Say the words pulp fiction to anyone post-1994 and they’re likely to think of the Tarantino movie, whose use of the name has effectively given it an entirely different standing in modern culture. But long before that iconic film, pulp fiction was a thriving business in the publishing industry, as escapist fiction in books and magazines that readers regularly tuned in to to tune out of everyday life. It was responsible for laying the groundwork for many of the stories explored on this website, so it’s worth knowing about!
This fiction was published in the early 20th century, printed on cheap paper (literally coming from a wooden pulp) with a throwaway concept. Its rapid demands for writing encouraged hard and fast creative talent, which had a heavy influence on the emergence of new writers in the middle of the 20th century. In particular, science fiction genres, crime genres, adventures and romances had strong roots in pulp fiction.
Because pulp fiction was produced at such a fast rate, at low budgets, it gave the writers a lot of practice with little thinking. There was no time to quibble over the details, no real room for perfecting stories as ‘literature’. These books and magazines were produced quickly, dominating news-stands in America from the 1920s up to the 1940s. The books were instantly recognisable thanks to the lavish artwork of their covers, often with classic handsome adventurer and busty damsel motifs. These images permeated popular culture for decades to come, influencing the styles of coming crime fiction, ongoing sci-fi magazines and movie posters (grindhouse cinema was one such offshoot, and other theme Tarantino borrowed).
Pulp fiction stories usually followed certain formulas, with a selection of typical characters and scenarios: a dashing hero and beautiful lead lady, stuck in exotic peril with vicious villains and bountiful treasures. Lester Dent’s master formula, coming from a hugely prolific writer, demonstrates much of the attitude towards creating these quick turnaround books. Such cliché approaches were both necessary and expected: the writers weren’t paid much, and hardly had time to come up with anything more original.
The low pay of the writers, and the low quality of the paper, made pulp fiction a huge hit with the public, who at this time were becoming increasingly literate and were yet to catch on to the wonders of TV and radio for entertainment. All this changed through the 1930s, as the Great Depression and the sudden impacts of World War 2 caused prices to rise, and the escapism of pulp fiction didn’t seem so fun in light of the real world horrors of the day. More expensive stories hitting the shelves meant more money for the writers, though, and more time to produce better tales – so those who had furiously churned out writing without much thought for so many years were given a chance to turn that craft to something more special.
The readers of pulp fiction had been exposed to so many tales, by then, that when the pulp era subsided in the 1940s the new writers were bristling with ideas and talent. In science fiction, this became what is known as the Golden Era, as the genre spread and many classics were produced. Pulp fiction was to thank for the mastering of the craft of such increasingly popular authors as HP Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury (with at least two books in the lists here). The classics that rolled out of the Golden Era, like I Am Legend, were children of the pulp era, which had made science fiction books popular as a cheap form of entertainment. In crime fiction, some of the all time all-time great authors emerged as the result of pulp fiction, such as Raymond Chandler – whose books are now studied as literary classics, but were conceived as pulp entertainment.
Today, pulp fiction in books and magazine is a long gone relic of the past -if anything, the amount produced in the print media is declining. But with the rise of the internet there’s more enough fiction ticking the same boxes still out there. Self-publishing has become so easy that an avid reader will never be wanting for something new and exciting to read, and the $1 eBook signals the same attitudes set down back in the 1920s. Quick writing, huge selections and massive opportunities for writers to develop. It is a model I’m embracing for a short of series of energetic and adventurous homage novels entitled Apocalypse Pulp. Watch this space!