Revolution and Counter Culture in Pulp Fiction, 1950 to 1980.
This is a treat for anyone with an interest in pulp fiction, anyone who understands there’s more going on in these novels than literary snobbery would ever admit. Of course, Sticking it to the Man’s primary purpose is to offer an insight into the political side of the form, those books published under a kind of roots up political umbrella for street voices, pulps that revel in and explore the radical edge of the times they were written. Words that speak to society’s make up, and seek to change or influence structures, norms, and modes. In the mix too are novels that just reflect the preoccupations and fears and thinking of their age, although not ground breaking they reveal a lot about attitudes, language and mores. So expect to be educated and informed by this book but also expect to be thoroughly entertained, each essay sings with the passion the authors have for their subjects, some pieces are witty, one or two downright hilarious (intentionally, whereas that may not be true of every book covered here), all these essays are perceptive, clear and expert. The over all impression I come away with is that this book is well curated and the articles are well thought out, knowledgeable and warmly written. The fact that the many topics have different champions and that the way the topics are approached is diverse make reading this book a varied experience, it’s a very open survey. Most essays deal with race, sexuality and politics in the pulp novel, (and the politics of race and sexuality), covering the individual writer, specific book reviews and more general essays on genre or a specific topic. This book is a treasure trove for people with an interest in the low cultural output of the heyday of the pulp paperback, it’s a semi-academic study (by that I just mean it’s very accessible), a view of the mores of a previous generation, and its also a guide to the book-art of three decades of pulp writing (350 covers shown). Genuinely a lot of fun.
McIntyre and Nette’s introductory essay A Total Assault on the Culture? Pulp and Popular Fiction during the Long Sixties points out this is not a definitive survey, it will satisfy most readers. I have read a lot of pulp and with the modern eye you get a perspective on those writers really had something to say and are relevant. What you find is that pulp books are often way ahead of film and TV in presenting social issues in a mature and intelligent way, they raise issues decades before they become general knowledge and some passages, if not whole novels exhibit consummate writing.
This survey covers pulp in America, Britain and Australia, countries with significant home grown publishing industries and mass market paperback markets. The sixties is an often ‘celebrated’ and/or ‘derided’ decade, this survey runs thirty years, the ‘long sixties’ from the 50s, when this kind of fiction began breaking out, to the 70s and a mass flowering of certain radical movements. The novels here are a part of, or reaction to, the key social and political trends; Vietnam, second wave feminism, opposition to conscription, Black power, wildcat strikes, Maoism, the Angry Brigade, Hippies etc – radical, rebellious, challenging; ‘intrinsic to the ferment and Zeitgeist’. The books here were written to entertain, quickly, for small financial rewards and mass market consumption. The paperback replaced the magazine of the 40s as the best selling fiction format in this period; crime, erotica, thrillers, romance, aimed at cheap thrills, big action, titillation, and sensation, with no thought for posterity. All offer a cultural, sociological insight to the modern reader. However, the editorial confines of the day left some room for alternative views, black and minority ethnic people, women, LGBTQI, convicts and leftists, topics from ‘smash the state’ to ‘turn on the kids’. Much of this stuff never made it to respectable bookshops let alone, newspaper reviews, or supermarket shelves. The first essays looks at Chester Himes:
Survival Mode: The Crime Fiction of Chester Himes by Scott Alderberg. A reluctant crime writer Himes gave us the best named cop duo in fiction; Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, they don’t come tougher or harder. Himes got chucked out of Ohio State University before serving seven and a half years for robbery. His short stories were published in Esquire while in prison and his first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) was published soon after his release. Moderately successful he sought a writer’s job in Hollywood, only to get fired by Jack Warner who didn’t want a black person working for Warner Brothers, (that’s not the way he put it). After a brief spell in New York Himes moved to Paris in 1956 where he found an acceptance. Marcel Duchamel, founder of Editions Gallimard Série Noire, led Homes to crime writing, he was sceptical but Duchamel was persistent. The result was A Rage in Harlem (1957), winner of the Grand Prix de la Literature Policière in 1958. Real Cool Killers followed, Alderberg notes that Himes adapted the crime novel to suit his style rather than the other way round, he was a fan of Faulkner’s absurd/violent writing and Hammett. Of course no black P.I. could move around with the freedom of Spade or Marlowe and the only way they could have any power was to make them cops, mostly policing the black communities of Harlem. Alderberg looks at the books of Himes, how they confronted the issues of race, poverty, and the definition of what a servant of the law should be.
