When I first started researching the history of Australian pulp paperback publishing I thought libraries would be crammed with old papers from the various publishers who churned the books out in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I have since realised that paper takes up a lot of space to store and space is something that is at a premium at most libraries, be they public or university.
That is assuming individuals even had the presence of mind to realise that the records relating to pulp publishing were something worth keeping for future generations.
This is why Pulp Confidential: Quick and dirty publishing from the 40s to 50s, an exhibition currently showing at the State Library of NSW, is so interesting and unusual. The exhibition showcases papers, manuscripts, correspondence and artwork relating to Frank Johnson Publications, a small pulp-publishing operation active in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s.
Johnson was member of the Sydney bohemian set in the twenties. He had high literary pretensions but moved into pulp publishing in response to the gap in local reading material resulting from the tariff placed on foreign imported printed matter in 1938.
Johnson died in 1960, after which the State Library wrote to his family, asking whether they had kept his papers. His daughter responded five years later, saying there was a considerable amount of paperwork relating to Johnson’s work in a shed at the back of her house.
The Library, hoping to unearth documents relating to Sydney’s early bohemian scene, dispatched several field librarians to the house. Much of the paperwork had been destroyed. What was left related to Johnson’s pulp publishing activities. Luckily, for us, the Library had the foresight to realise the material was still of value and purchased what they found. It sat in the archives for years, unknown to researchers, until this exhibition.
Frank Johnson Publications published Westerns, horse racing stories (arguably, the only Australian only pulp genre), war stories, crime and true crime.
The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence, much of it concerning money (authors wanting it, Johnson withholding it) and a lot of original artwork, including material from the comics Johnson published and early work by Phil Belbin, who would go onto be one of the Australia’s most prolific pulp paperback illustrators,
It is a must see exhibition for lovers of the history of Australian publishing in general and pulp paperback publishing, in particular.
More details about the exhibition are available here. It runs until May 10.
All the images below are courtesy of the collection of the State Library NSW.