What I Mean By “Pulp”

I proudly profess myself to be a pulp-style writer. This may confuse people, because there’s a tendency in modern literary circles to refer to “pulp” stories as if they are the same as the media they were originally printed on: cheap, disposable, and not intended to withstand the test of time. It’s considered sub-standard writing. Obviously, that’s not what I mean when I say “pulp.” I suspect a lot of people using it in the derogatory sense have rarely if ever actually read pulp-era stories.

So let’s talk about the pulp era. From the late 1800s through about the 1950s, with the rise in literacy rates and nothing quite resembling the modern publishing system (and before television really took hold), we experienced a proliferation in periodicals publishing stories for entertainment. Many of the magazines were more traditional, catering to a more mainstream audience (middle-class men, housewives, etc.) and came on higher-quality paper. These were sometimes called the “slicks” or “glossies.”

Then you had the magazines focusing on stories for more niche audiences. Because of the more limited, focused markets, they were produced more cheaply than the slicks. The paper came from a cheaper wood pulp process, and the pages were often were not trimmed to perfectly identical size. They tended to pay less for stories than the “slicks,” but they also accepted stories with more niche appeal. Today, we would call these stories “genre fiction” (and yes, some people say that with a derogatory tone, but I don’t hang with those folks). Some magazines were of more general action/adventure appeal and would print stories across a lot of what we now would think of as genres / sub0-genres. Other magazines devoted to stories of horror or the macabre, several devoted to different styles of science fiction, detective stories, romance, aviation, railroads, sports stories, westerns, you name it. Many came and went with as few as a single issue.

A lot of classic genre fiction and (now) well-respected authors got their start in the pulps, often for as long as the pulps remained a viable source of income.

Acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury praised Leigh Brackett, the “Queen of Space Opera,” for teaching him “pure story writing… how to pare my stories down, and how to plot.” In addition to writing tons of pulp science fiction, she went on to write several novels, write and co-write screenplays for movies like Rio Bravo, the Big Sleep, and won a (posthumous) Hugo for a little movie you may have heard of called “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Because the pulps were inexpensive (by design), I suppose there’s a natural assumption that the contents of the pulps were of low worth. Personally, I don’t know if the crap-to-gem ratio was that much higher in the pulps than in the slicks, or than in the modern mainstream publishers with layers of editorial control. What I do know is that the successful pulp writers were prolific and able to generate stories that pleased their editors and audience with stories heavy on plot, rich with vision and spectacle, and often full of bizarre but entertaining characters. That’s not to say they were pointless entertainment, but the editors rarely let the deeper themes or commentary overshadow the entertainment factor.

For me, I can expound on what I think about true “pulp” and the “pulp style” for hours (and I have!). For me, it comes down to that “pure storytelling” that Bradbury praised Brackett for teaching him, tight but lurid prose, passionate and compelling characters, at least moderately larger-than-life spectacle, and a generally optimistic worldview (even if the settings themselves may be dystopian hellscapes). And most importantly, pulp stories are about fun and entertainment.

That’s what pulp means to me, whether I’m reading something originally printed in a pulp magazine in the 1940s, or something written by modern writers who invoke that style. I want to be transported and taken on a wild ride full of action, twists, romance, and adventure. That, to me, is pulp.

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