“All he did in book after book was probe and examine worlds of trouble, and, as entertaining as he can be, he doesn’t play. Laughs come with stings, pleasures with pain. It’s the way of the world, the way of Chester Himes.”
To Sir, With Love: Race and the Unreal City of the Colonial Imagination by Susie Thomas. E.R. Braithwaite published his autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love in 1959. It’s about the experience of a black man who takes a job as a teacher in a tough east end secondary modern school, the only job he can get, it’s not a vocation. He doesn’t feel sorry for these kids, their poverty and lack of aspiration, the fact that they are white still gives them privilege. But he comes to love ‘these brutal, disarming bastards’. It’s about the politics of class and race in post war London. Colonial aspirations versus metropolitan disappointment. Reminiscent of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956):
“Lord, what is it we people do in this world that we have to suffer so?”
The initial joy of arrival is soon tempered by not being able to get work, or housing, the mundanity of city life. Again Thomas analyses the book, the film (Sydney Poitier, 1966), and its relationship to later writing Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990).
The Odd Girl’s Journey Out of the Shadows by Alley Hector: The Stonewall riots of 1969 put gay rights on the front page but for a long time a lesbian sub-culture existed, had a language and representation in pulp. The 50s/60s saw a flood of titles in drug stores. Often written by men, often to titillate, prone to daft fantasy, exaggeration, described as wanton deviance, it was a whole industry built on male voyeurism, lesbians being less threatening to the male image than homosexuality. Women writers began using the format to increase the understanding of lesbianism, to introduce radical ideas into mainstream thinking. Valerie Taylor lesbi-pulp novels presented an image of real women, the real struggles of young girls, she challenged the basic accepted premise that women are accessible to men. Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker was about love making not dirty, sleazy, deviant sex. Carol Hales gave her publisher sex in exchange for being able to write about lesbians and express her progressive ideas, including a true representation of butch and femme. Many young women unsure of their sexuality or how to express their sexuality, found solace/like minded women in these novels.
City of Night (1963) John Rechy, reviewed by Andrew Nette. Described as “one of those novels that made Gay Literature history”, by Eric Andrews-Katz. Nette explores the role to the novel in the growth of explicitly gay male novels and the origins of the form, an expression of identity.
Black Lightning (1964) by Dymphna Cusack, review Andrew Nette. Tempe Caxton is a TV lifestyle presenter and socialite recovering from a suicide attempt. Her handsome lover has left her for a younger heiress and her son was killed in Malaya, he despised her selfish narcissism. Christopher was married to a ‘half’ Aboriginal woman, Zanny. Tempe visits the family only to discover that Zanny is dead but the family want support in their fight against a corrupt council and greedy developer. Nette says the novel is paternalistic but does not pull punches on the treatment of aboriginal people.
The Player Iceberg Slim and the Allure of the Street by Kinohi Nishikawa.
“The result was some of the most daring and controversial pulp fiction of the era.”
Exploring Slim’s books Pimp (1967), Trick Baby (1968), Mama Black Widow (1969) and other titles, drawing on his life story, chequered relationship with the social and cultural groups he wrote about. It’s an incredible story.
Canadian Carnage Quebecois Separatism through the Lens of Men’s Adventure Novels by Iain McIntyre. Mostly this seems to be cashing in on a real conflict, ongoing political issue, for pulp fodder. American authors enjoying a bit of exploitation at Canada’s expense and the Québecois independence movement. Tanner’s Tiger by Lawrence Block (1968); Tanner never sleeps, thanks to a piece of North Korean shrapnel, he works for an unnamed US agency, he’s a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, The Flat Earth Society, he operates on the principal that:
“One either identifies with little ragged bands of political extremists or considers them to be madmen; when either embraces lost causes or deplores them.”
McIntyre’s précis of the plot is hilarious, but to be fair to Block, a fine writer, this is meant as satire. The piece features among others Philip Atlee The Canadian Bomber Contract, Joseph Nazel Iceman Canadian Kill.
Among my other favourite pieces are Blowback (the Vietnam War), Black is Beautiful (Joseph Perkins Greene), What Men Fear (interview with M.F. Beal), Shafted (the making of and Ernest R. Tidyman) and The Radical (Donald Goines).
What do we get from this survey: an enjoyable read and plenty of knowledge and insight, all delivered with style and verve.
Paul Burke 5/4*
Sticking it to the Man edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
9781629635248 PM Press Paperback Dec 2019