Today’s Pulp Friday is a fascinating interview with Melbourne-based social historian Iain McIntyre, author of a new book, Sticking it to the Man! Pop, Protest and Black Fiction of the Counterculture, 1964-75.
Sticking it to the Man! is a roller coaster ride through the lava lit streets of the counter-cultural pulp fiction of the late sixties and early seventies, a time when hippies, bikers, swingers and revolutionaries replaced cops and private detectives as pulp’s stable characters.
The book contains 130 reviews of pulps from the period covering all the major sub-themes: drug use, bikers, sleaze, blaxsploitation, hippies and dystopian science fiction. It also includes the covers in all their dog eared, price marked glory. It’s through books like this that the hidden history of pulp fiction is gradually pieced together. Sticking it to the Man! is a must read for every serious pulp fiction afficiando.
You can buy Sticking it to the Man! here. Copies will also be on sale at the launch of Crime Factory’s Hard Labour anthology, this coming Monday, October 8. Iain will also be talking about his book at the launch.
What is it about pulp fiction between 1964 and 1975, the period covered in your book that you find so interesting?
I’ve long had an interest in troublemakers, militants and odd-balls, and this was a period in which those normally relegated to the margins were able to have a major impact on culture and society. Although the films, fashion and music which reflected this shift have been fairly well documented the novels, particularly of the paperback and pulp variety, have attracted little coverage. As a result I decided to start collecting them in the 1990s with a view to eventually producing something that would celebrate the radical and exploitative fiction of the era.
The late sixties were obviously a time of great sexual and political protest. How did the politics of this work its way into the pulp fiction of the time? Do you know whether many of the pulp authors shared this politics or did they just write about it because it was fashionable?
The social and political changes that occurred from the mid ‘60s onwards were fairly wrenching, and were represented and reflected in all kinds of un/popular culture. The majority of pulp titles were still written by conservative older males (or in the case of Romance books their female counterparts), as well as some younger ones who shared their world view. Just as they had previously exploited beatniks, juvenile delinquents and other subcultures to pad out porn novels, or give their crime novels and thrillers a contemporary twist, they now inserted hippies, Black Panthers, etc.
Others directly addressed new topics or jumped on trends (eg, Blaxploitation), but given the way they wrote about revolutionaries, feminists, etc, most of the existing pulp writers of the time were hostile to them and/or clearly didn’t understand what was going on. Echoing their conservative media sources they continued to apply many of the same clichés from the ‘50s, in that any left-wing movement was inevitably controlled by the hand of Moscow (although Peking started to enter the picture thanks to the Sino-Soviet split), illegal drugs produced Reefer Madness-style results no matter what was being consumed, etc. Many of these novels also contain a lot of the pseudo-Beatnik and tough guy hep patter that was hilariously way off beam in the 50s, let alone a decade or two later.
Of course, the relative openness of the pulp market, the emergence of new publishers, and the desire of established ones to produce books for an emerging audience they couldn’t yet get a handle on, meant that younger writers with genuine insights and connections to the counterculture also found opportunities to get published. From what I can tell the ‘60s never really happened in the Romance world, but a whole swathe of new writers began creating mass-produced books for teens addressing previously taboo topics like sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Often these were fairly clueless or patronising, but at least they made some attempt at understanding and processing what was going on.
With the more traditional pulp fields like crime and sci-fi, sometimes, like William Bloom and his Qhe! (a kind of mystic Che) series, new writers largely worked within existing conventions, but in other cases they openly drew on radical politics and the influence of psychedelics to produce works at the very least tinged with experiemntalism. Similar things were happening in film, particularly in the area of Blaxploitation, where a mixture of hyperbolic stereotypes and innovation gave new actors, writers and directors a go.
Your book includes some reviews of Australian pulps published between 1964 and 1975. What was happening in the local pulp scene during that time?
