I grew up reading popular fiction. One of the first books I ever bought on my own was called The Living Shadow, and was a Bantam reprint of an old pulp novel by Walter Gibson (writing as Maxwell Grant) about The Shadow, a famous character from radio, but quite different in print. The writing in these books is serviceable at best, but I found myself drawn in immediately and hungrily bought every book in the series that was released.
Around the same time, I discovered the comedy mysteries of Donald Westlake and, later, his Richard Stark books. I was particularly in love with Stark’s Grofield character — who played second banana to Parker — and snatched up as many of the Grofield standalones as I could find.
I also loved reading Mickey Spillane and John MacDonald and many others of the era, most of them courtesy of a guy named Roscoe Fawcett.
Roscoe Fawcett was something of an innovator. Back in the fifties, he noticed how well paperback reprints of hardcover titles were selling, so he came up with an idea: what if he hired writers to create paperback originals? Shoot right past hardcover and take stories straight to the masses at a fraction of the cost, making a small fortune in the process.
Thus, Gold Medal Books was born.
This sounds like a no-brainer today, but Fawcett’s idea was unheard of back then and he pretty much revolutionized the publishing industry. And the writers he hired over the years to write for Gold Medal turned out to be some of the cream of the crop of mystery and thriller writers, including the aforementioned John MacDonald, as well as Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Donald Hamilton and Richard Prather.
Gold Medal books always had slightly lurid covers. A half-dressed woman with a tough guy hovering over her was fairly standard. But inside, many of those books were short masterpieces of fiction.
I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. How wonderful to be able to write these 40 – 50,000 word stories and see the public gobble them up like candy. I doubt if the monetary rewards were great, but I have a feeling these writers made a pretty decent living, many of them writing under multiple pen names. I think the closest thing we have today are the Harlequin Intrigue romances that are also a lot of fun to read. Crime stories with a romantic slant.
(Edit: Brett so kindly reminded me of Hard Case Crime, which has taken up the tradition and reprinted many of the old Gold Medal greats, as well as taking on new writers. My apologies to my friends who write for them!)
Recently, I began reading a Gold Medal author that I’ve seen over the years but never got around to reading. A guy by the name of Edward S. Aarons, who wrote forty or so books about a CIA operative named Sam Durrell. Think of Durrell as a more realistic version of James Bond.
Though few people have heard of him today, Aarons was very popular in his time and I can fully understand why. His books are really well written. He was a meat and potatoes stylist, but it’s some of the best meat and potatoes you’re likely to find.
Because I grew up reading these kinds of books, and still enjoy reading them, I find myself wanting to write them as well. I write popular fiction and make no apologies for that — although some people undoubtedly think I should. I think I mentioned before how a friend of mine wondered when I was going to start writing “serious” books, and I had to wonder, what about my books isn’t serious?
The literary fiction vs. popular fiction debate is a deep, dark hole, but I’ve found a blog post by Michael Blowhard (a very long blog post) from a few years ago that I think sums up my own feelings about the debate. I urge you to take a look at it:
I am amazed by people who look down on popular writing. I’m not quite sure what their reasoning is. The subject matter is too disposable for them? The work isn’t worthy because too many people like to read it? Surely whatever the masses likes has to be mediocre at best.
No matter. I know what I like to read and I know what I like to write. And those old mass-produced Gold Medal authors — and many who have followed in their footsteps — have given me untold hours of pleasure. And if I can do the same for someone else, that’s all I ask.
So, again, no apologies. But please don’t ask me when I’m going to start writing serious novels. I’m very serious about what I do already.
Today’s question: Do you have an author you just love that your friends or family might consider a guilty pleasure? Who is he or she?