Friday, 16 February 2018
Sin-a-rama : Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties (Expanded Edition)
by Astrid Daley-Douglas
Feral House Books
A good friend of mine bought me Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties on the occasion of my 50th birthday, earlier in the year. This enticing and immensely entertaining look at the landscape of, mostly softcore, sex fiction paperbacks of the mid-1950s to late 1960s is a subject I was completely unfamiliar with (no, really) and so I dived into this one with relish.
The book takes the form of a glossy art tome reproducing various covers from this vast field which are mini masterpieces of artwork based, mostly, on the idea of showing as much of a woman’s (or sometimes man’s) body in a painting as you can get away with but while concealing all the naughty bits due to censorship laws. It’s not just the cover art that gives the often hilarious charm to these pop culture classics, however... many of the mind blowingly silly titles are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any potential reader and one wonders if the target audience for these books at the time was reading these things with the knowing wink the writers obviously gave them or were treating them as more serious fare.
The book starts off, the first 70 pages or so, as a series of articles by different authors which give an often ‘first hand’ account of the various goings on around the scene of the stable of writers and the different companies they wrote for (almost always under a pen name, as you ‘ll see in a minute), as well as the various executives behind the scenes and the amount of trouble they would get into for distributing this kind of, extremely lucrative at the time, literature. Not to mention the lengths agencies like the FBI would go to in order to try and get some kind of prosecution for distributing this stuff. It also has some nice information about the various aspects of the law at different times and shows how various legal developments, such as the big court case with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and various other things which sidetracked the US government (the emphasis on this book is once again on the American demographic), allowed a loosening on what could and couldn’t be gotten away with in terms of describing the various sex acts depicted and, often, condemned by the very people exploiting them in order to be seen to be taking the moral high ground in order to get these works through.
The first big shock for me was that the second of the accounts in this book is by famed science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Why? Well, although he was already an established writer of fantastic science fiction at the time, the big sci-fi boom of the 1950s had passed and there were only two publishers who were really putting that kind of material out at the time. Hence he and, it turns out, a lot of other famous writers, were more than just dabbling in churning out absolutely loads of these novels for the various publishers under a variety of different pseudonyms.
Silverberg starts out with a sample of how a piece of purple prose would be written now, full of all the different terms for the various ‘activities’ going on. He then gives an example of the same act written as he wrote it in the flowery and implied language of these novels and it’s quite an entertaining example of the difference between then and now. He goes on to say he was leading a fairly good lifestyle at the time and the rates that he was being paid for these things kept him in the high life. It turns out he churned out 150 of these novels in the space of five years. Do the maths there and figure out how many of these things he was knocking out every month at a starting salary of $600 a novel (which eventually doubled, if I understood him correctly) and you’ll see the kind of ferocious pace he and his contemporaries in the field were writing at in what must have been seen as a fairly lucrative trade. And all the while still writing for other genres for different publishers... and still getting out to all the parties too. Nice work if you can get it.
And it seems like it was a similar situation for a load of these ‘high end’ writers working in this, technically, lower end of the profession. And I mean ‘high end’ writers. You had people like Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Donald F. Glut (remember his novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?), Donald E. Westlake, Edward D. Wood Jr (yeah, the infamous director as played by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood) and even Evan Hunter (his more familiar pen name would be Ed McBain, of course), to name but a few. All of them labouring diligently to ensure their latest opus would not fall under the legal category “utterly without redeeming social value”, so that the work couldn’t be banned. And all of them lit up with beautiful cover paintings and designs by great artists like Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew and Chet Collom.
And, of course, some of these writers and artists had just as interesting and sometimes tragic lives as the protagonists who populated their particularly charming brand of sleaze novels. And the book does have some very touching accounts of their lives by their friends of the time which are quite poignant in places.
After this quite large amount of text for the small number of pages it fills to the brim (in fairly small type), the remaining of the 328 pages in this tome are made up of reproductions, some of them full page, of the various covers that make up various subsections of differently themed sleaze for you to wade through. And it’s a very cheering read with some truly genius, sleazy titles and some really cringeworthy but somehow brilliant copy lines accompanying said titles.
Titles like Narco Nympho, Jazzman in Nude Town, The Couples On Venus Lane (“The neighbourhood was like one big swappy family”), Flip Flop Swap, Sexus Suburbia (“Her motto was 'love thy neighbour'!”), Sinburbia, Flesh Therapist, Sahara Sin Den, Nude In Orbit, Caper At Canaveral, Those Sexy Saucer People, Twisted Tulips, Pit Stop Nympho, Sin Seance and Carnal Countess (“Wanton Mistress of a Neo-Facist Passion-Cult!”). And the whole gamut of possible porn variations are covered such as wife swapping, lesbianism, homosexuality, occult themed porn, corporate sector porn, fetishism, science fiction porn and so on.
There are also, scattered throughout, little samples of a paragraph or two of ‘juicy’ text pulled from the pages of some of these scintillating classics. My favourite, for example, was this moment from ‘hippie porn’ themed novel Light Up by Jon Parker (or whatever his real name might have been)...
"Her enormous breasts plopped free, then came to a dizzy bounce, pointing forward. Already, her nipples were as rigid as red crayons; moist crevices with droplets of scented perspiration dominated the enormity of the twin globes. The nipples were like bright red strawberries, capping the milky white breasts."
Yep, I’ve read stuff like that before and it doesn’t make it any less entertaining, that’s for sure.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this immensely fun and truly enlightening/educational read about the various novels in question and the environmental conditions which gave rise to them. At the back there are two kinds of indexes where you can find out some of the writers behind the pen names they used plus an attempt at a listing of all the various publishing companies putting this stuff out. This is, I have to say, a truly eye opening book for me and a real gem to have on the bookcase along with such treasures as the Grady Hendrix book Paperbacks From Hell (which I recently reviewed here). If you’re interested in this kind of stuff then Sin-a-rama : Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties is, indeed, a quality read. Don’t pass this one by.