Monday, April 15, 2013

Highbrow Drag

Here's a funny tidbit that echoes what I hear about the supposed destructive cultural effects of TV and the Internet.  I'm reading Jaime Harker's Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (Minnesota, 2013), which at one point describes the effects of cheap paperbacks on American literacy and literature.  Like the Internet, they were cheap, gaudy, ubiquitous (sold in drugstores and supermarkets), and indiscriminate -- one might even say promiscuous.  Certainly they fed my own promiscuous reading tendencies, back in the day.  Publishers put sleazy covers on everything, whether it was pulp genre fiction ground out under a pseudonym for a flat fee of a few hundred dollars -- Gore Vidal wrote three murder mysteries under the name Edgar Box when he needed some quick money in the 1950s -- or reprints of the Kinsey reports (Harker seems to think The Kinsey Report was the actual title of those volumes), Jean-Paul Sartre's novels, or recent literary fiction.

The 1950s, when this trend took off, were a period of anxiety about cultural values, and would-be highbrows were displeased about this.  Literature was supposed to be serious, dull, and ideally difficult to read.  It wasn't supposed to have covers with "the shoulder straps of women's dresses and brassieres ... always loose, slipping, or undone" (Harker, 36).  The flood of paperbacks included a lot of gay and lesbian fiction of varying degrees of quality, and since quantity mattered more than quality, the usual publishing censorship often slipped, like the bra straps of the women on their covers.
Cold War gay print culture was visible, lucrative, and influential, even if it wasn't celebratory.  It also contributed to a larger breakdown of cultural hierarchies in its leveling of literary reprints and paperback originals.  It was the threat this lack of distinction posted to Cold War cultural hierarchies that worried Cold Warriors like Malcolm Cowley, much more so than deviant sex.  Cowley's description of a paperback bookstore highlights his concern about discrimination in brow level: "It was rich, random, gaudy, vital, corrupt, and at the same time innocent: it put culture at the disposal of the plain man, even the poorest, for less than the price of a bar whiskey; it was impersonal, friendly, egalitarian, and it proclaimed as dogmas its lack of discrimination.  'Here we are,' the books in the big racks seemed to be saying, 'the mud and sapphires of our time, and for one or two pieces of silver you can take your pick of us."  Cowley's concern about cultural hierarchy echoes those of Cold War intellectuals: democratic access equals an utter "lack of discrimination," one that cultural critics saw as the biggest threat to American life.  As David Earle astutely notes, "What Cowley is doing in these pages is policing the cultural borders between elite literature and popular literature.  He is, as it were, protecting his own intellectual and professional stake in American culture and letters."

... A remarkable number of writers being canonized during the Cold War appeared in paperback reprints, including James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway [47].
There's a lot going on here, but for now I want to point out what I see as the parallel to concerns about the Internet today: there's this flood of material being thrown out there where just anybody can get at it, and there's no proper supervision to teach the lower orders what they should choose and what they should avoid.  It's not just about children: a lot of the worry is about adults who lack the moral fiber to discern good from bad.  This is nothing new, of course.  It goes back to the explosion of print in previous centuries, but even before the invention of printing books were burned -- probably in every country that had them -- to try to keep the unruly written word in bounds.

As always, who watches the watchers?  Literature was still an unquestioned boys' club during the Cold War, so Cowley's "plain man" should be read literally, even though women have always been big readers, and writers as well.  But the Woman Writer was as suspicious to the boys in this period who sought to be Truly Serious as the Homosexual Writer, the Jewish Writer, the Negro Writer.  I'll return to this later on.