Monday, March 04, 2013

A short history of Gold Medal Books


Here's a really fine history of Gold Medal and its impact on literary and film culture courtesy of

The writers describe their site as being "a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations." 2 --Ed

1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another installment in my all-too-occasional series of looks at culturally-significant, underknown phenomena and events, "1000 Words."

1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books

What if you could trace the French New Wave, Sam Peckinpah, cyberpunk, "Pulp Fiction," "Mulholland Drive," and "Sin City" back to one business gamble taken by a third-tier publisher in 1949? In fact, you can, and without being guilty of too much overstatement. A little, sure, but not that much.

The publisher was Roscoe Kent Fawcett of Fawcett Publications, and his gamble was to try something no one else had tried before. He decided to publish original novels in paperback. In 1950, his new line of paperback originals was launched. It was called Gold Medal Books, and it became not just a tremendous commercial success but a culture-shaping one too.

Before discussing the impact of Gold Medal Books, let me take a few paragraphs to situate Gold Medal in time. The immediate post-WWII era was an interesting moment in publishing history. A variety of vectors were in collision:

* One was the existence of paperbacks themselves. In 1949, paperbacks were still a recent innovation. The first large-scale experiment in paperback publishing had only taken place 1935 with Britain's Penguin Books; soon after in the States, Pocket Books began selling paperbacks. During WWII, soldiers developed the habit of carrying around, reading, and trading paperbacks. Tastes were shaped; new readers were reached.

* Another vector: the era of "the pulps" was drawing to a close. The pulps were cheap magazines that published sensationalistic fiction. They had their origins in the late 1800s; Frank Munsey's "Argosy" is usually cited as the first pulp magazine. The pulp magazines often specialized in male genres: adventure, sci-fi, war, crime, western. And they were often seriously popular. The most successful pulps often had monthly print runs of over a million copies. They also had their artistic achievements. The pulps were where sci-fi flourished. And, under the editorship of Capt. Joseph T. Shaw, the hardboiled detective fiction of Black Mask magazine developed into something remarkable. But by the late 1940s, the pulps had begun to run out of commercial steam. Even so, the demand for hard-hitting and juicy fiction persisted.

* Another: the new taste for comic books. Comic strips may have been around for a while; Fawcett Publications itself got started in the late 19-teens with a joke-book / comicstrip publication called Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. But comic books per se were an innovation of the 1930s (and Fawcett -- as much a distributor as a traditional publisher -- had had a major hit with Captain Marvel). Superheroes, adventure, crime ... Once again, fans were won over and expectations were affected.

* And a final vector: Mickey Spillane. Spillane (who died only this past July, aged 88) was the author of the Mike Hammer detective novels. As a publishing phenomenon, Spillane was like nothing ever before witnessed. His first novel -- the two-fisted, paranoid-macho, hardboiled "I, The Jury" -- sold only a couple of thousand copies when it was released in hardcover in 1947. But when Signet released the book in paperback the following year, it stunned the book industry by selling many millions of copies. Former GI's and flyboys had seen a lot of tough action, and they'd brought back to the States the habit of comic-book and paperback-novel reading. Mickey Spillane's hard-hitting fiction appealed to them strongly. Was it pure coincidence that Mickey had, before turning to novel-writing, written for the comic-book industry?

In any case, Roscoe Kent Fawcett wondered why he shouldn't cater to the comic-book / pulp-fiction / former-GI market. And why not, he wondered, skip entirely over the whole damn hardcover-publishing ritual and offer readers tough, pulpy, hard-hitting novels in easy-to-obtain, cheap, straight-to-paperback form?

No one would dispute that Gold Medal revolutionized American book publishing. For one thing, Gold Medal represented the first serious challenge to the traditional hardcover-publishing game. In a famous response, Doubleday's LeBaron R. Barker said that paperback originals could "undermine the whole structure of publishing." (Yippee to that!) Even in the line's first year, some Gold Medal novels sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Very quickly, other publishers (Dell, Lion) moved to imitate Gold Medal's strategy.

For another, it may also not be an overstatement to assert that Gold Medal had a greater impact on the content and form American fiction-writing than any other postwar book publisher. Gold Medal novels were intended as reliable, disposable entertainments: fast, short, and full of action. Noir-ish intrigue, westerns, and adventure tales were the general rule; sensationalism and sleaze were encouraged. Despite that, though, writers -- in TV and movies as well as on-the-page fiction -- as well as audiences are still looking to these books for inspiration.

Gold Medal was emphatically a business, and anything but a high-minded one -- reserving, for example, the right to do with the books' covers what it pleased, which included not just choosing the art but also the title. Still, the writers generally liked the work. Gold Medal dealt with them fair and square, relatively speaking. Editing was quick and to-the-point. Snobbery was nonexistent. If Gold Medal retitled your book, well, what the hell, and on to the next one.

The writers did OK financially too. They were tickled that they didn't have to split their royalties with a hardcover house, and that they were paid instead on the actual number of copies sold. Was it a coincidence that Richard Carroll, the best-known of Gold Medal's editors, wasn't a longterm publishing guy? Instead, he had previously worked as a Hollywood story editor.

And get a gander at some of the writers Gold Medal put into print: Elmore Leonard, Peter Rabe, Kurt Vonnegut, Day Keene, Jim Thompson, William Goldman, John D. MacDonald, Louis L'Amour, David Goodis, Richard Matheson, Charles Williams, and John Faulkner (William's brother).

Depending on how you read the history, the glory years of Gold Medal-style book publishing were over by the mid-1960s. But the influence of the era lives on. It's in the very air around us.

