The great age of “Pulp” fiction was roughly between 1900-1950. These were the years when many writers could make a comfortable living writing stories for these inexpensive magazines and novels. It is hard to imagine today a time when people read so much for pleasure that there was a huge market to feed that urge, but when you consider that television did not exists, most of Hollywood was controlled by a few moguls who tended to produce the same sort of film year after year, and radio was, well radio, then the existence of a large novel and magazine market for a general reading public is not hard to understand.
What is most interesting about these books and magazines is that they were geared toward a male audience. Think about that. Many, if not most men don’t read today, with sports, television, video games and other visually oriented media and entertainment now appealing to the male mind more so than the verbal. Of course the verbal might be more naturally a feminine inclination, the visual a male, but that does not change the historical fact that there was a time when verbal literacy was highly important among men. Now, it often seems like a thing of the past, at times even derided in certain circles. It does not change the fact that verbal dexterity and power is just as important today as it was in the past. It is hard to succeed in life if you can’t communicate well.
But back to the pulps. They were often racy, mixing sex and danger, action and adventure and violence. They covered different genres such as: detective, hard boiled crime, science fiction, fantasy, horror, war and westerns. Many great writers contributed to them, or got their start writing for them, such as Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, and many others. And I absolutely love the covers! They were a work of art and were designed especially for masculine tastes: the colors are often oranges, blacks, or reds. In fact, early on publishers realized these colors would attract men, especially when you consider that these magazine were being sold on crowded magazines racks, competing against each other as well as other magazines. Those same color schemes are still true today and are still used to attract potential male buyers of whatever product may be being sold. The covers often contained scantily clad women, often in some sort of dangerous situation, often both erotic and violent. In certain ways these magazine and novels were the precursors to modern porn and erotica. In fact, you can see how the genre became more conservative from the thirties to the fifties, with fewer scantily clad women and violent images as concerns over the moral quality of the publications increased.
I discovered the existence of this lost literary world a few years ago. It saddens me that such a market no longer exists today. It is simply not there, the magazines are not longer sold, the beautiful art work of their covers no longer produced. It seems as lost a cultural item as something out of ancient Rome; yet it is. There are few online attempts to revive the genre; but as far as I am concerned nothing online can replace the tactile sensuality of a printed book or magazine. One publishing business was created to produce some hard boiled crime fiction novels with the same tastes and old cover art work, but they are few and far between and I doubt they sell well. Recent attempts to revive the genre have usually failed. Again, the market is simply not there.
But most of all, what was so glorious about these magazines is that they were a testament to a lost world of male literacy and interest in literature. In their day they were often considered trash and unworthy by the more high brow elements of society; today many men would have a hard time even reading them due to lack of literacy. I guess it just amazes me that such a reading public once existed, and now no longer seems to. Perhaps I am wrong and overblowing this, but I consider that a serious decline in civilization.
There is much more that can be written on this, so an occasional pulp fiction cover will become a regular post on this blog. The artwork is simply too good to resist. As I said, it has a connection to erotica, so it is something interesting for me to blog about here. And there are so many nice covers out there I cannot possibly run out of material. Again, I was in a used bookstore not long ago, and the owner was telling me how a previous owner of the store had a mass collection of pulp fiction stored at his house. He had bought most of it not to read, but simply for the cover art work. I can totally understand that.
It morphed into comic books actually to some degree, also there are things that are similar today. If you ever seen or read the Fables series or Jack of Fables, 100 Bullets comes somewhat close it had a good story line.
Quiet a few others they are a mix between comic and semi-erotic novel, granted the amount of text is far less than what is in these pieces probably.
Racer X said:
You are right that a lot of these did morph into comic books. Those would be the modern equivalent, especially the “graphic novel” genre. Still, there is something quite different about a comic book and novel or short story, especially if it is written by a great writer. Good prose style is not something a comic book can achieve.
I’ve been lamenting the loss of this literary form, as well. It’s funny that you posted Doc Savage… while I don’t have the time to hunt down original copies (or the place to put them), with a little digging, I’ve found electronic versions, and have been working my way through them on my iPad.
I think one of the reasons that literacy is failing among boys these days is that their is nothing marketed towards them like this anymore. I’ve also been going back and reading H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, and more.
I have no children, but do fully intend to start slipping some of this stuff (as well as the original Hardy Boys series) to my nephew when he’s old enough.
Ray Sawhill said:
Nice posting. Pulp fiction really was a wonderful thing. Check out a posting I did a while back about the great pulp publisher Gold Medal Books.
Key cultural history, as far as I’m concerned. Especially for guys.
Book publishing — in fact the whole world of books — has become incredibly pussified in recent decades. It must be hard for young guys to imagine, but not so awfully long ago writing and publishing books was often a cool, fun, and manly thing to do.
Racer X said:
Yeah, those are great authors too. Edgar Rice Burroughs is a recent favorite of mine. You are right that nothing is marketed towards boys anymore the way it was in the past. The publishing market is geared towards its biggest consumer: silly teenage girls.
Thanks for link! You are right, things have become pussified in publishing in recent decades. Again, as Kev. pointed out, the world of publishing is hardly geared toward male tastes. Yes, writing once was considered a cool thing. I think however the readership among novels these days is almost 80% female, so the industry is naturally going to cater to their tastes. The end result is less literary appreciation among men. I suppose novels were always a more female thing than male, but I doubt it was ever as low as it is today. The rise of video games, televised sports, and other electronic entertainment makes the recovery of male literary tastes a hard to imagine thing.
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nobody writes Pulp anymore
ERB books are great, but they ALL have the same plot.
I think Robert E Howard exemplies all that is great about pulp fiction. Especially the Solomon Kane and Steve Costigan stories.
Racer X said:
You are right about ERB books being great but all having the same plot. Even the language is the same. I don’t know how many times I read descriptions of some hero wandering in a long lost labyrinth beneath some city, with “baleful eyes” secretly peering at him out of some dark corner.
Still, I love his works! Tarzan was a great creation.
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Good post, Racer X! I think about this often, the decline in popular writing aimed at men, as I love old pulps and paperbacks and men’s magazines.
I suppose tv and video games have taken the place of pulp; tv delivers the narratives much more quickly (without the “burdensome” hours required for reading), and video games enable the gamer to be the protagonist of the drama he plays in the game. I do think the lineage from pulp to video games is distinct. There was even a game recently called L.A. Noir which caught my attention although I don’t play video games–it almost made me wish I did play, although the pleasures of reading a vintage noir paperback far outweigh the notion of playing a noir game–for me at least, being a guy in his fifties.
I’ve never gotten into ERB, but did read a good bit of Howard, and I found his evocations of barbarian worlds to be far more interesting than any movie ever made from them. A few well-chosen words can be more effective than two hours of overblown special effects.
You have an interesting blog!
Racer X said:
Thanks for the comment again. I think you are definitely right when you say that tv and video games are a natural progression from the pulp novel. I have often wondered this myself. I wonder what it will do to reading. Why should someone want to read a novel when they can play the same thing in a virtual game. For people like us, reading is still more pleasurable, but for the average audience of males who once read pulp fiction but no longer do, or who have been brought up on video games now, this will probably already diminish more an already diminished reading public.
“A few well-chosen words can be more effective than two hours of overblown special effects.”
I agree completely.
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