When the news of a Pulp Fiction exhibition broke in the Library, many initially wondered what an exhibition of the Quentin Tarantino-directed film would look like. To our enlightenment, it would not be a celebration of the 1994 cult classic, but a display centred on the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction – a form of cheaply-made literature that was popular in the mid-20th century.
Stuart Kells, Adjunct Professor, La Trobe College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, recently opened the Pulp Fiction exhibition in the Melbourne campus' Borchardt Library. The assortment of pristine pulp literature – or penny dreadfuls as they were affectionately known in Australia – are all from the personal collection of Stuart and his wife Fiona.
The penny dreadfuls title is one that may be more effective when referring to the literature nowadays, particularly given the popularity of Tarantino's film. "For a long time in the UK and here, they were called penny dreadfuls. The idea is they're a little cheap and a little bit sleazy," Stuart said. "But definitely some people have asked 'Where is the Tarantino stuff?'"
Appointed to his current position at La Trobe in late 2018, Stuart says the exhibition is an experiment as part of his relationship with the University and the Library. The exhibition came out of a chance meeting with the University Librarian Fiona Salisbury, "about the physical spaces in the Library and how this stuff can appear online. This is the first exhibition that I've done with my collection."
Stuart's gathering of pulps wasn't built overnight. He's collected the books for almost 40 years, preferring the real-life hunt compared to the ease of online shopping.
"I was chasing these before there was a thing called the Internet."
"I've been chasing pulp material ever since I was in high school in the '80s. I go to markets and second-hand book shops and those types of things," he said. "There are ways of buying these on eBay, but I was chasing it in the real world in junk shops and markets and things like that."
During the weekly presentations of the exhibition – Stuart has regularly mentioned that readers often concealed their love for pulps. There was a connotation that they were a form of 'low literature'. The genre was certainly not seen fit to be on-hand at an academic library.
Stuart was always endeared not only by the eye-catching illustrations that still stand-up today, but primarily for the cultural significance of the pulps. "I've always appreciated these books as cultural objects as much as reading objects," he said. "They speak to Australia's cultural connections to the US and the UK. They speak to censorship, and to early ideas about science and the future."
"They capture cultural moments and perhaps even a cultural subconscious, one that prefigures social movements such as feminism, civil rights, and changing ideas about heroism and masculinity."
To Stuart's gratification, Australian national and state libraries have recently sought to fill gaps in their pulp collections, recognising the important stories they tell.
Seen throughout the exhibition is the pre-empting of social justice movements, such as the Currawong-published Gun Girl – one of Stuart's favourites in the collection. It's not only prominent because of its flipping of gender roles, but also due to its rarity.
"The Currawongs are really interesting. They're all Australian, but some are more Australian than others. One called Gun Girl, which has this female gun-slinging heroine, is very unusual, very rare and very Australian," he said.
The Currawongs aren't the only rare titles in the collection, there are also the Phantom novels.
"The Phantom novels – not to be confused with the Phantom comics – are very rare and there have been very few major exhibitions of them. That particular group within this exhibition, which have really stunning cover art, would have to be my favourite," he said.
The Pulp Fiction exhibition is open until October 3 on level two of the Borchardt Library.
Written by La Trobe University Media and Communication graduate Tennyson Tinning.