Out of Line: ‘Sticking It to the Man’ and the Pulp Revolution— in We Are the Mutants

Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980

By Eve Tushnet
We Are the Mutants
May 12, 2020

The standard story of the postwar media landscape centers on the rise of television: news anchors and variety shows, cowlicked children of white couples who sleep in separate beds, the same flickering glow from every home—Donna Reed across the face of the world forever. But a series of books from PM Press points out that the television era was also the golden age of the pulp paperback. By the 1950s, a weedy efflorescence of experimental and salacious novels had arisen from the pulp swampland. Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980, the second volume in this series, offers a host of short essays and interviews on how the lost world of the pulps reflected and sometimes advanced the many “revolutions” of the second half of the twentieth century.

Publishers struggled to keep up with the demand for cheap fiction. The hunger for writers allowed unexpected, previously-unpublishable voices to break into the industry: black men coming out of prison, gay and lesbian authors, sardonic and utopian visions of sex and violence. Sticking It to the Man implies that pulp fiction was a genuinely revolutionary arena—even if one of the most successful revolutions fostered there was the law-and-order ascension of Ronald Reagan.

The editors, Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, note, “Due to their lowbrow nature, few of these books were ever reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, instead relying on their lurid, eye-catching titles, images, and bylines to draw consumers passing through newsstands, chemists, barbers, supermarkets, and second-tier bookstores.” The pulp covers tend toward the spicy, the psychedelic; sometimes they entice the imagined reader by threatening him, as in the pointing finger on the cover of The Feminists. But Sticking It to the Man does the service of linking the most “lowbrow,” genre-dwelling pulps (Black Samurai 4: The Deadly Pearl; Night of the Sadist) with titles we’d now consider mainstream or experimental literary fiction, from Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian coming-of-age classic Rubyfruit Jungle to the “hallucinatory,” ferocious work of Zimbabwean chaos vortex Dambudzo Marechera. We get to see pulp fiction as a spectrum, from the churned-out series to the realist novel; and some of the most powerful prose comes from the middle of that spectrum, from genre writers like Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim.

To the extent that these books had a perspective in common, that perspective might be, “Order is chaos.” From Dark Angel: The Emerald Oil Caper to Dirty Harry to a host of sensitive gay novels with shadowy faces on the covers, these are books in which societal order has failed in some way, and the heroes are those who step outside the world they’ve been taught to respect. They’re often attentive to the ways even the factions you support will fail you. The focus on action, not thoughts (as a French publisher advised Chester Himes), lends itself to surrealism—a collage of absurd violence, which is also one description of totalitarian order as seen by its victims.

These are novels against harmony. Many offer a grim, chop-licking pleasure in the chaos, which even extends to biting the hand that unleashed them: The Set-Up Girls’ hero rails against the “no-law, no-restriction permissive society” even while his creator’s entire genre of anti-feminist action benefited from the loosening of the obscenity laws.

What we call “literary realism” reflects the beliefs and experiences of a narrow subset of society. Other people’s realisms are more apocalyptic: the titles of Donald Goines’s Whoreson and Dopefiend suggest a self-abasement that has become exaltation, a defiant embrace of degradation. Kinohi Nishikawa describes Iceberg Slim’s Mama Black Widow as “imagining the breakdown of the black family as a kind of urban Gothic.” A 2003 article describes the Goree Girls, a country-western ensemble made up of inmates at a Texas women’s prison, performing at the Texas Prison Rodeo for an audience of male convicts—grifters, cattle rustlers, murderers—as well as free visitors: “It was like something out of a dime novel,” the warden’s daughter said. And she was right—because “dime novels” were more likely than dollar ones to reflect the extremes of life experienced by women in prison.

Of the many subgenres explored in this volume, four stand out for their different relationships to the society that was born in “the long 1960s.” The novels of student or hippie revolution are often tales of retreat, even failure. The exceptions are either openly disparaging or nakedly naive—and “naked” is the word here, since you can’t have a student-revolution novel without sex, which ranges from the porny to the mystical without ever quite losing its air of self-absorption. The disparaging novels are condescending and the utopian ones are silly and it’s all sort of depressing; here, the pulps’ tendency to give the audience what it wants makes the entire genre an exercise in masturbatory self-comfort.

