What is Pulp?
"Pulp" is a term thrown around a lot. For some it is a term for low-brow entertainment, for others, it is the stuff floating in your morning orange juice. Well, the word has sort of departed from its roots. That is what this series is all about. Pulp 101 explores and explains the world of pulp fiction. To start, we have to understand what the term even means. Pulp, in regards to writing, and the true origin of what we are talking about here, comes from the material the fiction was written on, and not really the fiction itself. This of course changed over time. But the word 'pulp' was used because during the late nineteenth century, cheap accessible writing was being printed on low-cost wood pulp paper.
The economy was on the rise, and industrialization was providing the working class with more leisure time. Before the real success of cinema and long before television, the literate masses were flocking to the written word to be entertained. Tastes were beginning to vary with the larger audience and publishers not only needed to find new and exciting fiction for these hungry masses, but a cheap way to print it. Hardback books were quite expensive at the time. The most popular medium were large newspaper like collections of fiction called "story papers" and dime novels, which had gained popularity during the Civil War. A logical progression lead these large format sheets to be printed on a smaller scale, with cheap paper and covers. By 1896, Argosy introduced the world to what would be the very first pulp. The Argosy company claimed to pack "a dollar's worth of reading for ten cents", and the pulp industry was born.
The size and shape of pulps in the coming decades would change based on reader taste, but mostly on further cost cutting methods. The average pulp magazine measured about 7x10 inches and contained about 128 or 144 pages (though during times like the Great Depression, this page count got as low as 64 pages). Until 1936, publishers used untrimmed sheets and covers that were a bit larger and hung over the edges of the pages. This has lead to many of the magazines being in rather poor shape even by the time they reached shelves (and made finding mint condition copies near impossible for collectors). But it was always a fine line as far as profits went. Publishers often added new titles, to try and bump sales, a risky move with razor thin profit margins. So the number of titles on the shelves were constantly fluctuating as well.
So why does any of this matter? Who cares about the poorly made magazines of the turn of the century? Well it wasn't the cheap paper that gave the mags their name, or the sheer number of them made over the years. It was the popularity of the contents of those magazines, and the enormous impact they had on popular culture. The rippling effects of those stories can be seen even today. Not only did it make stories available to the masses, it changed the way stories would be told from then on.
The influence of pulp fiction can be seen in the popularity of its characters. The biggest names, like Zorro, Tarzan, and Sam Spade are still familiar to many today. The writers who were once writing for a meager by the word paycheck, originally thought to be work-for-hire authors, have become literary masters. Authors like Dashiel Hammett, James M. Cain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling all started in these throw-away mags, but now are studied by literature majors. The pulps were also the birth of genre fiction. The purpose of the pulps wasn't to reprint Shakespeare or Plato for the general public, it was to entertain. Writers dived into worlds unknown, creating what we now know of as the modern genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. And if all of this weren't enough, the very way in which we tell stories was created in the pages of pulps. Many of the writers of early pulp mags went on to write for movies, television and radio. Translating the fast paced, structured writing of the written word to the screen and the airwaves. Films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones are direct homages to this era of storytelling, but even elements of the three act story structure, the heroic protagonist, the vile arch-villain, were all created here.
Pulp writing was fast paced. It defined itself by giving you the information you needed to fuel your imagination, but its priority was to push forward at breakneck speed. Characters rarely stopped to think, or reflect on the inner turmoil of the human condition. Problems were big and immediate and characters had to think on their feet and act. Characterization was brief and with a few exceptions (Lovecraft) focus was on action rather than atmosphere. As author Algis Budrys put it, "the essence of pulp writing is that it must offer a clear-cut solution to a sentimental problem." These were stories about immediate obtainable objectives. Readers wanted an escape from real life, especially during the days of the Depression.
So where do we go from here? What more can Pulp 101 really cover now that you know the basics of what a pulp was? Well, after Argosy released the very first pulp over 118 years ago, that same publisher would continue on putting out some of the best story collections for the next half a century. Times changed after the end of two world wars, and the popularity of film and television, as well as new ways to print would ultimately see the end of the pulps in their original state. But their influence would live on, in the movies and fiction that followed. Just as cheap papered pulps found a new way to tell stories to a new audience, a similar thing would happen later on in the twentieth century with the cheap paperback, and we are seeing another revolution with ebooks. Along with this, has been a reemergence of the pulp story, with reprints as well as new fiction. Pulp created huge names like Weird Tales, Black Mask, and Amazing Stories, which has seen popularity in reprinted collections. Lapsing copyright, or stories written before copyright, have been able to be made available to anyone with an e-reader. New publishers, like Hard Case Crime, have sought to recreate the age of the pulps in our modern age.
In further editions of this series, I plan to look at the various magazines from the pulp age. Explore and enjoy some of the great stories and authors that came out of those books. As well as give lots of historical background to the emergence of authors like H. P. Lovecraft (whom I write another series on this blog allabout). I will share the stories and art that graced the pages of the pulps, the influences on our culture and modern media, as well as showcase some of the great new works of fiction that owe a lot to this era. If you have a passing interest in literary history, genre short stories, or are just a bit curious about this whole pulp thing, be sure to check it out.