Avid reader and Slate book editor Dan Kois spent a week at the beach doing the one thing literary types regularly deny wanting to do: laying out in the sun with a pile of cheap pulp novels. You know, the trashy paperbacks with lurid covers and gold-raised lettering you would never read because you're plowing through Proust or reading a little 17th century Bavarian poetry.
Well, Kois loves pulp, and he isn't ashamed. Now he's writing about the 23 books he brought with him in a series of entries for Slate. For Kois, mass-market paperbacks (the technical term for pulp novels), are sort of an obsession. "As an adult reader, I’ve always fetishized mass-markets," Kois writes. "I treasure crummy 1960s paperbacks the way real book collectors prize their Philip Roth first editions."
We would rather have a Roth first edition than a tattered copy of, say, The Purloined Plans. But that's precisely what makes Kois's project so intriguing.
Kois starts off his "Mass-Market Marathon" with A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony, which would qualify as a tame fantasy book by today's standards. "Here on the beach, rereading it for the first time in 20-plus years, I find it a breezy, earnest tale, more interested in world creation than in plot," Kois writes. "It’s easy to see why 11-year-old me, longing to discover something special about myself, attached to this book and this world so firmly."
In the third installment he talks about John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf and the first literary book he fell for. Literature and the mass-market field aren't closely associated today (Pulitzer Prize-winners aren't usually stocked next to Janet Evanovich novels in the supermarket) but they once were. Kois notes:
Indeed, given the number of highbrow mid-century writers whose work I find in mass-market paperback, the format seems to have been the way publishers once introduced literary writers into the broader public consciousness—or maybe it’s just that once upon a time the broader public had a greater interest in what the literary writers were up to.
The series' most recent installment covers Kois's thoughts on Going All the Way, a 1974 equivalent of American Pie that Kurt Vonnegut called "The truest and funniest sex novel any American will ever write."
In addition to going through his favorite novels from his formative years, Kois will ll also look at why publishers decided to go for fancier, more expensive, trade paperback versions. "My hunch is that the Vintage Contemporaries-fueled rise of the trade paperback as literary touchstone contributed," Kois wrote in an email to The Atlantic Wire. "Suddenly writers wanted this slightly more tony edition, and publishers realized they could charge more for them."
But, mostly, this was a great excuse to catch up on reading that is, on the simplest level, fun. "The short answer for 'Why' is 'Because it seems like fun!' I really do love mass-markets and think they're fascinating artifacts of the way people once read," Kois wrote in his email. "I wanted to explore that while also getting a chance to write in slightly shorter form about a bunch of interesting books (and, it turned out (spoiler!) a few not-interesting ones)."
Ah, fun, that forgotten impetus for doing things. We'll look forward to more of Kois's pulpy posts.