Requiem for pulp fiction.

Literature that thrills.
May 23 2006 7:47 PM

Requiem for Pulp Fiction

The bygone days of seedy literature.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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On this spot where Hollywood would one day grow, two vaqueros were crushing a priest to death with his own wine press.
—J.J. des Ormeaux, in Dime Western

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With that sentence, better than any in The Da Vinci Code, Slatekicks off "Pulp Fiction" week. We come to celebrate pulp—its flinty sentences, its dour ironies ("his own wine press"), and its refusal to be encumbered by niceties like nuanced characterization, plausibility, and good taste. Real pulp fiction, of course, is as dead as that wine-splattered priest. The lurid magazines printed on cheap paper that flourished in the last century—titles like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Detective—had all but died out by the 1960s. Consider this special issue our obituary for pulp—the literature, as pulp writer John D. MacDonald once called it, for men who carry their lunches in pails.

The first important pulp magazine is thought to be Frank Munsey'sArgosy, formerly a children's periodical, which switched to an all-fiction adult format in1896. America's Gilded Age was a propitious moment for the birth of the genre. Literacy was increasing tenfold in America, and a previously unread generation needed primary material to cut its teeth on. In pulps like Argosy, they found unadorned prose and stories that were relentless in their forward motion.("The story is more important than the paper it's printed on," Munsey once declared.) Argosy's early offeringsincluded Horatio Alger stories, seafaring tales, and hunting stories from Africa—all of which seemed to find their culmination in Edgar Rice Burroughs, a Munsey favorite, who published "Tarzan of the Apes" in 1912. In later years, specialized pulps would sprout to cover all the sweaty genres: the Western, science fiction, sports, detective stories, erotica, and faux-suave exploits (e.g., "The Octopus of Hong Kong") that could charitably be described as "men's adventure."

Because of its twin obsessions with violence and sex (never have cowboys, detectives, and spacemen been more amorous), pulp writing acquired a rather sordid reputation. "Heathens, hacks, defilers of everything that was holy," says Ed Gorman, a suspense novelistand co-editor of the anthology Pulp Masters (2001). The pulps were attacked from the pulpit and the stump as an opiate of the dull masses—the same way that television, which siphoned off much of pulp's energy in the 1950s, would be attacked decades later. And even in their heyday, the pulps were strictly the minor leagues of genre fiction. The goal for every hack was to graduate to the "slicks"—glossy magazines like Collier's, Liberty, and The Saturday Evening Post, which paid something approaching a living wage. (Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, a hard-boiled hustler in the pulps, became a mensch when he appeared in the Post.)

For such a low art form, pulp had its share of brushes with real literature. Black Mask, the influential detective pulp, was started in 1920by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as a commercial venture to prop up their literary magazine, Smart Set. (After eight issues, they sold Black Mask at a 2,500 percent profit; noir was the dot-com of its day.) In later years, Black Mask would alternate dreary reworkings of the gumshoe story with work by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; similarly, sci-fi pulps like Amazing Stories published junk alongside Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury.

About the only demand pulp placed on its writers was to keep the reader's attention. Thus the pulp magazines' catchy titles ("Brother, Can You Spare a Grave?"), and their penchant for the killer first sentence. "Against the green plush of the jewel case lay the neatly severed finger of a woman," begins an August 1933 story in Dime Detective—a story, it should be said, that gets much less interesting from there. The authors who slaved away for the magazines worked murderous hours for meager wages: Unless you were a "name" writer, you could often expect no more than a penny a word.

Because of the speed at which the stories were written, much of what appeared in the pulps was laughably bad. ("What came about after that is a secret of the jungle … ") Also, frequently racist, homophobic, misogynous, and worthy of nearly every other epithet. But a tiny percentage of the pulp stories were astonishing. From the fingers of those who later became genre masters—Ray Bradbury, say, who cut his teeth in Weird Tales—you find writing that feels utterly spontaneous, that grips you with the urgency that is the true claim of pulp over literary fiction. The reward of writing at a breakneck pace is that a few routine paragraphs can be followed by a few breathtaking ones. It was as if the Muse, strung out from pulling an all-nighter for Dime Detective, was taking frequent breaks for gin and cigarettes.

So, what happened to the pulps? In the 1920s and '30s, radio colonized pulp's serial adventures. (For a time, The Shadow, a serial thriller, flourished both on radio and in the pulps.) As material for children's entertainment proliferated, comic books peeled off a generation of young readers. Then came television, which reworked the detective story, science fiction, and the Western for its own uses. But pulp's final deathblow was likely the paperback novel. In 1950, Fawcett Publications began offering pulp authors $2,500 per book plus royalties for its line of Gold Medal paperbacks—a fortune when many were still toiling away for a penny a word.

Moreover, there was the shift in the national mood in the 1950s, and pulp's tales of heroic spacemen and chest-thumping heroes no long seemed like such fun. "World War II changed everything," says Ed Gorman. "You could afford to be naive up till then." Soldiers coming back from the front found pulp newly cartoonish. The authors who returned from the war, in turn, became more inquisitive in their writing or, failing that, transferred their energies to novels and movies and television. Today, the word "pulp" is tossed around to describe a swath of commercial fiction, from Dan Brown to George Pelecanos;here at Slate,we've chosen to employ it once again, if only to remind us of the lurid magazines the movement sprang from. On this spot where American pop culture would one day grow, the pulps flourished.

Thanks to Ron Goulart's An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine for the opening quote.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.