Pulp Fiction

Enlarge picture
Flynn's Detective Fiction from 1941.


Pulp magazines (or pulp fiction; often referred to as "the pulps") were inexpensive fiction magazines. They were widely published from the 1920s through the 1950s. The term pulp fiction can also refer to mass market paperbacks since the 1950s.

Terminology and history

The name "pulp" comes from the cheap wood pulp paper on which such magazines were printed. Magazines printed on better paper and usually offering family-oriented content were often called "glossies" or "slicks". Pulps were the successor to the "penny dreadfuls", "dime novels", and short fiction magazines of the nineteenth century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are perhaps best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories, and for their similarly sensational cover art. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of "hero pulps"; pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters such as the Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Phantom Detective. However the pulps were aimed more at adult readers whereas comic books were traditionally written for children and adolescents.

Because of the copyright laws at the time, there were distinct lines of this sort of magazine in Britain as well. These magazines, called "story papers", were distributed throughout the British Empire. Story paper characters such as Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee were similar to American pulp characters. At the time, there was no global media market, so even though these were written in the same language, there was no recognition of the characters by each nation, just as in much of television today.

Pulp covers, printed in color on higher-quality (slick) paper, were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, usually awaiting a rescuing hero. Cover art played a major part in the marketing of pulp magazines, and a number of the most successful cover artists became as popular as the authors featured on the interior pages. Among the most famous pulp artists were Frank R. Paul, Virgil Finlay, Edd Cartier, Margaret Brundage and Norman Saunders. Covers were important enough to sales that sometimes they would be designed first; authors would then be shown the cover art and asked to write a story to match.

Later pulps began to feature a few interior illustrations, depicting elements of the stories. The drawings were printed in black ink on the same cream-colored paper used for the text, and had to use specific techniques to avoid blotting on the coarse texture of the cheap pulp. Thus, fine lines and heavy detail were usually not an option. Shading was by crosshatching or pointillism, and even that had to be limited and coarse. Usually the art was black lines on the paper's background, but Finlay and a few others did some work that was primarily white lines against large dark areas.

Pulps were typically seven inches wide by ten inches high, about half an inch thick, having around 128 pages. In their first decades, they were most often priced at ten cents, while competing slicks were twenty-five cents.

The first "pulp" is considered to be Frank Munsey's revamped Argosy Magazine of 1896, about 135,000 words (192 pages) per issue on pulp paper with untrimmed edges and no illustrations, not even on the cover. While the steam powered printing press had been in widespread use for some time, enabling the boom in dime novels, prior to Munsey, no-one had combined cheap printing, cheap paper and cheap authors in a package that provided affordable entertainment to working-class people. In six years Argosy went from a few thousand copies per month to over half a million.

Street & Smith were next on the market. A dime novel and boys weekly publisher, they saw Argosy's success, and in 1903 launched The Popular Magazine, which was billed as the "biggest magazine in the world" by virtue of being two pages longer than Argosy. It should be noted that due to differences in page layout, the magazine had substantially less text than Argosy. The Popular Magazine introduced the use of color covers to the pulp world. The magazine began to take off when, in 1905, the publishers acquired the rights to serialize a new work, Ayesha, by H. Rider Haggard, a sequel to his very successful novel She. In 1907, they raised the cover price to fifteen cents and added thirty pages per issue; this, along with a solid stable of authors, proved a successful formula and circulation began to approach that of Argosy. This demonstrated that the market could support multiple competitors. Street and Smith's next key innovation was the introduction of specialized genre pulps, each magazine focusing on one genre such as detective stories, romance, etc.

At their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue. Among the best-known titles of this period were Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and Weird Tales.[1]

The Second World War paper shortages had a serious impact on pulp production, starting a steady rise in costs and the decline of the pulps. Beginning with Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1941, pulp magazines began to switch to digest size; smaller, thicker magazines. In 1949, Street & Smith closed most of their pulp magazines in order to move upmarket and produce slicks.