To illustrate, let me connect a few dots. French New Wave titans Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut both loved Gold Medal books, and both based films on novels by Gold Medal authors: Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" was based on a novel by Lionel White; Truffaut based "Shoot the Piano Player" on a novel by David Goodis. By the way, did you realize that Godard based "Made in USA" on a novel by Donald Westlake? Hey, I see that Donald Westlake wrote a few books for Gold Medal himself.

Closer to home, the movies of the American film renaissance of the 1970s were partly inspired by such New Wave artists as Godard and Truffaut. "Bonnie and Clyde," for instance -- one of the two films that's generally said to have kicked off the American film renaissance -- was a deliberate attempt to make a New Wave-esque movie. The script of "Bonnie and Clyde" was at one point even offered to Truffaut to direct.

Moving into the present ... David Lynch is an example of a guy in love with the dreamy mood of exploitation and noir. On a couple of his films, Lynch collaborated with the noir specialist Barry Gifford. Gifford in turn was, in the 1980s, the creator of Black Lizard Books, an outfit that brought a number of Gold Medal titles back into print.

The recent and current indie movement in American film considers itself inspired not just by such Gold Medal-influenced auteurs as Lynch, but by the Gold Medal-influenced American films of the 1970s. P.T. Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino are directly inspired by '70s films. Rodriguez is now making a sequel to his (and Frank Miller's) ultry-pulpy "Sin City" ; Tarantino of course directed a film straightforwardly entitled "Pulp Fiction," as well as another that was an adaptation of a novel by onetime Gold Medal novelist Elmore Leonard -- who, like Westlake, continues to create wonderful fiction.

And the noir, violent mood of many current video and computer games? Straight out of -- or at least partly out of -- Gold Medal fiction.

Moviebuffs revere the careers and influence of Roger Corman and AIP, hardheaded exploitation-meisters who nonetheless created tons of fun movies and gave many talented people their first breaks. Music buffs love plunging into the seedy, exuberant, unself-conscious early years of rock and roll. Perhaps it would be OK to say that the Gold Medal (and Lion and Dell, etc) years were the fiction-writing equivalent of these more-familiar artistic Big Bangs. So why aren't they better known than they are?

The canon-maker-wannabes of respectable culture are people you'd expect to be foot-draggers, of course. And where Gold Medal fiction is concerned, they haven't disappointed. Back when Friedrich von Blowhard and I were in college, the official story of postwar American fiction recoiled entirely from the Gold Medal writers. At the time, the line of descent went: Capote, Cheever, Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Pynchon ... No, actually: Even Pynchon was considered a little too poppy for the era's profs and critics. Incidentally, I have nothing against this stuff, which I've read a great deal of. It just doesn't represent anything like a fair account of postwar American fiction.

These days, it appears that some academics and intellectuals have finally seen fit to make room -- a little room -- for Gold Medal-style fiction. Many colleges now offer a course or three in the history of hardboiled and / or detective fiction. Even the disntinguished Library of America publishes a couple of volumes of pulp fiction.

All that acknowledged, I also have to report that I have found it astonishing how stuffy the New York City trade publishing biz remains. Many people in it know little about the early days of Gold Medal, and few of them have read much of this fiction. Imagine finding yourself among movie people unaware of Roger Corman, or rock musicians unfamiliar with the Sun Sessions. Bizarre.

But the hell with the prisses, eh? Hipsters and fans of lowdown fiction keep the era alive. They also keep trying to kick some raw energy back into fiction-book publishing. It's hard to manage, though. Much has changed. Publishing has gone corporate ... Many people no longer read the way they once did ... Fawcett still exists, but in name only; it was sold in 1972 to CBS, and was then acquired by Ballantine (a division of Random House) in 1982. Black Lizard was bought by Vintage in 1990.

Today, Max Phillips and Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime reprints some of the Gold Medal books and promotes Gold Medal-style new work too, complete with ultry-pulpy covers. The excellent Stark House Press reissues a lot of old-school fantasy, mystery, and suspense -- including early lesbian tales by the Gold Medal novelist "Vin Packer," which continue to inspire today's queer authors.

But these are cult / coterie phenomena. Excellent as it is, Hard Case Crime bears the same relationship to Gold Medal that Chris Isaak does to Elvis Presley. (Nothing against Hard Case or Chris Isaak, both of whom I like.) So who are the innovative, earthily-opportunistic fiction publishers of today? There are great, buccaneering publishers alive: Peter Kindersley, Jack Jensen, and Berndt Taschen come to mind. But these guys publish little if any fiction. Some small presses have done shit-kicking work with fiction. But none have been able to connect with a large audience.

Why should this be so? Have movies and television usurped the creation of and the taste for pulp fiction? Has the multiplication of entertainment options meant that Americans now look to books for respectable pleasures, and leave the gritty fun to other media? Are today's wild-ass and funky cultural energies more likely to go into music and YouTube than into novel-writing?

Perhaps all the above are true. In any case, the takeaway lesson, as far as I'm concerned, is: It's nearly always a mistake to think of the on-the-page-fiction thang as a matter of high-mindedness, let alone of writers-writing. "Fiction" certainly involves writers writing, of course. And high-mindedness makes the occasional appearance. But on-the-page-fiction is nearly always a matter of commercial calculation, publishing, design, timing, money, promotion, luck, and audiences as well. Oh, and criticism too. Sometimes.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

So many of these books were scattered about the house when I was a kid. Thanks so much for jotting down the history for all to read.

Jed Power said...

Great stuff! There aren't many who write like that anymore. Or is it me?