"Harvard in Hell": Holloway House Publishing Company, Players Magazine, and the Invention of Black Mass-Market Erotica: Interviews with Wanda Coleman and Emory "Butch" Holmes II

Article excerpt

In the late 1960s, Holloway House Publishing Company, a niche publisher of adult magazines and erotic paperbacks, emerged as an unexpected center of black literary production. Founded in 1959 by two Hollywood publicists, Ralph Weinstock and Bentley Morriss, Holloway House in its early years published an eclectic mix of high- and low-brow materials, including skin magazines Adam and Knight, biographies about Jayne Mansfield and Ernest Hemingway, and the literature of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. However, following the Watts uprising of 1965, Morriss and Weinstock changed the direction of the Los Angeles-based company by publishing mass-market paperbacks targeted specifically toward black working-class consumers. The two white publishers recognized the uprisings in Watts and in other black neighborhoods across the country as a crisis of representation, and they capitalized on this crisis by creating a culture industry that catered to a large-scale black readership. This was a major development in the world of mass-market literature. Of course, the mass production of inexpensive and entertaining reading material for the American public has a long history, going back to the dime novels of the nineteenth century. But the dime novel and its early twentieth-century successor, the pulp magazine, were literary commodities marketed to whites and ethnic immigrants who worked in America's industrial centers. The "black-experience" novels created by Holloway House represent an important watershed in the history of American popular literature, as these were the first black-authored books to be sold in black communities and purchased by black consumers on a national scale.

Holloway House became successful in part because the company put out adult materials that no other press dared to publish. In 1966, Holloway House released its debut black-themed novel, Some Like it Dark: The Intimate Biography of a Negro Call Girl. Ghostwritten by Leo Guild, the book sold well, earning the company as much as six million dollars, according to former Holloway House employee Wanda Coleman. The book's financial success confirmed Morriss and Weinstock's suspicions that there was an untapped market of black readers living in America's ghettos. They began to seek out writers more aggressively by advertising in the Los Angeles black weekly, The Sentinel, and by sending editors down to the Watts Writers Workshop. In 1967, Holloway House established its position as the premier publisher of underground black literature by publishing Iceberg Slim's Pimp. The Story of My Life. The book sold millions of copies, and it inspired countless black writers to craft their own narratives of pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and junkies for Holloway House. In the early 1970s, Holloway House became an outlet for talented writers such as Donald Goines, Joseph Nazel, Odie Hawkins, and many others to publish their street-themed literature. By distributing these books in inner-city communities, prisons, and military bases across the country, Holloway House bypassed both the East Coast literary establishment and Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher behind Jet and Ebony. Through an alliance of white business interests and black literary talent, black-experience literature emerged as a distinct cultural expression for working-class African Americans whose access to self-representation was limited.

Even while remaining virtually unknown to white America and to large portions of middle-class black America, the black-experience novels of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines have had enormous impact on mainstream American culture. In the past decade, for instance, the street literature of Sister Souljah, Vickie M. Stringer, K'Wan, and others has emerged as one of the driving forces of the African American publishing industry, accounting for half of the new titles published by black authors. Although the success of street literature is often understood as an outgrowth of hip-hop music, especially gangsta rap, the opposite is actually the case: the pimp autobiographies and crime novels of Iceberg Slim, Goines, and other pioneers of street literature inspired Ice-T, Ice Cube, The Notorious B. …