Whatever Happened to Mass Market Paperbacks?

A cheap Signet classic

Whatever happened to mass market paperbacks?  Do you ever wonder?

Over the years  I’ve gone from a cheap Signet mass market paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice to  a more attractive Penguin trade paperback to an oversized Folio Society illustrated hardback–and the latter was unnecessary.

In the mid-20th century, anybody could acquire an inexpensive library of classics. At bookstores you could opt for rival brands: a Penguin, a Signet, a Bantam, a Dell, a Washington Square classic, or a Pocket Book.  We carried around copies of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (the David Magarshack translation),  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Orwell’s Animal Farm, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Trollope’s Phineas Finn (a BBC tie-in), George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Dickens’ Hard Times.  Books were the cheapest entertainment.  No wonder we were all so well-read.

But the accessibility of cheap mass market paperbacks has declined, according to Publishers Weekly.  Publishers originally considered mass market paperbacks the “gateway” editions to entice readers, and  these small books began to dominate the market after World War II.  The publication of this format has declined, partly because publishers are cutting out the midlist writers, partly because of  e-books. Walmart is the biggest seller of mass market paperbacks these days.  Genre books like romances and mysteries are often published as trade paperbacks.   PW says, “According to NPD BookScan, which tracks roughly 80% of print sales, mass market titles accounted for 13% of total print units sold in 2013; that figure dropped to 9% last year.”

In college we moved away from mass market paperbacks. The more scholarly the books, the more expensive.  And we developed expensive tastes.

Imagine a  town of backpacking undergraduates burdened with hardcover chemistry tomes and anthropology textbooks. As a freshman I lugged The Complete Pelican Shakespeare to a class where a chain-smoking professor squinted at the small print in columns and made dry allusions to poets I had not yet read.  At home  I “cheated ” with comfortably compact Pelican paperbacks, because I had an aversion to reading text in columns.  But the hardback accompanied me to class, in case the professor suddenly called on me, which he never did.  Perhaps I imagined he would ask me to recite a footnote!

Professors of other literature classes often assigned inexpensive Penguins, which until the ’90s (?) were still  mass market paperbacks.   They also assigned Signets, Modern Library paperbacks, and others I don’t remember. And so we pored over Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Chekhov’s plays, Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Mind you, my classics (Greek and Latin books) were  hardbacks.  But in my other literature classes, we read paperbacks.  I became hooked on trade paperbacks with footnotes.

Most of my books are trade paperbacks. I have to say, mass market paperbacks don’t hold up well over the years.  The paper gets very brittle.  They’re for one-time reads.  Of course many trade paperbacks are printed on cheap paper, too.

I wonder if people read as many classics now that so few mass market paperbacks are available.  In my world, everybody’s a reader, but that may not be the same in THE world.

A Rebel’s Masterpiece: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”

If you need to escape the icy darkness of Winter 2019, read D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.  His poetic prose can get a little manic, but he yanks you out of your dark world into a mystical possibility of symbolic nature and real relationships.

The Rainbow is a masterpiece. In an intense Lawrence phase in my teens, I devoured Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Fox, The Virgin and the Gypsy, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter not without laughter).  But I did not find a copy of The Rainbow till my mid-twenties, when a battered Modern Library edition  turned up at a (now defunct) used bookstore.  And this book was life-changing during a restless period when I was trying to decide whether to live happily underemployed in a small town or  become “a professional” in a city.

Did you know The Rainbow and  Women in Love are a duology?   The former tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, spanning sixtysome years from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.   The longest section focuses on Ursula Brangwen, a New Woman  at the turn of the century who longs to escape the confines of family  but who despises the mechanical world of higher education and teaching. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula and Rupert Birkin, who philosophizes about what that relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, and the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.

Like most of Lawrence’s novels, The Rainbow concentrates on sexual relationships.   Who will dominate?  Men or women?  (Women here.)  In the first section of the novel, Lawrence’s lead male and female characters are not only polarized by sex but belong to different cultures. Tom Brangwen, who is born in 1840, inherits the family farm and decides to marry Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow  who is a clergyman’s housekeeper. Tom and Lydia live in different worlds.  They can barely communicate.  He is inarticulate and rustic; she is a well-educated Polish landowner’s daughter who became a nurse and followed her  doctor husband to England.  And she has a young daughter, Anna.

