Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Primer on Pulp

In a two-part series over at IO9.com, Jess Nevins (author of Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana) delves into the history of pulp digests in general and pulp SF in particular. Excerpts:
Most people have not read many stories from the actual pulps, and most people have only a vague idea of what the pulps actually were. The following is intended as a brief primer on the pulps and a guide to what they are and what they aren't.

During the pulp era (roughly 1900 to 1950) fiction magazines were either printed cheaply on wood pulp paper or more expensively on higher quality paper often chemically coated to create a glossy sheen. Those magazines published on better quality paper became known as the "slicks" while those published on the cheaper wood pulp paper became known as the "pulps." ...

The divide between the slicks and the pulps was more substantial than just size and paper quality. Slicks usually had a considerable amount of advertising and colored art, while the pulps had less advertising, for cheaper products, and only black and white art. More importantly, the slicks cost more and aspired to a better quality of prose and a generally higher level of professionalism, while the pulps were cheap and aspired only to entertain.

A common misperception is that there was a genre of "pulp fiction." There wasn't. The pulps were the medium, not the genre. As a term of aesthetic and literary judgment "pulp" applies not to a genre, but to the approach of the pulp writers and magazines: an emphasis on adventure; the privileging of plot over characterization; the use of dialogue and narration as means for delivering information rather than displaying authorial style; the regular use and exploitation of the exotic, whether racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or geographic; simple emotions strongly expressed; and good always triumphing over evil.
Read the first and second parts in their entirety. Perusing Nevins' primer, I couldn't help but notice the differences between the short fiction of that age and of ours. The pulp spirit, it seems, has largely disappeared from the genre landscape. Today's flagship publications are far more literary in tone, employing experimental styles, turning tropes on their heads, and preferring a gray ambiguity to stark black-and-white morality. (Of course, there are exceptions. Consider, for example, the wonderfully unpretentious audio magazine The Drabblecast.) In some ways, I find such changes worthy of celebration; crude craft in the genre world has vexed me for ages. Yet I often find such stylistically excellent pieces devoid of the one thing I long for in fiction -- delight.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
x-ray delta one)

12 comments:

Taryn Tyler said...

So pulps would be something like a "blood and thunder" from a later age?

Todd Mason said...

Not always. There were always, as Jess doesn't quite note, some pulps which strove for literacy, even if they didn't do so at the expense of excitement (and too often you just needed to fill pages on budget). DIME WESTERN, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, WEIRD TALES, BLACK MASK, ADVENTURE, and BLUE BOOK aren't remembered fondly because they just poured crap, or even just evanescent fun, over their readers...meanwhile, the slicks had their own limitations and taboos and rites, as Kurt Vonnegut and others have been careful to note. And distinguished from the slicks (which meant the likes of the SATURDAY EVENING POST and COLLIER'S and the pre-Helen Gurley Brown COSMOPOLITAN) were such magazines as THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY and HARPER'S, which were then as now seen (justly or not) as a bit more intellectualized.

Jess said...

In my defense, Todd, my remit was talk to specifically and only about the science fiction pulps. I would have sung loudly the praises of the better pulps, especially ADVENTURE, but I was limited to the sf pulps, most of which were crap.

Loren Eaton said...

Taryn,

Alas, I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with "blood and thunder," and Google isn't helping me out. (I'm guessing you aren't referring to the women's roller derby magazine.)

Loren Eaton said...

Todd,

I think Jess is far more equipped to respond than I am!

Loren Eaton said...

Jess,

Thanks for stopping by!

Todd Mason said...

Well, as with all things, there was definitely a tendency toward mediocre and worse work in most of the magazines a lot of the time...but even the sf magazines that didn't try too hard slipped up and published some good material (Ray Palmer's AMAZING published decent Rog Phillips, Robert Bloch, and Don Wilcox stories, for example, and WONDER STORIES managed to give us Stanley Weinbaum, though I wouldn't envy anyone, including you I suspect and Mike Ashley, who have read through whole volumes of the 1930s issues for most of that experience). I'd suggest the most dire sf magazines were often the bottom of the market 1950s digests, not just the John Spencer/Badger magazines from the UK, but also VORTEX and the worst issues of OTHER WORLDS, (hello again, Ray Palmer) before it became a no-bones-about-it flying-saucer magazine, or SUPER-SCIENCE FICTION or Paul Fairman's AMAZING. But T. O'Conor Sloane's AMAZING (and the 1960s-70s all-reprint issues of SF CLASSICS and such put together by Sol Cohen of fiction from Sloane's issues) might prove me wrong. Or the earliest issues of PLANET STORIES...the later ones, with Leigh Brackett and Poul Anderson and Ray Bradbury, certainly read pretty well.

Though those later PLANETs also had Stanley Mullen botches in them, even as Campbell's ASTOUNDING could feature similar tripe by L. Ron Hubbard.

Todd Mason said...

"Blood and thunder" means pretty mindless, or at least not terribly reflective, action.

Todd Mason said...

Ha! And I was thinking of David Wright O'Brien, one of the promising sf writers killed in WW2, when I mentioned Don Wilcox, who did have some fun with his and Dave Vern/David V. Reed's bubblegum "Whispering Gorilla" stories in the Palmer days (I was croggled to discover early on that "Reed," the BATMAN/DETECTIVE COMICS scenarist of the 1970s issues of my childhood, had once been a moderately big deal in at least the Ziff-Davis and Palmer sf magazines.)

Loren Eaton said...

Todd,

Ah, that's a help with the colloquialism. Thanks!

Todd Mason said...

"Thud and blunder" is the jokey corollary.

Loren Eaton said...

Oh, that is pure gold, sir. I love it.