American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street by Jan Baetens (review)
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AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET by Paula Rabinowitz. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2014 (trade), 2016 (paper). 408 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 9780691150604; ISBN: 9780691173382.

This is the paperback version of a 2014 award-winning and widely acclaimed study on paperback culture in the period between 1939 (when the U.K. Penguin formula was introduced—and creatively copied—in the United States by local publishers) and 1952 (the year of the Gatthings Committee that investigated pornographic and other morally debatable content in reading material for sale in newsstands). As Paula Rabinowitz convincingly demonstrates, U.S. pulp books in this period did not resemble the cheap books that existed previously and were also very different from the new paperbacks that would be launched afterward. The English Penguin model that will be ruthlessly exploited on the other side of the Atlantic obeyed an ideal of decent reading at an affordable price ("good," that is "classic," books for sale in train stations with no bookshops), whereas the American pulp paperback will emphasize, although never in an exclusive way, "modern," that is "popular," values of shock and thrill, directly in line with the mass culture and cultural industries of the era. And the trade paperback that will emerge during the 1950s, after the economic crash of 1953 and the collapse of the pulp paperback market (due to overproduction as well as to legal complications after the Gatthings Hearings), will no longer have the taste of dangerous stuff and forbidden fruit but cater to the new and exploding college market.

The idea that Modernism was an elite movement characterized by the great divide between high and low has been shattered for many years now. The blurring of boundaries between literary studies on the one hand and media studies and material culture and book history studies on the other has produced rich evidence of the permanent interaction between stylistic, cultural and ideological registers, without which the complexity and utter diversity of Modernism can no longer be thought of. In this currently well-studied field, Rabinowitz's work introduces very refreshing thoughts and insights, however, which make this book stand out in the overwhelming production on the writing business before, during and after World War II. First of all, there is of course the very corpus she analyzes. We all know today the cover artwork by James Avati, the Rembrandt of the pulp paperbacks, and his steamy illustrations regardless of content (any book was turned into a "sex and violence" book thanks to his and others' illustrations, all turned toward a new public that would never think of entering a "real" bookshop). Yet Rabinowitz's detailed investigation in all kind of archives offers a much richer picture than the stereotypes reinforced by Taschen reprints of mere covers, interesting as they may be. Rabinowitz takes us on a voyage to the places where these pulp paperbacks can still be found, and her descriptions make clear that the material survival of these books is not guaranteed at all: Materially speaking, they are very fragile and to store and restore them in scientifically adequate conditions has become so expensive that the future of the pulp paperbacks is now highly problematic. It is not unthinkable that within a couple of years the major sources of this half-hidden continent will be no longer the items themselves, but their fictional and nonfictional representations in literary and other testimonies (this is the last chapter of Rabinowitz's book: a nostalgic reading of the ways in which we remember, either in oral history or in fictional testimonies, these books that seem to be lost forever).

The material description of the paperback industry output is however just one small part of the story. What Rabinowitz is mainly interested in is the cultural history of the paperback, not as a specific category of books, but as an "interface" between social practices, ideas, forms and behaviors on the one hand, and the lives of those who were buying these books on the other hand. Initially their price was 25 cents, which made them as cheap as a packet of cigarettes (the price of a comparable hardback, until then...