But with Lawrence, any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant: it is really the poetic language that counts. Lydia understands English but not English culture. Lawrence writes, “But she knew nothing of the English, nor of English life. Indeed, these did not exist for her. She was like one walking in the Underworld, where the shades throng intelligibly but have no connection with one. She felt the English people as a potent, cold, slightly hostile host amongst whom she walked isolated.”

The marriage breaks their isolation. It brings Lydia out of the underworld, and Tom into the world of human communication and sexual partnership.

In the next generation, Anna, Lydia’s daughter and Tom’s stepdaughter, becomes the matriarch. She marries her cousin, Will Brangwen, an aspiring artist and talented wood-carver who has a passionate interest in church architecture.  But Anna and Will, after their first happy weeks of marriage,  battle for dominance.  She likes the open sky, he likes cathedral ceilings.  She is happy to spend days in bed having sex, he is more Puritanical and feels he must work.  Then when she is pregnant, she does a weird Anna Victrix (Anna Conqueror) dance, which temporarily beaks her husband.  All right, Lawrence goes too far, and it’s ridiculous, and possibly misogynist, but it works in the context of the book.  Anna is always pregnant, and expresses herself through pregnancy and motherhood.  She has a special power!

Her oldest daughter Ursula has more opportunities than did the previous generations of women. A brilliant student of Latin, French, math, and botany, she seems to have a bright future.  But when it comes down to it, what can women do?  Teach.

And at seventeen, she finds herself teaching a class of 50 children at a school in an impoverished district.  There is a mechanical atmosphere, she cannot teach the children as individuals because they react as one large group,  and she does not know how to discipline them.   She has to use corporal punishment, which goes against everything she stands for.

At the end of the year, she leaves her hated job to go to college to earn a B.A.  At first she loves her classes, especially botany, but she becomes disillusioned by the view of learning as a path to earning money.   And so she neglects her work and embarks on an intense sexual relationship with  Srkebensky, a former boyfriend who fought in the Boer War and plans to go to India soon. They have great sex.  But does Ursula want to marry?

Any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant:  Lawrence’s books depend on  poetic prose and convoluted ideas about the mysticism of sexual relationships and resistance to the mechanical society of work.

Naturally, his books appeal to rebels.  And even if we are  broken by winter (and the mechanical society, of course), we at core remain subversive.

The Rainbow was banned when it was published in 1915.  Poor Lawrence!  His books were always getting banned.

Alexa’s Conversation Skills & Two Literary Links

Photo of robots:  Hal in “2001:  A Space Odyssey” ( top left), Amazon Echo Alexa (bottom left),  Amazon Voice Remote (top right) and Cylons on “Battlestar Galactica” (below right)

At first I thought it was a humor piece.

That’s why I read The Wall Street Journal. It’s so light and bubbly.

And the title of the article is witty, “Alexa, Can You Be Empathetic, All-Knowing and Funny?”

I know Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated A.I. digital assistant,  in the form of our TV remote. When I say,”Alexa, Better Things,” she accesses the FX TV show.  When I say, “Alexa, I’m Sorry,” another comedy, she says,”Don’t worry about it!”

She understands me about half the time.  (This is not an exact statistic.)

And so I was surprised to read in the WSJ:

In the future, a conversation with a digital assistant will be indistinguishable from one with a person, according to Rohit Prasad. As the head scientist of Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa, Mr. Prasad oversees hundreds of engineers working to ensure the AI-powered assistant properly responds to voice commands, whether in Echo speakers, smart microwaves or cars. Mr. Prasad is also developing AI to tackle more complicated issues, like teaching Alexa to converse fluently, whisper responses or suggest that you close the garage door.

I would say Alexa has a long way to go.

And then my thoughts turned to robots in film.  There’s Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the know-it-all robot who takes over the spaceship. Then there are the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, robots who look fully human, destroy Earth, and have a grudge against humankind. There  are good Cylons and Cylons. The good Cylons believe they are human and fight for humankind.

In the UK,  Rocco, an African Grey rescue parrot,  communicates easily with Alexa (the Echo).  You’ve probably heard that he ordered groceries.  (The order didn’t go through because Rocco didn’t log in.)

But the funniest bit about Alexa was on a Saturday Night Live skit.

LITERARY LINKS.  Do you know Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series?  Sinclair won the Pulitzer for the third book in the series,  Dragon’s Teeth.  I learned about these splendid novels in 2005 from Julie Salamon’s brilliant essay in The New York Times, “Revisit to Old Hero Finds He’s Still Lively.” She begins,
.