The pulp format declined from rising expenses, but even more due to the heavy competition from comic books, television, and the paperback novel. In a more affluent post-war America, the price gap compared to slick magazines was far less significant.

The 1957 bankruptcy of the American News Company, then the primary distributor of pulp magazines, has sometimes been taken as marking the end of the "pulp era;" by that date, many of the famous pulps of the previous generation, including Black Mask, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Weird Tales, were defunct. Most all of the few remaining pulp magazines are science fiction or mystery magazines now in formats similar to "digest size", such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The format is still in use for some lengthy serials, like the German science fiction weekly Perry Rhodan (over 2300 issues as of 2005).

Over the course of their evolution, there were a huge number of pulp magazine titles; Harry Steeger of Popular Publications claimed that his company alone had published over 300, and at their peak they were publishing 42 titles per month[2]. Many titles of course survived only briefly. While the most popular titles were monthly, many were bimonthly and some were quarterly.

The collapse of the pulp industry has changed the landscape of publishing in that pulps were the single largest sales outlet for short stories; combined with the decrease in slick magazine fiction markets, people attempting to support themselves by writing fiction must now generally write novels or book-length anthologies of shorter pieces.

Genres

A common misconception is that 'pulp fiction' is limited in scope to 1940s adventure fiction in the vein of Indiana Jones. While such fiction is, in fact, encompassed under the heading of 'pulp fiction', the heading itself is by no means limited to describing only that type of fiction.

Pulp magazines often contained a wide variety of genre fiction, including, but not limited to, fantasy/sword and sorcery, detective/mystery, science fiction, adventure, westerns (also see Dime Western), war, sports, railroad, men's adventure ("the sweats"), romance, horror/occult (including "weird menace"), and Série Noire (French crime mystery). The American Old West was a mainstay genre of early turn of the century novels as well as later pulp magazines, and lasted longest of all the traditional pulps.

Many classic science fiction and crime novels were originally serialized in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Black Mask.

Famous and infamous characters of pulp fiction

While the majority of pulp magazines were anthology titles featuring many different authors, characters and settings, some of the most enduringly popular magazines were those that featured a single recurring character (these were often referred to as "hero pulps", because the recurring character was almost always a larger-than-life hero in the mold of Doc Savage or the Shadow).[3]
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1936 May issue of Phantom Detective


Popular regular pulp fiction characters included: Kilgore Trout, the perennial character in the work of Kurt Vonnegut, is a fictional pulp fiction writer.

Pulps and authors

Another way pulps kept costs down was by paying authors less than other markets; thus many eminent authors started out in the pulps before they were successful enough to sell to better-paying markets, and similarly, well-known authors whose careers were slumping or who wanted a few quick dollars could bolster their income with sales to pulps. Additionally, some of the earlier pulps solicited stories from amateurs who were quite happy to see their words in print and could thus be paid token amounts.

There were also career pulp writers, capable of turning out huge amounts of prose on a steady basis, often with the aid of dictation, either to stenographers or machines, and typists. Before he became a novelist, Upton Sinclair was turning out at least eight thousand words per day seven days a week for the pulps, keeping two stenographers fully employed. Pulps would often have their authors use multiple pen names so that they could use multiple stories by the same person in one issue, or use a given author's stories in three or more successive issues, while still appearing to have varied content.

One advantage pulps provided to authors was that they paid upon acceptance for material instead of on publication; since a story might be accepted months or even years before publication, to a working writer this was a crucial difference in cash flow.

Authors featured in pulp

Well-known authors who wrote for pulps include:



Sinclair Lewis, first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, worked as an editor for Adventure magazine, writing filler paragraphs (brief facts or amusing anecdotes designed to fill small gaps in page layout), advertising copy, and a few stories.

