an often cynical homily) as well as his (for the time) militant environmentalism, you get more than a potboiler. It's a frosty glass of Plymouth double wrapped in a napkin so it won't sweat the teak.

Posted by: Josh Carrollhach on November 19, 2006 8:30 PM

Another ALDaily redirect here. Thanks. I grew up with Edgar Rice Burroughs and R E Howard, so enjoyed the history of pulp, and I'm with you on the evolution of the canon. I've never started reading a John Updike or Phillip Roth novel I could finish -- most end up returned to the library with drool marks from where I nodded off. On the other, hand my grandfather's basement and the small rural library I grew up with must have had almost nothing but Gold Medal books, based on content, though I can't say because I never worried about the publisher.

This is a stretch, but I note the same divide between recognized fiction and popular poetry as you explore here in fiction. Poetry is alive and well -- in workplace doggerel, song lyrics, ad jingles, but the academy won't say so because it has too much invested in the degree granting industry that manufactures MFAs and substitutes the idea of poetry for the real thing. The Beats returned poetry to its musical source, and there its been for half a century. Our best poets are not Plath or Rich or Walcott or Snyder -- any more than our best authors are those you list. To find some poetry, compare Paul Simon or Sting or John Mellencamp to Donne or Herrick. Or listen to Ice T, NWA and that lot. Rap and hip-hip mark a return to the chanted word. Slam poetry is developing interest in th' unaccompanied word. In time, the sound will be heard even through ivory walls. peace, b.

Posted by: bosun on November 21, 2006 7:55 PM


There is something called literature. There is an art form that joins good writing with imagination. Try as you might you're not going to find it in the pulps and genre writing that you push with enthusiam.

The writing that is currently pushed as quality lit might not be very good.

But you will not be able to convert pulp and genre fiction into literature just because you want to. The writing is too careless and where it is good (E. Leonard) the plots are too predictalbe. It lacks art.

Art exists.

Posted by: Das on November 24, 2006 10:48 AM

There are those who reject pulp and genre fiction and they are essentially not snobs, but intellectual pigmies. John Campbell’s 40’s and 50’s pulp magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, which featured authors such as the great Dr. Isaac Asimov, certainly contained extremely well written stories with brilliant, mind-boggling, original plots.

I recently had to take some misguided professor to task for hand wringing about “America’s youth” wasting their time on computer games. I suggested to the good professor that she get a copy of Orson Scott Card’s wonderful, multi-award winning story “Ender’s Game”. I know that, in Korea, even my best troops (WW II veterans), would not have been able to quickly and effectively master the equipment now used effortlessly by the young men and women in our modern Armed Forces. Fortunately, contemporary kids are not awed by the most incredible modern technology!

There are today, of course, a number of best-selling authors who, 50 years ago, might well have appeared in pulp. One only has to look at the very popular military and police writer, W.E.B. Griffin, published by G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, to site one example. Frankly, I feel that the current publishing industry is doing its job pretty well.

Posted by: Pat West on November 26, 2006 8:37 PM

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