The Anatomy of Schlock
by A Nonymous Hack
from The Realist, No. 62, September 1965
reprinted in The Best of The Realist
For three months, I have worked as an editor in the country’s leading schlock factory. My boss assured me that our schlock reached 30,000,000 Americans every month, and that, brethren, is a lion’s share of the schlock market.
Let me define my terms. Schlock is the next level down, below kitsch. Kitsch is naive, maudlin, hokey, unsophisticated. Commercial folklore, so to speak. Its flavor is bland, and, like American food, it is processed to be without any strong flavor, good or bad. Kitsch is “I Found God When My Doctor Told Me I Had Cancer,” “Jackie Kennedy Tells Why She Will Not Re- Marry,” “Should Wives Enjoy Sex? ”
Schlock, on the other hand, is brutal, lumpen-prole, aggressive, hairy; like carnival hot-dogs, so spicy you might vomit if you’re over-sensitive. Schlock is “He Beat His Grandmother to Death With Her Crutch,” “Love-Starved Arab Peasant Women Raped Me Twenty Times,” “The Disease That Liz Caught from Dick.”
I got into the schlock market when I answered a New York Times ad for an editor for a slick men’s magazine. I passed the interview with flying colors and was hired. Then it was explained to me that, in addition to the slick men’s magazine, I would also be editing three pulp men’s magazines.
The three pulps were, of course, pure schlock. They sported titles like (these are actual examples) “The Corpse Lovers,” “Inside Those Queer Bars,” “How to Find Your Favorite Vice,” “The Big Snatch,” “My Mommy Was A Hustler,” “Girls Who Suck You Dry.” Of course, the more raunchy of these titles did not live up to the expectations they aroused: schlock is not hard-core pornography but soft-core. “The Big Snatch” was about kidnapping and “Girls Who Suck You Dry” was about girls who take all your money and leave you.
Well, I have a family to support (as Adolph Eichmann may have said when his job was first explained to him); I sat down and began writing schlock. I produced such gems as “Wild Sex Freaks of History,” “A Prostitute Reveals Her Naked Soul,” “If You Think You Have V.D.,” “Can Lack of Sex Cause Cancer?” and “How Cowards Dodge the Draft.”
In between these epics, my magazines were crowded with cheesecake layouts, and I found that writing the captions to these was more fun, even, than writing the articles. As on all such magazines, the cheesecake came out of a file-the models had signed away everything, including (I think) their children’s life insurance, on a release form that couldn’t be broken by Clarence Darrow himself – and I invented whatever I wanted to say about them.
In creative and ironic raptures one day (and a bit dismayed , by the hard, whore-like expressions on the broads the art department had handed me), I picked up the heaviest cruiser in the lot – a mauler who looked like she was 38 years old and had been a whore for 20 of those years in the $10-a-throw Sands Street section of Brooklyn – and wrote that she was a Sunday School teacher from Indiana.
The others I gave the usual fictional backgrounds, making them” girl scientists,” “typists,” “airline hostesses,” and so forth. Once in a while I would make one a “Greenwich Village hipster” and have her say something like “I dig the peyote scene” or “William Burroughs is my favorite writer,” but I was careful not to pull that one too often.
Meanwhile, another department of the schlock factory also published a tabloid newspaper – the kind that features headlines like “Iron Lung Patient Rapes Two Nurses.” The editor was understaffed. (This didn’t prevent the publisher from continually suggesting that he fire somebody – the publisher worried that every department was overstaffed.)
Just for the hell of it, and because I was getting to enjoy schlock in a perverse sort of way, I took on writing the ESP column in this newspaper. I read the predictions that had appeared over the past several months and began grinding out my own predictions, out of the blue. It was surprisingly easy. Among other things, I predicted that Lyndon Johnson would be assassinated, that anti-American riots would occur in another Latin American nation, that the $15,000,000 pornography collection on the closed shelves of a large public library would be robbed by a mob led by a defrocked priest “well known in occult circles,” that flying saucers would be in the news again, that shocking discoveries would be made at Stonehenge throwing new light on ancient Egypt and revealing how man came to be on earth (ESP bugs, I reasoned, are generally also the types who believe that man was deposited here by flying saucers and that Egypt is full of occult mysteries}, that peanut butter would be found to contain radioactive isotopes, and that a Hollywood star would be involved in a sex-and-LSD orgy.