Pulp publishers

Pulp fiction today

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino directed a critically-acclaimed film titled Pulp Fiction; the film was specifically based on the pulp magazine Black Mask, and embodied the seedy, violent, often crime-related spirit found in pulp magazines. The film helped to add the term pulp fiction to the vocabulary of many Americans who grew up in the decades after pulp magazines fell out of fashion.

After the year 2000, several small independent publishers released magazines which published short fiction, either short stories or novel-length presentations, in the tradition of the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century. These included Blood 'N Thunder and High Adventure. There was also a short lived magazine which revived the title Argosy. These were specialist publications printed in limited press runs. These were pointedly not printed on the brittle, high-acid wood pulp paper of the old publications, and were not mass market publications targeted at a wide audience. In 2004, Lost Continent Library published "Secret of the Amazon Queen" by E.A.Guest, their first contribution to a "New Pulp Era", featuring the hallmarks of pulp fiction for contemporary mature readers: violence, horror and sex. E.A.Guest was likened to a blend of pulp era icon Talbot Mundy and Stephen King by real-life explorer David Hatcher Childress.

In 2002, issue 10 of McSweeney's Quarterly was guest edited by Michael Chabon. Published as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, it is a collection of "pulp fiction" stories written by some recent well-known authors such as Stephen King, Nick Hornby, Aimee Bender, and Dave Eggers. Chabon, in explaining the impetus of his vision for the project, writes in the Treasury's introduction, "I think that we have forgotten how much fun reading a short story can be, and I hope that if nothing else, this treasury goes some small distance toward reminding us of that lost but fundamental truth."

Notes

1. ^ Haining, Peter (2000). The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines. Prion Books. ISBN 1-85375-388-2. 
2. ^ Haining, Peter (1975). The Fantastic Pulps. ISBN 0-394-72109-8. 
3. ^ Hutchison, Don (1995). The Great Pulp Heroes. Mosaic Press. ISBN 0-88962-585-9. 

References

  • Lesser, Robert. Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines (Book Sales, 2003) ISBN 0-7858-1707-7
  • Parfrey, Adam, et al. It's a Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps (Feral House, 2003) ISBN 0-922915-81-4
  • Gunnison, Locke and Ellis. Adventure House Guide to the Pulps (Adventure House, 2000) ISBN 1-886937-45-1
  • Ellis, Doug. Uncovered: The Hidden Art of the Girlie Pulps - Gold Medal Winner for Best Popular Culture Book BEA 2004 (Adventure House, -2003) ISBN 1-886937-74-5
  • Locke, John-editor. Pulp Fictioneers - Adventures in the Storytelling Business (Adventure House, 2004) ISBN 1-886937-83-4
  • Hersey, Harold. The New Pulpwood Editor (Adventure House, 2003) ISBN 1-886937-68-0
  • Locke, John-editor. Pulpwood Days - Vol. 1 Editors You Want To Know (Off-Trail Publications, 2007) ISBN 0-9786836-2-5
  • Robinson, Frank and Davidson, Lawrence. Pulp Culture (Collector's Press, 2007) ISBN-13: 978-1933112305

