originally published December 22, 2012
As a writer, there is no shame in working for cheap. This comes from the perspective of a writer who spews out a bunch of words every day and receives no payment (except that one time, with the free beer. Thanks, Big Rock Brewery!). Not every printed word that bleeds onto a page needs to be Shakespeare or Hemingway. Some people just want to read fluff every so often. And whether your brand of preferred fluff involves sparkly vampires, vampire-inspired S&M smut, or simply a thousand words extoling bacon, someone will be there to provide.
Before the Internet, cheap literary thrills were still easy to come by. It was simply a matter of heading down to the drug store and picking up the latest copy of your favorite pulp magazine.
In 1882, former telegraph operator Frank Munsey decided he wanted to launch his own magazine. He scraped together all his savings and recruited a publishing house to put out Argosy Magazine on December 2. The first issue was only eight pages, and it included the first installments of a couple of serialized stories by Horatio Alger, Jr. and Edward S. Ellis. Printing technology had allowed for mass production on cheap wood pulp paper, and by the end of the 19th century, the infrastructure for mass distribution across the country was firmly in place.
The Popular Magazine was next to hit the market, in 1903. Despite its presumptuous name, the thing actually was a hit. By the end of the decade, this magazine and Argosy (retitled The Argosy because I guess Frank Munsey felt it was just that important) were selling close to a million copies per month.
By the 1920s there were a bunch of pulp mags on the shelves, offering western stories, soldier stories, and tales of just plain weirdness. Some of the titles included Horror Stories, Amazing Stories (which inspired a successful TV show), Startling Stories, Oriental Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Super-Fun Wow Yankee Crazy Stories (I think that one was just produced in Japan).
We may live in a glorious age of iPods and sex robots, but there’s something noble in an age when the primary forms of entertainment were listening to people talk on the radio and reading. As it turns out, the pulp magazine was an essential step in the evolution of our culture of weirdness.
The story-telling style of a number of low-budget B-reel films can be tied to the pulp world. Cheap westerns, adventure movies and crime films – that hauntingly brilliant creative period of film noir in the 40’s and 50’s – all stem from the quick easily-digestible and eye-grabbing form of the pulp story.
The big hiccup in the pulp magazine world came with World War II. There was a shortage of cheap pulp paper – in fact, there was a shortage of just about everything during WWII, except perhaps moxie. Costs were rising, and the feasibility of putting out a 15-cent magazine of any quality went out the window. Also, we can blame Batman.
Kids no longer had to shovel coal of inspiration into the furnace of their imaginations to make these stories come to life. They had comic books now with bright, colorful visuals. Adults who fancied the detective or romance stories could buy larger books at a staggeringly low cost thanks to the advent of the paperback. Then came TV. The pulp mag was doomed.
By the late 50’s the genre pulps had fizzled, and men’s adventure magazines were the new norm: tales of action and heroism, usually with a bit of sex and/or violence drizzled like literary sprinkles onto each page.
Men’s adventure magazines had a brief moment of sizzle, but by the late 60’s, war stories were not racking up the same kind of popularity they had previously enjoyed. Young people – once the target demographic for the pulp world – didn’t want to read about war-time heroism while they were busy protesting a real war they didn’t believe in. This was around the time the trend of über-masculinity began to fade.
Some of the magazines, like Swank – which stemmed from the same publishing company that launched Marvel Comics – turned their attention to pornography. Most of the magazines just folded. The Argosy carried the flag for all of pulp’s duration as a viable medium, shutting down in 1978.
Some of the characters who were born into the pulp story world evolved into less transient and more lasting forms along our cultural freeway: radio serials, TV shows and movies. Characters like The Shadow, Tarzan, Zorro, Flash Gordon, Fu Manchu, Hopalong Cassidy, Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, and Nick Carter.
(the private detective, not the douche from the Backstreet Boys)
A number of authors got their start in the pulp trade too – and not just hard-boiled trash writers with snazzy names like “Dash Speedslinger” or “Bolt McThunder”. Real authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells. Sinclair Lewis, who was the first American to bring home a Nobel Prize for Literature, used to be the editor for Adventure magazine.
Again – no shame in working the low end of the writing totem pole.
And of course no article about pulp magazines can go without mentioning this one:
Black Mask, which had an initial run of about 30 years up to its decline in 1951, featured a number of influential authors in the world of crime fiction, including Dashiell Hammett (the guy who created Sam Spade), Raymond Chandler and Paul Cain. The Maltese Falcon had its first appearance in serialized form in a few issues of Black Mask in late 1929.
The magazine served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino when he created his tribute to the genre (at the same time as carving out his seat at the A-list table), Pulp Fiction in 1994.
Some of these old mags have seen revivals, with the latest attempt at kick-starting The Argosy happening as recently as 2006. You can still find modern incarnations of the pulp mag, but the paper isn’t as cheap and the cost is nowhere near as low – in effect, the entire point of the product has been tweaked.
The real loss here is the subsequent decline of the short story. Pulp magazines were an ideal venue for an author to deposit a quick clump of quality fiction, but now there are fewer avenues through which these can be brought to the public. Luckily, most cultural trends go in waves, so there’s hope for the pulp medium to resurface again in some form.
Probably involving sex robots.