In a short while, I began getting letters from fans. Many of them congratulated me on the number of my predictions that came true, although actually none of them ever came true. Apparently, these people possess a very convenient kind of memory. (When Kennedy was shot, many astrology magazines admitted they hadn’t predicted it, but I recently heard from an astrology buff that all the leading astrology magazines had predicted it!)
As an experiment, I tried the most outlandish prediction I could imagine in my ESP column. I predicted that a new island would rise in the Pacific Ocean, covered with strange non-Euclidean buildings bearing inhuman hieroglyphics. I had lifted this from “The Call of Cthulhu,” by H. P. Lovecraft. The ESP fans ate it up. They are always expecting things like that to happen anyway.
I was becoming a schlock meister, a veritable uberschlockmeister. I started dreaming up titles for tabloid stories. All the stories in the tabloid, you see, were fictitious. (Incidentally, the best inspirations are never used. They are too far out. Such as: “Kicked Out of Ku Klux Klan for Negro Blood – He Becomes Muslim Leader.”)
The staff would have a bull session each Monday morning and work out 15 or 20 ideas for the next issue. “Say, how about this,” somebody would cry. “Mad Hunchback Sells Hunch to Butcher/Woman Poisoned by Hunchburger?”
“Nah,” the editor would say, “Too far out in left field.”
“How about, ‘Vice Squad Cop Catches V.D. From Prostitute He Arrested’? ”
“Great, ” the editor would reply, “We’ll use that one. ”
And so another “news” story would be born. I often reflected that we represented the next stage in journalism, after The New York Times. The Times merely alters and selects facts to fit a particular political line. We invented our facts on the spot, a much more creative process. If it is the destiny of man to “transcend mere reason and empiricism,” and to “achieve a rebirth of myth and magic,” as many modern philosophers think, I can safely claim that we schlockscribes in our grubby offices were doing more to further that end than the Times.
I soon discovered that my predecessor on the men’s pulps had applied the same formula: “Woman Gives Birth to Puppies” appeared in the tabloid; “Women Who Have Given Birth to Animals” had appeared several issues back in one of the men’s pulps. A girl who regularly had intercourse with a dog – a spectacle she performed for money in a Mexican whorehouse – had “worn down her immunity” to dog sperm and thus became impregnated. The pulp archly stated that the story had appeared “in several Mexican newspapers” but that “some doctors” claim it is impossible. The tabloid picked it up without any reservations. Folklore students of the future will have to wade through tons of this schlock in stalking down the origins of various contemporary folktales.
The schlock-sex field is much tougher than schlock-crime or schlock-ESP. “This is kind of tame,” the publisher, or schlockfuehrer, would say occasionally. Since he fired one person every week without fail (and thus kept us all in that half-mad kind of frenzy necessary to the production of true schlock), this remark would spread terror throughout the factory. We would outdo ourselves with “Teen-Age Sex Club Seduces Parents” or “Wolf-Men Who Drink Blood for Lust.” Then, the schlockfuehrer would come around again, looking worried. “Take out ‘cunnilingus,’ ” he would say (referring to a factual story, for once, about a crusader for sexual freedom), “you gotta be careful in this business. ”
My predecessor, I discovered while going through back issues, had named one model “Senora Maria Theresa Fellatia” and said she was waiting for an appointment “with her physician, Dr. Cunnilingua.” Somehow, this one went through. It is altogether possible that the publisher didn’t know either of those words at the time.
The biggest panic occurred when some pubic hair was discovered in one of my pulps, in an issue done by my predecessor but on which I had corrected the blues (last stage before publication). The printer discovered the small dark tangle and called the publisher, saying we could all go to jail. The publisher came thundering into my office, gibbering: “Pubic hair! You let pubic hair go by! Goddamn it, pubic hair! We can all go to jail! ”
The printer, fortunately, was able to correct the plate. After that, I scrutinized each crotch with the kind of care I usually give only to living girls. Anybody who passed my office and saw me studying a vulva through a magnifying glass would have thought, “What a horny bastard! He’s really in the right job.”
