The Great American Paperback: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends
of the Book by Richard Lupoff
(Collectors Press, 2001)
Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback
by Susan Stryker
(Chronicle Books, 2001)
The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories, edited by David Pringle
(Big Engine, 2001)
When mass market paperbacks hit American newsstands and bookshelves in
the late 1930s, it heralded the most important change in the distribution
of print since the invention of the printing press itself. In the 65 or
so years since, there has only been one book-publishing innovation with
the potential to institute a change as fundamental and radical: print on
demand. It is, of course, too early to tell just what those changes will
be, or even if the technological breakthrough will live up to its revolutionary
Mass market paperbacks certainly rose to that challenge. Two recent books
offer a picturesque journey testifying to the subversive impact of the
format: Richard Lupoff's The Great American Paperback: An Illustrated
Tribute to the Legends of the Book and Susan Stryker's more specialized
Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback.
The Lupoff is the latest in a series of coffee-table books on the history
of popular publishing from Oregon publisher Collectors Press. (Others have
included Frank Robinson's award-winning volumes Pulp Culture and
Science Fiction of the 20th Century.) For the most part, The
Great American Paperback is a gorgeous work of art in and of itself.
My only criticism in this regard is that the designer seems to have forgotten
that, despite its multitude of cover reproductions of golden-age paperback
covers, this book is also meant to be read. Several chapters, for example,
contain black type on glossy red papera straining and verging-on-unreadable
combination. It's even more of a shame because Lupoff's text is both lively
and informative. Fortunately, only one of every three chapters suffers
from this colour affliction.
Like all of these Collectors Press books, The Great American Paperback
is a pleasure to leaf through. Vintage paperback cover illustrations abound
(more than 600 according to the cover copy), and the quality of the reproductions
is excellent. Although nothing in the title or subtitle indicates this,
Lupoff's book concentrates (with a few very brief excursions beyond) on
the golden age of mass market paperbacks: 1938-65. In other words, no interpretations
of The Shadow by Jim Steranko or of Doc Savage by James Bama (two of my
personal paperback fetishes).
Each cover comes with cover art credit (when known), publication information,
a rating indicating the book's collectibility and/or importance in paperback
history, and a brief editorial comment. On collectibility, Lupoff stresses
that, ultimately, collectors should obey their own heart and seek books
that satisfy their passions or interests. The ratings are there mostly
to give a glimpse of trends in collector culture, which in itself turns
out to be fascinating, if informal, sociological information. The editorial
blurbs offer for the most part interesting additional information about,
say, the history of the book or the background of the illustration. Failing
that, however, Lupoff spends perhaps a bit too much time ogling the sexy
babes on the covers. It would have been funny in lighter doses, but by
the end of the book, the joke had worn itself out. Nevertheless, these
short comments contain a lot of worthwhile anecdotes and tidbits not found
elsewhere in the text, adding to the feeling that this book and its author
are just bursting with information.
Lupoff's text is mostly concerned with the behind-the-scenes shenanigans
that led to the birth of the great paperback housessuch as Pocket Books,
New American Library, Fawcett, Ace, etc.including a full chapter on
the antecedents of the mass market paperback. Anyone interested in publishing
history will find this book amply rewarding. The Great American Paperback
is informed by careful research, personal experience, and a lifetime of
passionate interest, all of which are in evidence.
Despite Lupoff's well-known penchant for crime fiction and science fiction
(both of which are abundantly represented), The Great American Paperback
deals with all the categories of mass market books. The text is organized
mostly by publisher, resulting in very clear pictures of the history of
the various publishers, intricate interconnections revealing themselves
as Lupoff's narrative unfolds.
I was also quite impressed with Lupoff's annotated bibliography. His
succinct comments offer a good impression of each book, allowing readers
to know which sources will further cater to their specific interests. All
in all, a tremendously entertaining and informative book.
While Lupoff is mostly preoccupied with how the mass market paperback
changed American reading habits and culture (see, for example, his reproduction
of the advertisement for the first ten numbered Pocket Books, the list
that launched the paperback revolution), Susan Stryker is more concerned
with what paperbacks had to say about the evolution of American sexual
mores and the role they had to play in that evolution.
Anyone familiar with the history of popular publishing will find that
Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback
is a confusing title: is the book about pulps or is it about paperbacks?
As the subtitle indicates, Susan Stryker's book is about paperbacks and
not, despite the title, about pulps. Throughout her text, she uses "pulp"
to mean "lurid," perhaps not the most precise of meanings when writing
about a chapter in publishing history, but certainly one that's increasingly
common, especially since the success of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction
(let it be noted, however, that on the film poster, Uma Thurman is holding
a pulp magazine).
Despite this semantic quibble, I found Stryker's book to be absolutely
top-notch. Her writing is engaging and lucid. She manages with great skill
to interweave a brief history of American sexual mores with the history
of golden-age paperbacks, each facet illuminating the other. Although written
by an academic, Queer Pulp is anything but dry. Stryker broaches
her subject with wit, enthusiastic curiosity, and narrative flair. Like
in the Lupoff, readers benefit from the author's detailed research and
Here the text is divided by sexual category: threesomes and other tangled
relationships, lesbians, transgenders, and male homosexuality. Again, like
in the Lupoff, the book is generously illustrated with vintage paperback
covers, each accompanied by an editorial blurb. Stryker's interests differ
from Lupoff's and cover illustrators are rarely mentioned, but publication
data is included. Stryker's editorial blurbs, however, are unfailingly
pointed and pertinent.
