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Thursday 25 October 2001

Pulp Paperbacks Printed on Demand?

Book Reviews by Claude Lalumière
(Special to Locus Online)


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 potential.

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 paper—a 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 houses—such 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 passionate interest.

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 experience—quite 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 and pleasure."

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 too—as 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 newish—and self-descriptive—technology that allows publishers—small or large—to 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 publishers—for example, Big Engine, Wildside Press, and Cosmos Books—have 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 contributors—Stephen Baxter, Keith Brooke, Eugene Byrne, Eric Brown—and from newer writers—Nicola 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 story—the first item on the menu—finds 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....

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate; his humour in Safarir and TheFunniest ToGo; and his poetry in L'Écrit Primal.  He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his website.

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