The Pop Culture Archivist at Tumblr talks about the history of pulp fiction, and why it’s important.
“Pulp” is a kind of storytelling that originated in ”cheap all-fiction American magazines from the 1900s to the 1950s,” they say.
The pulp magazine began in 1896, when Frank Munsey’s Argosy magazine, in order to cut costs, dropped the non-fiction articles and photographs and switched from glossy paper to the much less expensive wood pulp paper, hence the name. The pulp magazines would mainly take off as a distinct market and format in 1904, when Street & Smith learned that Popular Magazine, despite being marketed towards boys, was being consumed by men of all ages, so they increased page count and started putting popular authors on the issues.
It was specifically the 1905 reprint of H.Rider Haggard’s Ayesha that not only put Street & Smith on the map as rivals to Argosy, but also inspired other companies to start publishing in the pulp format. Pulps encompassed literally everything that the authors felt like publishing. Westerns, romance, horror, sci-fi, railroad stories, war stories, war aviation stories. Zeppelins had a short-lived subgenre. Celebrities got their own magazines, it was really any genre or format they could pull off, anything they could get away with.
Pulps became most well-known for“‘hero pulps’, characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage that are viewed as a formative influence on comic book superheroes.”
The pulp magazines in America lasted until the 1950s, when cumulative factors such as paper shortages, diminishing audience returns and the closing of its biggest publishers led to it dying off, although in the decades since there have always been publishers calling their magazines “pulp.” That’s the American pulp history.
In America, before the pulps, you had dime novels. And the phenomenon was worldwide: England had penny dreadfuls and story papers. France and Russia in the 19th Century had coulporters, chapbooks, and feuilletons. Pulps or something like them also thrived in Japan, China, Brazil, Italy, India, Persia, Ethiopia, Canada, Australia, and more.
Look anywhere in the world and you’ll find examples of “pulp” happening again and again, under different circumstances and time periods.
And most of it was transitory. 38% of American pulps no longer exist. 14% survive in fewer than five copies. They’re not in many libraries or publicly accessible collections, and many are tied up in copyright complications.
Gone, dead, wasted, destroyed. They can’t be found in barbershops or warehouse or bookstores, not even in antique stores. Hundreds, thousands of characters, stories and creators, gone.
But they keep coming back.
Pulp is the dark matter of fiction, the uncatalogued depths of the ocean, the darkest recesses of space. It’s the box of your grandfather’s belongings, the treasure you find in an attic, a body part sticking out from an old playground. It’s the things that don’t work, don’t succeed, the things that don’t fit, that are out of place. That shouldn’t live and succeed, and did so anyway.
Arguably all of today’s American popular movies, TV, and fiction came from the pulp tradition: Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, stories about doctors, lawyers, police, and detectives. Military and spy adventures. Techno-thrillers.
This year, Apple TV will debut a big-budget prestige TV show based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy — stories first published in the pulp science fiction magazine “Astounding Stories” 1942-50.
I was discussing pulp fiction with a a colleague the other day. I was a science fiction fan as a boy, and I still am as a man. Science fiction is rooted in the pulp tradition. And pulps were always something that had to compel readers’ attention. Nobody was ever reading pulp to advance their career, or win prestige or status in other people’s eyes. Indeed, pulp always carried a stigma — so much of it was bad, with lurid covers, that an adult caught reading it risked being seen as having something wrong with them.
So the writers and editors of pulps could never count on readers’ attention, the creators always had to grab it. And I’ve tried to carry that thinking with me in my own career.