As elsewhere the “lower” end of the publishing industry was doing pretty well with local companies like Horwitz, Gold Star, etc pumping out scores of titles a year. Historically Australian pulp writers had often set their books in the US and this continued, but there were increasing numbers of novels, particularly Biker ones and those dealing with Sydney’s “Bohemian” Kings Cross, that were based in Australia. Many of these, like their overseas contemporaries, only dealt with youth and radical culture in a shallow and exploitative manner, often with hilarious results, but some of the ones set in the Cross appear to have been written by people who actually spent time there.
The other thing worth mentioning is that as Australia’s censorship laws were challenged and progressively relaxed the novels became more explicit. Predictably graphic violence had always been acceptable, but when you compare the sexual content of the mid-60s novels to those of the mid-70s the impact of the “permissive” society becomes pretty clear.
Aside from the usual suspects, bikers, hippies, PIs, etc, you cover a number of science fiction titles in the book. Can you talk a bit about what was happening with science fiction in the late sixties and early seventies?
Sci-fi was the field that was arguably most influenced by the counterculture. Leading writers within the New Wave set took the genre away from its traditional concerns with “Empires in Space”, scientific innovation, and saving white women from aliens. Through dystopian explorations of near and alternate futures as well as plunges into “inner space” these writers challenged prevailing notions about progress, rationality, militarism, etc. Even where they utilised classic Fantasy and Space Opera settings there was a tendency to question the sexist, chivalric and colonial assumptions of previous decades.
New, and not so new, writers such as Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, John Brunner and Harlan Ellison were all hugely popular, with the latter even becoming a bit of a household name in the US. The combination of meta and micro-politics around the emergence of the New Wave created quite a split in the Sci-fi community, most graphically illustrated by the two ads placed in Galaxy magazine in 1968 featuring lists of writers either opposing or supporting the Vietnam War.
In your introduction to Sticking it to the Man, you talk briefly about gender and age divide in terms of who wrote what pulp fiction. Tell us a bit about that?
Predictably enough men tended to write the tough and often mysoginistic crime, porn, thriller and exploitation novels and women dominated the teen books, with their coming of age, romance and social issue themes. Younger writers were more likely to produce experimental and sympathetic takes on social upheaval whilst a whole bunch of African-American writers found new opportunities to get published.
Most pulp has a reputation for being terribly written. I imagine most of the 130 books you reviewed in Sticking it to the Man fall into this “so bad they’re good” category. Were there any that stood out as being well plotted and written? Which ones were they?
It’s true that it’s often unintentional humour and over-the-top plots which you find in the pulps, rather than tight scripting, accuracy and unpredictability, and this is reflected in many of the books I’ve reviewed. Nevertheless, as I’ve already noted, some great writers produced mass-market paperbacks around this time. Anita Hoffman’s take on the 60s Yippie scene (as Ann Fettamen) in Trashing provides new insights for fans of their pranks and politics, John Love’s Give Me Money is a great portrayal of also-rans scuffling it out at the bottom of the UK pop scene, and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is a hard boiled drug classic. In terms of Sci-Fi Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is one of the best anti-war novels of the era and John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up one of the best dystopian ones of all time. So far as the really trashy end of things go Mick Norman’s Angel Chronicles series manages to simultaneously exploit, subvert and satirise most of the genre’s clichés with Angel Challenge even featuring a highly camp, satin-clad, media savvy gang of Bikers.
One book you cover I’m particularly interested in is Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis. It’s a very hard to find book and is supposed to be a genuinely engaging, well-written read. There’s also a bit of counter cultural history associated with it.
It’s the sole title in Sticking It To The Man that comes from 1964, but I had to include it, partially because the cover is so great, but also because its Lord Of The Flies meets Survivors dystopia picked up on so many anxieties of the time regarding teenagers, social decay, etc. Unfortunately there wasn’t room to give it much of a review, but the down-beat plot, involving teen gangs trolling through a post-apocalyptic London in which most adults have given up the ghost, is a cracker and anticipated many similar efforts in the 1970s (as well as today). The Rolling Stones then manager Andrew Loog Oldham optioned the book as a star vehicle for his boys, but the logistics involved in creating such a film sadly proved too much.