By contrast, the black cop/crime novels are among the most self-lacerating. Scott Adlerberg notes that Chester Himes introduces his black cop heroes in a confrontation with the locals in their beloved Harlem:

Whenever anyone moved out of line, Grave Digger would shout ‘Straighten up!’ and Coffin Ed would echo ‘Count off!’ If the offender didn’t straighten up the line immediately, one of the detectives would shoot into the air. The couples in the queue would close together as though pressed between two concrete walls. Folks in Harlem believed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson would shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in a line.

Himes’s novels follow a heartbreaking trajectory culminating in his unfinished novel Plan B, in which the author kills off his beloved detectives in the middle of a “nightmarish” race war. The black cop walks the razor line, protecting his community in a way that also damages and represses it. He’s both the lawman and, as Gary Phillips notes, “heir to the bad-man mantle of black folklore.” Plan B, at least, suggests that the man on both sides is doomed and friendless.

The two successful revolutions whose seeds can be found here are gay rights and law-and-order. Michael Bronski argues that the pre-Stonewall gay paperbacks were surprisingly mainstream, free of the cliched tragic ending, and sexually-explicit. These were “how-to manuals” for those who might want to find and enter a gay community. Even early gay young adult titles were controversial but not underground: 1978’s Happy Endings Are All Alike, which Jenny Pausacker describes as “on a borderline between fiction and a [gay-rights] political pamphlet,” was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Pausacker notes that several of these titles (unlike Happy Endings) have the protagonists explicitly reject labels like “lesbian,” but rely on exotic and violent tropes to code the characters’ intense same-sex love as doomed, dangerous, and queer. The books’ emotional intensity tantalized queer readers, while their insistent, even contrived tragedies depicted a world with no place for any form of love or commitment between girls or boys. (Pausacker gives a list of gay YA novels that end with the wistful parting of the couple, the one yearning brokenhearted at the window while the other walks away.) But all of these paperbacks, from Beebo Brinker to Hey, Dollface, are portraits of a community at the very beginning of the discovery that they might have a future. These are books about very early attempts to figure out what, if anything, same-sex love is for—unguided and urgent attempts.

As for law and order—Dirty Harry and its epigones are the product of a surge in violent crime, which soared from the 1970s to the mid-’90s. (Some of the essayists here seem to think that all the dead people were just Republican talking points.) These are novels of establishment failure. Seeing them here, alongside post-Vietnam novels like Going After Cacciato, First Blood, and Dog Day Afternoon, makes their common lineage clearer. The last irony of these books is how well they served a massive expansion of the government whose failures they explored. No, wait—the last irony of these books is that the authors of some series, including Death Wish and the Dirty Harry books, became so uncomfortable with their antiheroes’ popularity that they created “bad” vigilantes, inspired by the “good” vigilantes on the covers. These bad vigilantes exist so that Dirty Harry and Paul Benjamin can reject them, distinguishing their own vigilantism of necessity from the kind of violence done by men who really enjoy it. The Lone Wolf series even depicted vigilantism as descent into madness, a Watchmen of men’s adventure novels.

With this kind of anthology everyone will have their particular overlooked niche. I loved the volume’s willingness to range across continents and freely cross from more- to less-respected novels to show their commonalities. Still, I admit I wish the book covered revolution and unrest in young adult novels of the period (e.g. Lois Duncan’s Daughters of Eve or Doris Dahlin’s The Sit-In Game), or the rise of apocalyptic Christian fiction. Perhaps more noticeable is the lack of discussion of the impact of pulp novels on their high-art cousins. The penultimate chapter, on Marechera, comes closest; but I would have liked some exploration of what’s gained and lost in the transition from, for example, Rita Mae Brown to Jeanette Winterson. Is it fair to say the pulps have a certain humility, a lack of pressure to prove themselves? Does artistic ambition pressure authors to express hope, or at least meaning, rather than extremes of rage, despair, and gleeful violence? A lot of what the pulps indulge is ugly; does their aesthetic power come, in part, from their refusal to hide that ugliness behind intellect?

Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.

Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980