In spite of the one-firing-every-week policy, I enjoyed myself in the schlock factory. Most of us laughed a great deal, especially after each firing (we knew then we were safe for another week). Schlock is fun to write. The best, of course, is the stuff you have to reject for publication, but which everybody in the office enjoys. “Jayne Mansfield Revealed To Be Male Has-Been Who Had Sex-Change Operation,” was one the publisher dreamed up himself, and for two hours nobody could talk him out of it. His lawyer finally made him see reason, which is too bad. It would have been the tabloid’s best-selling issue. . . until Jayne sued them out of existence.
Another one the whole office loved was “The Four-Letter I Word That Sue Lyons Calls Burton,” which was based on a gossip column item that Sue Lyons called Burton “Bull,” but: the readers wouldn’t find that out until after they bought the magazine and read the story. My all-time favorite, cooked up by a girl who worked on the movie mags, was: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer Catches Leprosy/Audience Splattered by Flying Organs.” Alas, the editor of the tabloid thought that was too much even for his audience.
The movie magazines were, like all good schlock, basically dishonest. The stories were more-or-less true but were given the schlock-treatment by our staff. An item would be lifted out of Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons and then jazzed up with a suggestive or blood-curdling title and developed into a whole story. Everything in the story, except the key fact, would be fabrication. As long as none of the stars were made to look criminal or foolish, we never had any complaints from the studios’ legal departments.
Intrigued by a cover-line on one of our “true confessions” mags – “Stripped Naked in the Subway/Nobody Would Help Me” – I found that no incident remotely like it occurred anywhere in the story. The little 60-year-old lady who ground out three of these mags, writing most of them herself, had carried journalism even further than our tabloids.
At this point, the publisher gave me another magazine to do – a detective mag. He also gave me, at last, one assistant to help with the three schlock mags. The assistant proved to be a talentedschlockscribe and quickly was grinding out “Sixty Streets of Sin” and “He Asked Me To Sleep With His Wife” at a sizzling rate. I let him take over two out of the three schlock mags, and concentrated on one schlock mag, my slick, and the detective mag.
My career in the schlock factory was brought to a close when I began preparing my first issue of the “slick.” It was an imitation of Playboy, with lots more cheesecake. Looking over Playboy and its other imitators, I decided that the key to success in this field was, in a word, balls. I set out to create the boldest, most sophisticated, raciest men’s magazine ever. The editor-before-the-editor-before-me was fired for making it “too intellectual.” I was careful to avoid that error.
The publisher said he didn’t want schlock in this one magazine – “It’s our class publication,” he used to repeat – but he was such a pure, dedicated schlockmaestro that everything he touched turned to schlock. Looking over past issues, I discovered that the only non-schlock one that had been put out by the editor fired for being “too intellectual.” “Not schlock and not egghead,” was my guiding principle. I revamped my table of contents several times, making it more schlocky each time. I kept two non-schlock articles, a factual piece about Cuba, and an interview with a prominent novelist, and tried to make the rest of the pieces come out as both schlock and non-schlock simultaneously. This I did by giving them schlock titles but sophisticated insides, or, in one case, a sophisticated title with schlock insides.
It didn’t work.
One week the tabloid editor was fired on Monday, his successor was fired on Wednesday, and the publisher called me into his office on Thursday. “I don’t want you printing writers who are writing The Great American Novel,” he began. He told me my whole issue was too intellectual and that several stories were being dropped from it. He ended the interview on a paternal note: “I got a reputation for doing a lot of firing, ” he said, “but I’m trying to change that. I’m not going to fire anybody without two week’s notice, from now on. As for you, you’re still okay in my book. You just have to learn a little.”
He had made a similar speech to the tabloid editor before firing him. I typed up a job resume that night and brought it into the office half an hour before starting time the next morning. I had run off 20 copies of it on the office photostat machine when the schlockfuehrer called me into his office and fired me.
Until a replacement for me could be found, everything – the slick, the whodunit, and the three pulps – was put in the hands of the little 60-year-old lady who did the confession magazines.