The physical book itself is again a beautiful object, impeccably designed,
as are most Chronicle Books (past releases of similar interest and equal
beauty include Lee Server's histories of popular publishing Danger Is
My Business and Over My Dead Body). The elegant design never
interferes with the reading experiencequite the opposite, it enhances
its ease and pleasure.
Science fiction readers will find that Stryker is a sympathetic writer.
Not only does she, in her look at the history of alternative sexualities
in the paperbacks of 1938-65, mention, with cover reproductions, Samuel
Delany, Theodore Sturgeon, and Marion Zimmer Bradley but she also allows
herself to go beyond the years of her study to discuss Ursula Le Guin's
The Left Hand of Darkness and Bradley's Free Amazons of Darkover.
Her appraisal of Bradley includes a look at Bradley's early critical writings
in the lesbian magazine Ladder. Most interesting are comments by
Stryker such as "the science-fiction field ... was exceptionally well suited
to extrapolate from contemporary social concerns and promote visions of
alternate societies, new forms of embodiment, and novel pathways of desire
Although many paperbacks were overtly reactionary in regards to nonreproductive
sexualities, Stryker explains that some nevertheless covertly gave voice
to writers whose ideas and lives could find little avenues of expression
in a heterosexually oppressive dominant culture. Often, to circumvent obscenity
laws, writers and publishers had to cloak their wares in cautionary rhetoric.
Of course, there were also many truly reactionary books, and Stryker discusses
those tooas she does the ones who were brave enough to transgress, whether
for opportunistic profit or for a desire to express what no other mass
medium then permitted.
Stryker explains how golden-age mass market paperbacks allowed visions
of alternative sexualities to permeate the mass imagination like no other
medium of its time. Lupoff describes how mass paperbacks made books available
to a wider public than ever before. Now, the formerly revolutionary mass market
book is in trouble. Once a format that showcased a wide array of genres
and categories, today, the mass market paperback is increasingly the refuge
of the bestseller and only the bestseller. And the format is slowly pricing
itself out existence, for reasons that are too complex to go into here.
What is certain is that the mass market paperback is in crisis. Perhaps
the mass market paperback, for whatever reason, is no longer compatible
with the larger culture. I hope not, I hope it will be saved somehow.
But perhaps salvation will come in another format altogether. Print
on demand is a newishand self-descriptivetechnology that allows publisherssmall or largeto keep titles available without the risks of overprinting
or the costs of warehousing. Its potential is great. It has yet to sound
the revolution, but perhaps that will come.
Some specialty publishersfor example, Big Engine, Wildside Press,
and Cosmos Bookshave been using POD to establish impressive backlists,
making available long out-of-print titles by popular authors. And, increasingly,
we are seeing previously unpublished books on their lists. One such recent
title is The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories, an anthology edited
by David Pringle culling stories from his acclaimed magazine, Interzone.
There have been six previous Interzone anthologies, five numbered
ones and the gigantic Best of Interzone (in my opinion, one of the
greatest SF anthologies ever). None of these, including The Ant-Men
of Tibet and Other Stories, overlap at all. Further, all the stories
in this new volume are making their first book appearance. The Ant-Men
of Tibet and Other Stories contains ten stories, both from established
Interzone contributorsStephen Baxter, Keith Brooke, Eugene Byrne,
Eric Brownand from newer writersNicola Caines, Jayme Lynn Blaschke.
This book was originally intended for the now-defunct line Pulp Fictions.
As such, The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories emphasizes a slightly
pulpier side to Interzone than the previous anthologies.
The book, true to Interzone's scope, is quite diverse. The title
storythe first item on the menufinds Steven Baxter in his Wellsian
mode; the style that I find always brings out the best of his talent. Most
of the anthology achieves an aura of sophisticated pulp, combining the
esthetic pleasure of well-written prose with the excitement of pulp SF.
The best example of this is probably the book's closing tale, Eric Brown's
planetary adventure, "Vulpheous."
The book's greatest strength, however, is the wry wit of stories such
as Chris Beckett's "The Warrior Half-and-Half," Molly Brown's "The Vengeance
of Grandmother Wu," Peter Garratt's "The Collectivization of Transylvania,"
and, my pick for the book's best story, Eugene Byrne's time-travel farce,
"Alfred's Imaginary Pestilence." Compared to these, Alastair Reynolds's
dry hard-SF piece, "Byrd Land Six," and Nicola Caines's unsubtle and single-minded
ode to the Western worldview, "Civilization," seem staid indeed.
How does The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories compare with
traditionally printed books? The trade-paperback binding seems solid enough.
The paper is a comfortable off-white; the font is just right, laid
out with a sobriety that makes for easy reading. I take the time to mention
these things because I've seen other POD books whose printing and design
standards were not this reader-friendly. Two small caveats: the cover illustration
seems somewhat out of focus, and, oddly, the contents page is on the verso
rather than the recto of a page. Neither of these detracted from the book's
overall quality, but they bear noting.
Who knows? Maybe one day Collectors Press and Chronicle Books will be
releasing nostalgic coffee-table books celebrating the turn-of-the-millennium
golden age of POD books....