A BRIEF HISTORY OF PULP FICTION

You know I’m a pulp fiction fan, and have led an online Pulp Fiction Workshop (and will again, I promise!). The following was written for that workshop, as part of additional material that I filtered out over the course of the workshop’s four-week run. I thought I’d repurpose it here, just to once again touch back on my love of the era of the classic American pulp fiction magazines, which spanned roughly the first half of the 20th century…

…until TV came along? Until the introduction of the mass market paperback book? Both? And also around the same time comic books went on the rise, there was a general wave of conservatism in post-war America, too, that took a dim view of the lurid cover art that would surely get you in trouble with Mom. The 50s also marked the rise of the “men’s magazine”—when some of the old pulps more or less morphed into “men’s adventure” magazines then into soft-core pornography that occasionally published fiction. Tastes and technology changes… sound familiar?

The “pulp” magazines got their name from the cheap newsprint or pulp paper they were printed on. This kept costs down, especially during the war years, but also meant that the magazines themselves were pretty fragile physical objects. You could practically rip a page by breathing on it, which is why it can be hard to find one in less than deplorable condition. I have a few in my own collection that flake apart if I take them out of their plastic bags.

That also tends to reveal what their publishers thought of them—these were more like weekly or monthly newspapers, and I doubt anyone thought there was any reason for them to survive past the release of the next issue.

The pulps covered the full spectrum of genres and though most were aimed at a male audience, there were dozens of romance titles for women, and despite a much more gender-defined culture, plenty of women reading the other genres as well. There were genres that essentially grew out of the pulps, were introduced in those pages, especially science fiction, and a couple that seem to have died along with the magazines, like air combat stories, which were all the rage beginning in World War I and trailing off at the end of World War II.

It’s safe to say that the pulp fiction magazine really began in 1882 with the publication of The Golden Argosy, which featured stories that today we’d call “steampunk.” There were railroad magazines with fiction to stir the imaginations of a still-developing nation even before that, and the old western dime novels all contributed to a popular thirst for adventure stories. With the Industrial Revolution came modern advertising—and the dollars necessary to fund more magazines, and more specialized magazines. This also helped publishers like the innovative Frank Munsey keep their cover prices low, so more and more of the new American middle class could easily buy in and get hooked. When Munsey dropped the cover price of his magazine to 10¢ 1893, the pulp era took off.

The 1910s

For me, at least, this pivotal second decade of the 20th century was clearly dominated by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who went on to become one of the most successful American writers of all time. Burroughs is certainly best known as the creator of Tarzan, who first appeared in the October 1912 issue of All-Story.

But I’m a particular fan of Burroughs’s science fiction—or maybe more appropriately “science fantasy”—particularly the series of stories and short novels that followed the adventures of John Carter, who inadvertently travels to Mars and finds an amazing world of adventure—and a princess to fall in love with. I promise you, you will never have more fun reading SF than A Princess of Mars! I’d go as far as to credit Burroughs with inventing the very concept of SF/fantasy worldbuilding. He created his own Mars (Barsoom) only very loosely grounded in the rather incomplete and inaccurate science of the time, and populated it with wonderfully plausible creatures and vast, ancient civilizations with complex cultures.

It was really in this decade that the “modern” pulp took wing. The hunger for fast, cheap entertainment made for a very crowded field as more and more magazines started to appear. Science fiction and fantasy in particular really started to form in this decade, again thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but others as well. Stories were also starting to get more “gritty” to match some changing attitudes of the new industrial century and a world descending into the first mechanized war.

The Roaring 20s

Clearly the 1920s was the real Golden Age of pulps. With a solid foundation under it, pulps were ready when World War I veterans came home and not only wanted but deserved a break from years of brutal trench warfare. They wanted to have fun, and the Roaring 20s delivered in style.

For young men in the 20s, the pulps gave them more science fiction, horror, and war titles, all getting a bit more lurid, more over-the-top than fiction had ever been. For women, the romance pulps got racier and racier, helping to fuel a whole new sense of female empowerment. After all, ladies had just won the right to vote.