External links

Cover art scans, indices, character summaries

Fiction

Other

See also

Fiction is the telling of stories which are not entirely based upon facts. More specifically, fiction is an imaginative form of narrative, one of the four basic rhetorical modes.
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Wood pulp is a dry fiberous material prepared by chemically or mechanically separating the fibers which make up wood. Pulp can be either fluffy or formed into thick sheets. The latter form is used if the pulp must be transported from the pulp mill to a paper mill.
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Penny Dreadful was a term applied to nineteenth century British fiction publications, usually lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing a penny.
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Dime novel, though it has a specific meaning, has also became a catch-all term for several different (but related) forms of late 19th century and early 20th century U.S. popular fiction, including “true” dime novels, story papers, five and ten cent weekly libraries,
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Exploitation fiction is a type of literature that includes novels and magazines that exploit sex, violence, drugs, or other elements meant to attract readers primarily by arousing prurient interest without being labeled as obscene or pornographic.
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superhero (also known as a super hero) is fictional character "of unprecedented, physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest.” [1]
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A comic book is a magazine or book containing sequential art in the form of a narrative. Comic books are often called comics for short. Although the term implies otherwise, the subject matter in comic books is not necessarily humorous, and in fact it is often serious and
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The Shadow is a fictional character created by Walter B. Gibson in 1931 in a semimonthly series of pulp magazines. The first story was titled "The Living Shadow". The character is one of the most famous of the pulp heroes of the 1930s and 1940s -- made most famous through a popular
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The Phantom Detective was the second pulp hero character published after The Shadow. The first issue was dated February 1933, a month before Doc Savage - March 1933. The title continued till 1953, 170 issues.
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story paper is a periodical publication similar to a literary magazine, but featuring illustrations and text stories, and aimed towards children and teenagers. Also known in Britain as 'Boys' Weeklies', story papers were phenomenally popular before the outbreak of the Second World
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Sexton Blake is a fictional detective who has appeared in many British comic strips and novels, described by some as "the poor man's Sherlock Holmes". Sexton Blake adventures appeared in a wide variety of British and international publications (in many languages) from 1893 to
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Nelson Lee (born October 16, 1975, in Taipei, Taiwan) is a Taiwanese born Canadian actor who co-starred in the only season of as Shen, Blade's sidekick and technical support.
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damsel in distress or persecuted maiden is a classic theme in world literature, art and film. She is usually a young, nubile woman placed in a dire predicament by a villain or a monster and who requires a hero to dash to her rescue.
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Hero (Greek ἥρως), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demi-god, the offspring of a mortal and a deity.
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Frank Rudolph Paul (April 18 1884 - June 29 1963) was an illustrator of US pulp magazines in the science fiction field. He was born in Vienna, Austria and died in Teaneck, New Jersey.

A discovery of Hugo Gernsback (himself an immigrant from Luxembourg), Frank R.
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Virgil Finlay (July 23 1914–January 18 1971) was a pulp fantasy, science fiction and horror illustrator. While he worked in a range of media, from gouache to oils, Finlay specialized in, and became famous for, beautifully detailed pen-and-ink drawings accomplished with
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Edd Cartier (born 1914) is an American pulp magazine illustrator. After studying at Pratt Institute in the 1930s he worked for Street and Smith, publishers of the Shadow, to which he contributed many interior illustrations, and the John W. Campbell, Jr.
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Margaret Brundage, born Margaret Hedda Johnson (December 9, 1900 - April 9, 1976) was an American illustrator and painter who is remembered chiefly for having illustrated the pulp magazine Weird Tales.
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Norman Blaine Saunders (January 1 1907– March 7 1989) was a prolific commercial artist who produced paintings for pulp magazines, paperbacks, men's magazines, comic books, and trading cards. On occasion, he signed his work with his middle name, Blaine.
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Hatching (hachure in French) and cross-hatching are artistic techniques used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing (or painting or scribing) closely spaced parallel lines.
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Pointillism is a style of painting in which small distinct points of primary colors create the impression of a wide selection of secondary and intermediate colors. The technique relies on the perceptive ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to mix the color spots into a fuller
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Frank Andrew Munsey (21 August 1854 – 22 December 1925) was an American newspaper and magazine publisher and author. He was born in Mercer, Maine but spent most of his life in New York City. The city of Munsey Park is named for him.
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Argosy was an American pulp magazine, published by Frank Munsey. It is generally considered to be the first American pulp magazine.

The magazine began as a general information periodical entitled The Golden Argosy, targeted at the "boys adventure" market.
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Street & Smith or Street & Smith Publications, Inc. was a New York City publisher specializing in inexpensive paperbacks and magazines referred to as pulp fiction and dime novels. They also published comic books.
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