When I was about to turn 12, my mother came across a set of familiar books in a sale bin at a secondhand bookstore in Cincinnati, about 60 miles from our home in rural Ohio. She remembered being mesmerized when she read them years before, and bought the entire set for me, for my birthday.

The pages were yellowed, and the red cloth jackets were worn. But I knew the minute I began reading the Lanny Budd series that this was a significant gift, a sign that my mother considered me very grown-up. There were 11 volumes in all, covering the first half of the 20th century in 7,424 pages. The heft wasn’t merely physical. These historical novels engulfed me in the thrilling and terrible imperatives of history that had deeply affected my parents directly but seemed far removed from my time and place, a placid corner of Appalachia.

And, by the way, a book abouut Sinclair is on my night table:  Upton Sinclair:  California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual, By Lauren Coodly.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Times have changed since Norman Mailer asserted that men write with their dicks (Advertisements for Myself) and that women have the wrong genitals to be serious writers, but it is still gratifying for women of my generation to see women’s literature appreciated and honored.  The longlist has been announced for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize and then The Baileys Women’s Prize).  And I’ve already read three on the list and rejected one.

Does that make me qualified to judge?  Sure.

Here is the longlist:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Milkman by Anna Burns
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Praise Songs for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden
Circe by Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Normal People by Sally Rooney

I loved  Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from a woman’s perspective,  and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, an offbeat novel about a Sappho scholar who falls in love with a merman.  (You can read my thoughts at my old blog, Miribile Dictu, the Barker here and the Broder here.)

I very much disliked Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a novel about two hollow young people, Marianne and Connell, and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again and their years at Trinity.  You can read my thoughts on it here .

And I started Anna Burns’s Milkman, which won the Booker Prize last year.  It filled me with ennui, but if you need a sleeping pill I recommend it!

Do you know any of the books on the longlist? Do you recommend them?

Why We Love the 1980s & Why We Can’t Go Back

Yuppiebacks!

The 1980s was my favorite decade.  It wasn’t the shoulder pads, big hair, Brideshead Revisited (the TV series), Farm Aid, Hands across America, yuppiebacks (Vintage Contemporaries like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City),  Tom Petty, or  Cynthia Heimel’s columns in The Village Voice.  I liked ’80s culture, but I enjoyed the decade mostly because I felt empowered as a woman.

I never wanted a career, though I considered myself a feminist. Is that an oxymoron?  I couldn’t imagine myself in any profession. A librarian?  Dull.  A lawyer?  Couldn’t face it.   But classics turned out to be a lucky field for me in the ’80s.  I was content to find a job teaching Latin at an excellent girls’ school.

I was an earnest teacher.  My students could write “This sucks!” on their saddle shoes with impunity, but had to be able to identify”absolute absolutes”and “historical infinitives” to prove they were doing the translation. They bragged that they  knew more Latin  than their brothers and boyfriends at the prestigious boys’ school across town.  It is true  that I drove them through the Jenney, the first-year text, at a rapid pace, and required the upper-level classes to scan poetry at sight.  I learned that girls preferred Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, and Horace to  Cicero.  After Cicero reduced a smart student to tears and others looked perplexed, I made a decision.   Poetry would drive my program.  The point was to make them love Latin literature.

Like most teachers, I had an avocation.  I was an aspiring writer. And on the weekends I began to write reviews, articles, and essays.   In retrospect, I wasted too much time on bubbly features and should have stuck to reviews.

And it didn’t occur to me that I was grossly underpaid.  Later, I was appalled to find the freelancing men were paid more.  Yes, there is sex discrimination in writing.   But in the ’80s I felt empowered!   I was a writer.  There were no limits for me.

Were people happy for me?  Not especially.  And freelance writers were cautious allies at best, competing for the same jobs.  At an informal meeting of women writers, a middle-aged woman said (loudly so I would hear) that I got assignments because I was “cute.”  Cuteness wasn’t my thing:  I had a bad haircut, no makeup, wore jeans and cowgirl boots.  Did the cowgirl boots give me an aura?  Should I have thanked her for the “compliment?” But later, I did know what she meant.  Haggard after a hospitalization, I heard a male editor say, “She didn’t used to look this way.”  Divas need to be young and pretty.

Still, I didn’t know any of that in the ’80s.  We have to enjoy our youth while we’re young.  And I was so excited about everything back then.   I’m glad I didn’t focus on the negative.

The  best thing was the joy of new experiences.

An Idyllic Education, Dragons, & Reverse Scrabble

I spent a lot of time in this building.

I am a traditionalist.