This decade also saw the birth of what are arguably the two greatest pulp magazines of all time. Though detective pulps launched some great, long-standing careers, the science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors that first started in the magazines Weird Tales (1923-1954) and Amazing Stories (1926-1960) became, almost to a man, the first generation of greats those genres have ever known. The list of authors who got their start in these pages and went on to incredible careers—and are still being read voraciously today—is absolutely astounding. Both of these magazines have been resurrected and are being published even as we speak. That isn’t something Basketball Stories can claim!

The Depression 30s

With the exception of the depression of 2008, publishing has always been considered a “recession proof” business. Cheap mass market paperbacks and e-books now, or pulp magazines then, cheap production and low cover prices made for a low cost per entertainment hour. And with no internet driving brick-and-mortar stores out of business, no TV drawing audience attention, pulp magazines were on sale everywhere and could be had for pocket change. So while much of the rest of the country was suffering, the pulps continued to boom. In fact, the 30s was the pulps’ peak period, with as many as forty-four monthly titles on sale at any given time.

The 30s also saw the rise of the single character titles, most famously Doc Savage and The Shadow. The latter was also a successful radio drama of the day—popular escapism during tough times.

This is also the period that saw an increase in so-called “spicy” pulps, even while the country itself seemed to be heading into more conservative times. As the middle of the decade saw war coming once again to Europe, the latter part of the 30s saw the introduction of new villains as the national enemy shifted from bootleggers and “Reds” to the very real menace of the Nazis.

The War-torn 40s

Pulp magazines started easing American readers into the idea of another World War starting several years before Pearl Harbor, but once war was declared they tended to go all in. The pulps’ peak times continued all through the 1940s, while the war raged.

The pulps’ generally racist attitudes quickly shifted away from African and generic Asian villains to dive full-speed ahead into the race war that was raging across the Pacific. It’s a troubling and revealing time in American history and one the pulps fully embraced. We were fighting a war in Europe not against Germans but against Nazis. In the Pacific, we were fighting against the “Japs.” Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. German Americans (like my German immigrant grandfather) were not. I’ll let you puzzle over that on your own.

It was also the war years that were responsible for the current rarity of surviving copies of pulp magazines and comic books from that era and before. Mass paper drives were held where patriotic citizens were encouraged to turn in old newspapers and magazines for the war effort. This is, as much as the poor quality of the paper and the general lack of a sense by even their most devoted readers that these monthly magazines would ever be worth more than their ten cent cover prices, is why so few pulp magazines survive to this day.

Through the war years the pulps remained a little less “spicy” and became more “thrilling.” As the war came to a close and the GIs returned, the pulps responded with what would eventually be their final incarnation…

Farewell from the 50s

Chaucer told us that all good things must come to an end, and for what’s commonly known as the era of the classic American pulp magazines, that end came not with a bang, but with a whimper over the course of the 1950s.

Once again the country saw another shift in its culture, a sort of cuddling up with itself as a way to deal with the horrors of World War II and the uncertainty of a world in which we were all of a sudden expected to lead. The Cold War set aside the Nazis and the Japanese in favor of the dastardly communists, who attacked in ways both overt and subtle, as in Jack Finney’s classic novel The Body Snatchers. Here was an enemy dead-set on turning us into a race of mindless drones… which from the perspective of a few decades could be read as more of a warning against the homogenizing of American culture in the McCarthy Era than any Marxist nightmare.

In any case, by the middle fifties there were fewer than ten monthly magazines left, mostly publishing science fiction that was quickly leaving the pulp “space opera” tradition in the rearview mirror. Authors like Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury were bringing a literary bent to the genre and the so-called “hard” science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl introduced a scientific rigor to the process that would surely have stumped some of their pulp predecessors.

You can also see a bigger gap form between the much less lurid, more “family-friendly” magazines and the rise of the new men’s magazines. That line between fun stories for kids and soft-core pornography for adults turned into a true no man’s land. And, of course, there was television, which jumped onto the pulp genres with early shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (many episodes of both series were based on stories published in the pulps), The Lone Ranger and dozens of other westerns, as well as daily soap operas for the romance fans—all of which siphoned audiences away from the pulp magazines.

And so there we are, with an amazingly rich tradition of fiction of varying levels of literary quality, and a small army of authors still read and appreciated decades later.

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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