There’s been a lot of talk so far this year about Australia’s forgotten literary history.
Universities have been criticised for failing to appreciate and teach Australian literature. Text is re-releasing ‘classics’ of Australian literature. The Wheeler Centre has organised a series of talks in which contemporary writers talk about classic Australian books, and one of the sessions at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was titled ‘Real Australian Classics’.
All good. You won’t get any argument from me about the importance of literature in building our individual and collective senses of national self. I also agree universities are not doing as much as they could to teach local literature, although the problem lies less in any wilful neglect than in the gradual privatisation of our higher education system, which has made offering unprofitable disciplines harder to justify.
But all the talk about our forgotten literary history only looks at half of the story. There’s no mention of Australia’s other literary heritage, pulp fiction.
Most people think pulp paperback fiction only occurred in America. The reality is that in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a huge amount of popular Australian fiction was generated, much of which has been almost completely erased from our cultural memory.
The catalyst for the local pulp fiction industry was a 1938 decision by the federal government to impose a levy on foreign print publications. The move, which remained in force for twenty years, saw local publishing houses spring up to fill the void. Hundreds of novels were released a month, including Westerns, racing and boxing stories, science fiction, romance and crime.
It was throwaway fiction in every sense of the word: cheap; printed on rough paper; featuring lurid cover art designed to make the books stand out at news stands and kiosks. It also had a healthy dose of cultural cringe, with the majority of the stories set elsewhere – usually America.
In the early to mid 60s, the industry stopped relying completely on reprints of overseas titles and stories, and characters set in the US, and started to pump out stories set locally. As was the case in the UK and America, much of this was kitchen-sink and exploitation fiction, often dressed up as lurid exposés of drug use and sexual promiscuity. These fed off mainstream society’s fears of youth rebellion and changing sexual mores.
A lot of this work was set in Sydney’s Kings Cross in the 60s and 70s. Another popular narrative strand was outlaw biker gangs. There was even a long string of novels featuring the travails of women and servicemen in Japanese and Nazi prisoner-of-war camps.
The authors worked fast to meet deadlines. Books were plotted, written and released in a month, for minimal financial return. While much of their writing is crap, some of it is pacy and showed surprising ingenuity in the use of plot and character.
What cannot be disputed was the popularity of these pulp novels. Authors like Gordon Clive Beeck, who wrote over 200 pulp novels while working full-time for NSW Railroads, and Carter Brown, the alias of UK immigrant Alan G Yates, sold in the millions internationally. At the height of the industry in the mid to late 60s, the best known pulp publisher, Horwitz, and its racier subsidiary, Scripts Publications, published 16 titles a month, with initial print runs of 20,000 each.
Given all this, the speed and comprehensiveness with which Australia’s pulp publishing industry has been forgotten is amazing. Authors like Carter Brown and Marshall Grover, who penned as many as 800 Westerns, retain some contemporary cultural purchase. Most are forgotten, a situation not helped by the fact that most wrote under pseudonyms, sometimes more than one.
These books are becoming increasingly difficult to find. With the exception of the work by Queensland historian Toni Johnston Woods, which looks into the pulp writers of the 40s and 50s and one or two other individuals, how these authors worked, the political economy of how they were published, and where they got their inspiration and ideas from, bread-and-butter topics on today’s literary circuit, are unknown.
No doubt a lot of people would mock pulp fiction as unworthy of being preserved in our national imagination alongside more established works of Australian literature. I’m also aware that a lot of the material might not appeal to everyone’s sensibilities.
For me, pulp fiction is about the enjoyment of something fast and salacious, something I can’t help but think we’ve lost in our continual emphasis on capital-L literature (although the Fifty Shades of Grey effect may change this).
It also says something about how our society has developed: our fears and obsessions, our changing sexual standards.
You can’t pick and choose your cultural history. Well, you can try, but we’ll be the poorer for it.
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based crime writer. His debut novel Ghost Money was recently published by Snubnose Press. He blogs at http://www.pulpcurry.com.