‘Sticking It To The Man – Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980’

❉ Paul Abbott reviews Nette and McIntyre’s excellent companion to Girl Gangs, Biker Boys And Real Cool Cats.

“As with Girl Gangs, Biker Boys And Real Cool Cats the scope of the book is broad and fascinating… The theme, as the title suggests, of anti-establishment struggle runs throughout.”

Last year saw the publication of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys And Real Cool Cats – Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 In that collection, the editors Nette and McIntyre took the reader through a selection of essays focusing on varying portrayals of juvenile delinquency and youth subcultures in pulp output of publishing houses such as Signet, Horwitz, Olympia and the New English Library. It revealed a world of switchblades, sexuality, sin and slang and the essays were accompanied with many examples of the tantalising and lurid book covers and artwork.

This new volume, covering the same period of publishing history, shifts the focus onto the slightly more ‘grown-up’ world of revolution and the sorts of countercultures that emerged from politicised college students, ghettoised populations, the military and various other places where dissent and distrust against the establishment could be fomented. The book varies from its Youth Culture sister volume in terms of how it is organised – individual essays still but not bracketed into broader categories – but the approach is kept much the same and the reader will appreciate the continuing dedication to featuring as many book cover illustrations as possible. It features, for instance, one of my favourite bad book covers in the superbly literal but artistically awful image used by Panther books for Chester Himes’ phenomenal story Cotton Comes To Harlem. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing the picture on the cover of that edition would ever have bothered to pick it up. Still, it’s probably better than the cover of the French Line edition of My Purple Winter (Carl Corley), but nowhere near as exciting as Lionel Derrick’s The Penetrator. The lead character is ‘penetrating’ attempts to subvert the American way of life, in case you were wondering.

Nette and McIntyre make clear their intentions for this collection in their introductory essay. They explain the physical realities of the publishing world that permitted so many authors to be published during this period and how this quick-writing low-price sales approach meant that topics that might otherwise never have been discussed were suddenly accessible to huge potential audiences and the struggle of, say, an aboriginal detective, an adolescent discovering their sexuality or a politically confused student were being experienced by readers all across America, the UK and Australia. The essays focus mainly on these three main markets due to their particular homegrown publishing industries.

Whilst much of the content might seem obscure and the names of many of the authors might not mean anything to even a dedicated reader of pulp fiction, the topics covered are not unfamiliar. Many of the stories and characters inspired films that helped to define genres. Shaft reappeared on cinema and television screens in 2019 – the fifth film in a series that began in 1971 – but Steve Aldous’s essay on the origins of the character and his life in book form is a fascinating inclusion – this black counterculture hero has the sort of originator you might not expect.

Elsewhere Susie Thomas tells us about the colonial influences on To Sir, With Love, Edward Braithwaite’s tale of an immigrant teacher in postwar London, most famous for its movie version starring Sidney Poitier and, in her first screen role, Lulu. Not all of the film adaptations mentioned in these essays have had such success. The movie adaptation of Iceberg Slim’s Trick Baby, should be a stand-out example of the blaxploitation genre, but in the role of the mixed-race protagonist, known as “White Folks”, the producers chose to cast Kiel Martin – better known as Detective La Rue in Hill Street Blues. The result didn’t play well.

As with Girl Gangs, Biker Boys And Real Cool Cats the scope of the book is broad and fascinating. It’s interesting to contemplate how much of a difference many of the subjects discussed would have made to contemporary readers. Whilst oft sensationalist and extreme in their storytelling, authors like Fritz Peters, Richard Amory and Paula Christian helped to move the discussion and expression of gay life into a wider market and perhaps helped to pave the way for the 1969 Stonewall riots and several essays in the book explore this theme. The theme, as the title suggests, of anti-establishment struggle runs throughout. There’s even time for anti-establishment within the establishment as vigilante heroes are explored including everyone’s favourite craggy-faced cowboy cop, Dirty Harry, in an article by Andrew Nette where he explores the differences between the movies and the subsequent novelisations.

It’s an excellent collection and acts, as much as anything, as a guide for what to look out for when you’re scouring the shelves of second-hand bookshops. I’ll be keeping my eye open for Parley Cooper’s The Feminists – a terrifying tale of the future… 1992!  And speaking of dystopian storytelling, Nette and McIntyre hint at what’s coming next in their ongoing collections of essays and interviews. Dangerous Visions and New Worlds will, I’ve no doubt, be an excellent accompaniment to both this new collection and Girl Gangs, Biker Boys And Real Cool Cats. Get a copy, get reading and then pop out for a bit and smash the state whilst you’re there.

  ‘Sticking It To The Man – Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980’ Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. Published by PM Press, Oakland, CA. SKU: 9781629635248/ISBN: 9781629635248.

❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

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