MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 497-498
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Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines
Erin A. Smith. Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2000. xi + 215 pp.
What can hard-boiled fiction of the 1930s and 1940s tell us about its first audiences? Moreover, what case can be made for hard-boiled fiction as politically useful proletarian literature? In response to the first question, Erin Smith argues that such literature and the magazines in which it circulated are rich social documents revealing mid-century working-class anxiety about proletarianization and the erosion of white male cultural privilege. In response to the second, two-fold question, Smith argues that we ought to characterize pulp fiction as proletarian literature because the working classes were its primary audience, and thus they significantly influenced its content; as to pulp fiction's political utility, Smith registers its conservative tendencies but argues that in spite of its obvious misogyny, homophobia, and racism, its emphasis on masquerade nevertheless undermines the stability of gender and racial categories, affording pulp fiction "a great deal of transgressive potential." If on this last front particularly Smith only partly persuades, that she poses these questions [End Page 497] at all makes Hard-Boiled a valuable contribution to the study of American literature between the wars.
Three theorists--Fredric Jameson, Michel de Certeau, and Judith Butler--are central to Smith's study. Smith contests Jameson's characterization of pulp fiction as a form which, in Smith's words, "smooth[es] over the ideological contradictions in the social order [and] 'manage[s]' the Utopian longings [of its] readers"; for Smith, the relation of cultural consumer to cultural producer is more complex. Certeau's theses on creative reading allow her to propose a greater interpretive latitude on the part of the texts' working-class consumers and a degree of influence on the content of the texts themselves: pulp writers, she argues, had to satisfy the demands of readers, meaning that the texts represent working-class concerns better than Jameson supposes. Meanwhile, Butler's writing on gender performativity allows Smith to interpret the masquerades typical of hard-boiled fiction politically, demonstrating that racial and gender categories are not innate, but enacted.
Hard-Boiled is divided into two parts. The first third is contextualist, situating pulp magazines in the literary marketplace, reading the advertisements that accompanied pulp fiction for what they disclose about the cultural work in which the fictions participated, and reading published testimonials by authors and readers to understand how they represented the cultural work of pulp fiction. Smith devotes the remaining four chapters to close readings of the fictions themselves, attempting to reveal their transgressive potential. In these chapters, she occasionally exceeds the limits of her thesis. If she insightfully registers the ways in which the pulp fiction hero floats across social boundaries and uses class demarcations as a weapon, she also exaggerates the ontological flexibility implicit in pulp masquerade, and her characterization of the pulp plot as "a training ground for the kind of thinking necessary for Taylor-ed jobs" is largely unconvincing given the venerability of the episodic plot and the novelty of the Taylor-ed workplace. Still, Smith successfully argues that pulp fiction is ideologically more polymorphous than has been supposed.
D. Andrew Loman