Pulp fiction is best known for is its cover art. Obviously, the focus of most of this interest is the pulps from period of the fifties and early sixties. How did cover art change in the late sixties and seventies and what was behind these changes?
I’m not much of an expert on cover art, but from just looking at what was being produced at the time it’s clear that photography began to be employed more widely and that many of those covers still utilising paintings and illustrations were echoing the trends of the time. As with other print forms this was presumably influenced by the introduction of new technology as well as stylistic changes.
I’m surprised that more books exploring the cover art of this period haven’t appeared because there was clearly a lot of effort still going into grabbing the casual browser’s attention. The exploitation novels produced by New English Library are famous for their amazing photographs of bikers and skinheads, and I’d love to know more about how and where they found their subjects. Quite a few of the novels produced for the African-American market, as well as crime/thriller series like the Troubleshooter and The Destroyer, have jackets which echo the explosive and highly detailed Blaxploitation/action film posters of the time. On top of that you’ve got the exceptionally bizarre and lurid covers of things like Dykes On Bikes as well as eye-popping pop art and psychedelia turning up on everything from Mod Squad novelisations through to Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme.
What do you think is the most bizarre or unusual book covered in Sticking it to the Man? For my money, it is the series of surf thriller books, Operation Hang Ten, one of which was set in Australia, which I never knew existed.
The writing in Operation Hang Ten is fairly hackneyed, but the series certainly stands out as the only entry in the Surfing Secret Agent (masquerading as a private eye no less) sub-genre. The usual Soviet and Chinese puppet masters are never far away, but Patrick Morgan’s ability to go beyond the surf scene to cash-in on bikers, Manson and environmentalists make his books a definite fave. No doubt because of our surfing superiority and famous beaches Australia makes a few appearances, if only in passing, although who knows who Morgan was or where he was from. The movie poster style covers are pretty impressive on these too.
Porn could get pretty out there during this era, so I’d have to say the two most bizarre books in Sticking it to the Man are Dykes On Bikes, in which lesbian biker gangs duel to the death, and Sex A-Go-Go, in which Beatlemania meets weird sex involving animals and amputees. So far as the (confirmed) Aussie contingent goes Neighbours noveliser Carl Ruhen’s The Crucifiers manages to combine motorcycle gangs with giant sewer dwelling alligators!
I’m fascinated by the way Blaxsploitation and the politics of the black consciousness movement was represented in pulp fiction. Were most of the writers who wrote what was, for want of a better term, Blaxsploitation pulp, actually black?
Although the most famous novel/film series Shaft was written by an Anglo-American, there were probably more African-Americans writing fiction about Black life and politics for paperbacks than there were hippies, white politicos, etc, doing the same for their respective areas. The phenomenal impact of the Black Consciousness movement, as well as the need for the out of touch and declining film and publishing industries to find new markets to exploit, meant that African-American audiences had a whole feast of low and high-brow titles to choose from.
Long-time black authors like Chester Himes saw their work properly appreciated in the US for the first time whilst new writers such as Gil Scot-Heron got to make their debut. Some new contenders in the pulp field, like Donald Goines, produced exploitation novels that weren’t terribly different in form to those of their white contemporaries, except for the fact that the protagonists weren’t at pains to distance themselves from radicals, the pimps seemed to employ genuine lingo, and the revolutionaries sometimes won the day against the forces of law and order.
What are you working on next?
A revised edition of my 2009 book How To Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Hoaxes, Graffiti and Political Mischief from across Australia is being wrapped up for publication through PM Press next year. I’m also finishing the compilation of an anthology of American hobo writing from the 1880s to the 1940s that will come out through Verse Chorus Press in 2014. Over the summer I’ll be doing a series of interviews for Community radio station 3CR which will cover the Australian counterculture of the early 1970s.