by Paul Bishop
I WAS ASKED the other day to explain what makes pulp storytelling different from other types of fiction. My kneejerk reaction was to claim, it’s hard to define, but I know it when I read it – which does little to answer the question. I’ve since thought a lot about what constitutes the pulp style of storytelling, which engenders both excoriating scorn from critics and fanatical devotion from acolytes.
By now, most readers know the term pulp was coined in reference to the thousands of inexpensive fiction magazines whose heyday spanned the 1920s through the 1950s. Printed on cheap wood pulp paper, the pulps were typically 7 inches by 10 inches in size, 128 pages long, and sported eye grabbing, luridly colored covers, and ragged, untrimmed edges. Today, the original pulps are more often collected for their gaudy covers than for the fluctuating quality of the words in between.
At the height of their popularity there were hundreds of pulp magazine titles gracing the newsstands each week. The demand for stories was as voracious as the pay per word was cheap. To make a living, a writer selling stories to the pulps had to be a word machine, churning out prose for a quarter to a half cent per word. The result of this constant demand was a straightforward, often formulatic, style of writing designed to entertain a vast audience of everyday, hardworking, folks looking for vicarious thrills and chills to escape the humdrum of their daily lives.
The pulps were also a refiner’s fire for many writers who are household names today – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Louis L’Amour, John D. MacDonald, and others. To these men belonged the battered typewriters and hard drinking tropes, which themselves have become a cliché within the public conscious.
There were also giants of the pulp writing field whose names are not as familiar, but whose characters have gone on to become iconic examples of pop culture – Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow, Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, to name just a few, all started in the pulps. We all know their famous creations, but most would look blank if asked who the creators were.
The downside of the insatiable demand for stories to fill the pages of pulp magazines was it also guaranteed much of what was published was slapdash gruel of little to no lasting impact. It is this explosion of dross that gives pulp dismissing critics a place to hang their clichéd hats. However, the beating heart of the true pulps – the best of the stories and characters born within their pages – has shined for almost a century of popular culture.
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