John Harrison – Hip Pocket Sleaze (2011)

Review by Justin Tate

Pulp paperbacks were the wild wild west of publishing. I’ll never tire of learning about these books, authors, cover artists, and the barrage of taboo subjects explored during this time of sexual awakening in American history. It was a time that tested the limits of free speech, with many publishers having to defend their books all the way up to the Supreme Court. These books also became an outlet of self-expression to marginalized communities. For better and for worse, admittedly.

I believe the literary quality of pulp fiction is higher than most would expect, but that’s not to say there aren’t clunkers in the mix. For every pretty good book, you have to sift through ten that are terrible. There’s something visceral, deeply subconscious, and a little terrifying about even the worst-written pulps though.

These authors were tasked to scandalize, to explore the kinds of sex and violence that could transfix a reader, either in shock, pleasure, or some combination of all the above. Their subjects include the most vulgar, grungiest themes imaginable, often on a scale that is outrageous in its hyperbole. Yet this freedom allows for exploration of the human experience that would otherwise be neglected by mainstream fiction.

If I dedicated the rest of my life to reading and researching pulp paperbacks, I would still only have a vague understanding of the global phenomenon that ultimately still impacts art today. As such, Hip Pocket Sleaze provides a great service. Not only is it full of significant content—including rare interviews with authors, artists and publishers of the era—but there is substantial overview of a large selection of books. Emphasis is placed on erotic pulps, but there’s also discussion of horror, true crime, witchcraft, and other oddities which became trending topics for these books. Many I have no interest in reading, but that’s not to say I don’t want to know what’s in them. The short reviews give me the gist of the highs and lows so I can be more selective with what I do read.

One of the most profound interviews, I think, is with an author who takes great offense to the term “Sleaze” in the book’s title. Although I think “Sleaze” has a more affectionate connotation than it has in the past, the author makes a good point that such terms really diminish the literary power found in pulp pages. Even if the book has a lurid title and an illustrated nude on the cover, that is no real indication of the type of content found inside. Publishers might also bastardize a text, add their own sex scenes, or otherwise complicate the presentation of what authors intended. As scholars of these texts, I think there is an obligation to explain the vast context around pulp and demonstrate how that should appreciation of the work.

For anyone else looking to learn more about this fascinating era of publishing, I can highly recommend Hip Pocket Sleaze as a quick, informative read with exceptional content, global perspective, and examination from a place of admiration for an oft-neglected body of literature.

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