After graduating from Hippie High, I was astonished to find the state university provided the inspiration and structure I needed.  I was spellbound by humanities, studied three languages,  relished the Renaissance, fell in love with Latin lyric poetry and Greek tragedy, and read nineteenth-century novels in my spare time.

And so I was intrigued by Ellen Fitzpatrick’s essay in the Atlantic, “Remembering the Bold Thinking of Hampshire College.”    This small experimental liberal arts college, founded in the late ’60s,  sounds idyllic.  Unfortunately Hampshire College is in financial trouble now.

Hampshire College

Here is her first paragraph:

It’s hard to believe that nearly a half century has passed since I stood on a hillside in South Amherst, Massachusetts, with Van Halsey, then Hampshire College’s director of admissions, gazing at the rolling green farmland that stretched out toward Hadley, Massachusetts. “That is where the college will be,” Halsey explained. I was 17 years old, entering my senior year of high school, and convinced that this largely invisible place—then mostly a collection of dreams and ideals—was the only college in the country where I wanted to study.

2. And now a change of subject:  dragons.  At Tor, Mari Ness discusses the fantasy elements in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, the first novel in the Dragonriders of Pern series.

Here is Ness’s first paragraph.

In later interviews with press and fans, Anne McCaffrey would bristle at any attempt to classify  her Dragonriders of Pern series as fantasy. Her dragons, she pointed out, were genetically engineered animals ridden by descendants of space explorers, not magical elves. The language of Pern was not a creation of the author, but descended in a fairly straight line with only a few expected deviations from English and, after McCaffrey moved to Ireland, a few Irish cadences. The plots focused on the development and rediscovery of technology. Most importantly, the presence of dragons, fire lizards, and just a touch of telepathy aside, no one in her Pern books could do magic. They focused on technical solutions to their problems—the use of nitric acid; telegraph machines; metal tools and machines; bioengineered invertebrates; and, when possible, spaceships.

3. And for poetry lovers,  David Lehmann at The American Scholar proposes a prompt.

Reverse Scrabble is a prompt I invented last week. The aim is to derive as many words as possible from one given polysyllabic word and then integrate them artfully into a poem.

The word I suggest we use is operation.

Click on the link for his explanation.

Are They Normal? Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

Sally Rooney’s much-lauded novel, Normal People, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  And  perhaps this  beautifully-written but uneven novel is characteristic of erratic Booker trends.   Though the prize once promoted brilliant, complex novels by Ruth Prawer Jhabavala, Anita Brookner, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Ian McEwan, it now favors historical novels and Americans.  Rooney’s Irish Millennial novel may have been an afterthought in a longlist that included a graphic novel and a thriller.  (By the way, the Man Booker Prize just lost its sponsor.)

“Millennials are different.”  That’s what I keep hearing.  And the  Millennial novels I’ve read, among them Natasha Staggs’s  Surveys, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Emma Cline’s The Girls, leave the impression of dangerous emptiness, passivity, and a sense of the absurd.

Normal People is about Marianne and Connell and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again.  They’re rather like the characters in Girls, though less sympathetic than narcissistic Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her pals from Oberlin.

The protagonists grow up in the same town in Ireland.  Marianne is a loner from a wealthy family, and Connell, the maid’s son, is popular and athletic.  The two embark on a secret sexual relationship that improves Marianne’s self-esteem until Connell asks someone else to the prom.  And this is a typical situation in the lives of this unstable couple.

And then they go to Trinity, where their status is reversed: Marianne fits in with the rich, privileged students, while Connell is friendless and struggling.  Unsurprisingly, Marianne knows a lot of assholes.  She gets into an S/M relationship with Jamie, a thoroughly nasty rich student, while Connell finds a stable, happy young woman, Helen.  Still, Connell has a thing for Marianne and is protective.  And when Marianne goes to Sweden for a year, she is briefly involved with a sadistic photographer.  At least she gets out of that quickly.

But why is Marianne so unstable?  The psychology is a tad too simple–Marianne has both family and rich-girl problems–and Connell has class insecurity and a tendency to depression.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.

Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed for somewhere else.

In what way? he says.

I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.

Lots of people love you, Marianne. Okay? Your family and friends love you.

For a few seconds she’s silent and then she says: You don’t know my family.

Rooney’s prose is graceful, and her description of depression is powerful.  Simple writing, often very strong, but what ever happened to strong heroines?    That’s the problem I have with Millennial novels.  Give me Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Gloria Naylor, and Margaret Drabble.