One way that the Armed Services Editions were incredibly inclusive was in regard to genre. The CBW, made up of competing publishers, all contributed their books in the early years of the paperback revolution. They each promised that they would not promote their own authors or titles over any other, resulting in a good spread of authors and genres.
Several questions arose about genre, however, through studying the archives. The Soldiers’ Vote Act specifies that ASEs must “Provide recreational reading which men of various backgrounds would read in civilian life: humor, biography, stories, poetry and travel.” Furthermore, it specifies that ASEs should have “a simiply vocabulary and adult interest for the near-illiterates,” as well as “fiction of enduring value.”
In her American Pulps Paula Rabinowitz discusses letters from soldiers to the Council; in these letters, soldiers often requested certain types of books be sent, in addition to specific titles. An excerpt from a First Lt. Carl Helmetag Jr’s letter reads:
your selection of books… It is impossible to conceive of a worse selection and your policy of once and awhile sliping in a classic to lend tone is to my way of thinking nothing short of bad taste and a poor showing of manners. This is no reflection on the classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, which I enjoyed reading again, but they are like the big tomatoes that the gyp dealers place on top of the basket as a come on to get rid of a lot of inferior products…. Your know[ing] just because the soldier is far away and no longer exposed to the bridght lights and the comforts of wartime America is not reason to believe that he will be satisfied with inferior products of literature. (qtd. in Rabinowitz, 119).
Meanwhile, Thomas Shaw, another soldier, wrote:
In my opinion, the reading of the men with whom I serve can be summed up in one word, “escape.”…High cultural values seem silly to a jungle fighter. When he has a chance he reads anything— jsut so it blots out his immediate surroundings… I believe he prefers it exciting and action packed to the sexy.
Did these soldiers change the minds of the CBW? Did letters from soldiers have any impact on the quality or type of books selected?
Fortunately, there is great metadata for the ASEs. The books were each assigned a serial number that corresponds to their release dates. Beginning with the A series, and up through numbers (once the 26-letter combinations were exhausted), we can easily assemble the chronology of when books were released throughout the war. While this data can’t speak to the relative impact of soldiers on selection, it can tell us about genre distribution over time.
These data are ordered according to series number, and colored according to genre (using the CBW’s genre “types”).
It appears that there isn’t much change over time with any of the books (especially as these data are incomplete– it’s not quite possible to tell if the change in genre representation reflects actual change or just data insufficiency). Some genres are clearly represented more than others, but that seems to be consistent throughout the war. Humor and Adventure books, for instance, seem to remain relatively consistent. On the “Genre, by Series” page, you can see that the proportions of genre representation change across the series releases. So, while “novels” (a broad category, what we might now call “literary fiction”), make up a large percentage of books released in Series A, they make up a relatively small percentage of novels in Series “ZZ.”
A preliminary finding (problematic data notwithstanding) that I want to continue to investigate in further iterations of this project revolves around pulp genres (see “Genre, Progression Over Time”) I’m struck by what appears to be a relative increase in Western (bottom, red) and Crime (top, orange) novels, and the history of these genres and paperback dissemination. We know that Crime novels, for instance, continued to grow in popularity at midcentury, with the Hardboiled Detective jumping from page-to-screen in films noir after the war. The increase of Westerns, similarly, might reflect shifts in the publishing industry (with the growth of the paperback) that allowed for the publication of such dime-novels.