- Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing by Justin Gifford
Pimping Fictions opens by recalling the scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) in which the narrator’s gaze falls upon three zoot-suited hipsters as they stroll across the subway platform. Initially drawn to their fashion, the narrator follows the trio onto a train and becomes increasingly fascinated by the totality of their cool pose. The young men’s precise performance of fecklessness appears to contradict everything the Brotherhood has proclaimed “the race” needs or should wish to achieve. Watching how these self-assured figures conduct themselves in public space—wearing flamboyant clothes, communicating in a flowery jive, and reading comic books—leads the narrator to wonder, From what do they need saving after all? In citing this moment of recognition at the start of Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford positions his object of study—African American crime literature—as the genre counterpart to Ellison’s zoot-suiters. For if the fictional youth “cause [the narrator] to reflect on his own political arrogance of assuming the role of race leader,” then crime fiction, Gifford contends, has historically served a similar role for African American readers. Since the 1960s, the genre has been uniquely suited to capture “the contradictory relationship between stylish urban outlaws and black struggles for social and political freedom” (2). In other words, in black crime fiction we find the zoot-suiters talking back.
As its rather provocative title suggests, Pimping Fictions throws its lot in with pop-literary icons of urban black working-class culture. Gifford’s study begins with Chester Himes’s Run Man Run (first published in France in 1959, then in the United States in 1966), an overlooked crime novel that falls outside the lauded Harlem detective series featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. In the concluding chapter, the study surveys so-called “urban” or “street” fiction—paperback books that have in recent years saturated the market for African American literature among black readers. Between these two chapters is the meaty heart of Gifford’s analysis: a four-part explication of the books, authors, and editors associated with the independent, white-owned publisher Holloway House. As the maverick Los Angeles-based company that revolutionized the production and distribution of black pulp fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Holloway House introduced to the world Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, and a host of lesser-known writers who documented inner-city blight through the hardboiled eyes of the black lumpenproletariat. Pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and con men are the protagonists in black pulp fiction, and much like Ellison’s zoot-suiters, Gifford urges us to attend to the political meaning [End Page 207] of their seemingly apolitical existence. The fact that Slim’s and Goines’s novels have been popular sellers for over four decades suggests there is something to that point.
The problem with Pimping Fictions is that it rides that point hard—too hard—for the duration of its analysis. After presenting a rather idiosyncratic definition of “black crime fiction” as “paperback novels written by African American criminals and prisoners in the years after World War II” (2), Gifford sets out to prove the value of the genre to an audience presumably blind to its import. He takes the (African) Americanist field to task, in fact, for having “traditionally passed over this genre despite its enormous popularity among fans and its far larger cultural influence”; “critics,” he bemoans, “have assumed incorrectly—simply by their neglect of the genre in toto—that these books are formulaic” (7). The fuzzy logic and fudged facts here—that genre fiction is by definition formulaic, and that black crime fiction is a well-established area of inquiry in the field—are glossed over, as Gifford makes the case that he is championing the underrepresented in the academy. In the process, of course, he ignores a wide and diverse body of writing on the genre, and in a related vein, unnecessarily...