Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Pulps: Just a Training Ground for Authors?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 2, 2017

When I first started browsing the science fiction section in bookstores as a kid, they weren’t all that huge. Fantasy and science fiction were mixed together. This was smack-dab in the era of the original Star Wars trilogy… probably around the time The Empire Strikes Back came out. The school bookshelves were far more limited. The public library… well, it was good to know a librarian who was into SF & F.

By the time I went to college, everything had changed. Fantasy had its own section in many bookstores (which might be somewhat arbitrary and stupid in many cases, but oh well), and there were tons of new and classic novels to choose from. Maybe too many… I rarely knew where to start!

I guess if I was really smart, I could have probably drawn a trend line and figured out what the science fiction & fantasy novel market was like before I was born. Instead, it’s easy to assume that it was ever thus as it is now, and that I just happened to visit bookstores with really tiny SF&F sections as a kid. But the truth is… well, complicated.

As I first started digging into the history of the pulps, the story I heard was that these were a training ground for genre fiction writers. They got their start in the pulps, and then as they got better, they “leveled up” into bigger and better markets. Which sounded cool, until I realized that a lot of my favorite older stories were originally from the pulps. By implication, this suggests that the pulps were the place for the lesser quality fiction, and that I am a reader of highly questionable taste.

The latter part may very well be true, but the first isn’t. At least, not exactly. Again, it’s complicated. But saying that the pulps were the lesser-quality fiction was relegated, and that the best authors evolved out of them is frankly a myth that ought to be put to rest. Really, it’s the other way around… the market evolved. While certain stories with wider potential could find their way into the higher-paying slicks or other markets, for the most part genre-fiction (science fiction, fantasy, gritty detective, westerns, horror, etc.) was a niche market served almost exclusively by the pulps. There was no other place to go. According to sf-encyclopedia.com, “Many pulp writers sold to [certain] slicks, but few sold them science fiction. The science fiction that they did run tended to be by mainstream writers or those with a literary reputation.”

I’ll quote award-winning author Robert Silverberg here:

“Until the decade of the Fifties, there was essentially no market for science fiction books at all. The paperback revolution had not yet happened; the big hardcover houses seemed not to know that science fiction existed; and, though some of the great magazine serials of the earlier Campbell era, novels by Heinlein and Asimov and Leiber and De Camp, were finding their way occasionally into book form, the publishers were amateurs, lovers of science fiction who issued their books in editions of a few thousand copies and distributed them mainly by mail.”

The fifties created a great boom of additional, higher-paying opportunities for speculative fiction authors… not only in print, but in screenplays for Hollywood. These higher-paying markets may have contributed to the decline of the pulps. The boom was followed by a bust, as things often go, but still… the industry irreversibly changed. And kept changing.

So it wasn’t that individual authors graduated individually from the pulps into better markets. The industry and the audience outgrew the pulp format as the genres gained popularity and other entertainment options gained widespread use. Audiences and publishers needed better solutions.

So when people use the word “pulp” as a derogatory term, I take exception to it. It’s like judging an actor’s ability based purely on whether or not they are currently starring in big-budget blockbuster movies (which, interestingly enough, probably have more in common with pulp stories than literary ones). Or a literary critic turning their nose up at genre fiction. Now, what constitutes a “pulp-style” story in the modern era is subject to (a great deal of) debate, but if I use “pulp” to describe a story, I’m using it to describe style and flavor, not quality.

Filed Under: Books, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • Corwin said,

    And the good news is that much of that old pulp SF is available for next to nothing for your Kindle from Amazon. I’ve stocked up!! 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Because you are AWESOME and have good taste. 🙂 That, or just weird, like me.

    The nice thing about the reprinted collections is that they are generally the better stuff. The *best* stuff (or stuff by the most famous authors) sells for a bit more. Some of the stories I’ve read from scanned copies of the pulps… well, let’s just say I don’t expect to see them reprinted in the future.

    I’m extremely pleased with getting a couple of Planet Stories originals from EBay. They may never leave their protective covers again, but it’s awesome. 🙂

    In fact, there’s an article I stumbled into recently about that. Note the recommendation for Project Gutenberg Australia. 🙂

    What’s the easiest way to get into vintage pulp stories?

  • JonM said,

    Great post. My sole objection is the characterization of the early pulps as ‘niche’. At the time of Edgare Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard , tlhey were wildly popular magazines that had as large a market share as People and Time Magazine do today. It wasn’t u til the genre fiction editors started looking for academic approval in tje late 40s and onward that SF/F earned it’s reputation as a kid-brother sort of genre.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @JonM – it’s not so much that the pulps were niche, but that the genres were niche. The slicks of the era had much wider circulation and brought in a LOT more advertising revenue, so they could afford to pay higher rates… but the fiction that they published was more “mainstream.” Attempts by SF pulps to “go slick” failed because they just couldn’t get the traction in that era to make it pay. So we can argue whether a popular audience subset can be called “niche” or not… I’m okay with that. 🙂

    Here’s a chicken-or-egg question I don’t feel qualified to answer: Was the Campbellian era of SF (popularly called the golden age, but that’s another matter of debate) a response to growing critical approval of Science Fiction, or was it an attempt to manufacture said approval?

  • JonM said,

    I don’t accept the received wisdom that the fantasy and sci-fi genres were niche any more than I accept the received wisdom that the writing in the pulps was substandard. The low-cost pulps might not have had the circulation of the slicks, but be careful that you don’t apply a 1950’s understanding to the entire fifty year history of the pulps. In the earliest days, one of the largest fiction magazines, Argosy, included fantasy and sci-fi cheek to jowl with more grounded adventure fiction. I have yet to see a contemporary (read: 1920’s or 1930’s) account describing SF/F’s position as low-rent or kids-stuff.

    It’s only when you get to the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that you start to see the idea of SF/F as a ghetto…and I’ve only ever seen that idea was promulgated by the people who claimed to own the map to the literary promised land! Which brings us to your latter question. The Campbellian plan led to disastrous results. Instead of looking wise, mature, and dignified, they looked desperately insecure and were judged accordingly. The literary critics responded to the SF/F leadership’s Stuart Smalley-esque “I’m smart enough, I’m good enough and gosh darn it, people like me,” mantra the same way we react to Stuart Smalley – by thinking, “Only somebody with serious issues needs that kind of affirmation. There must be something seriously broken inside SF/F.”

    One little wrinkle – that’s a gross oversimplification. I think Campbell just wanted to sell magazines, and saw what we now call “Hard SF” as a method of branding his title. Unfortunately, he opened a Pandora’s Box that was used as a bludgeon by men operating in bad faith over the next three or four decades, men who wrote our current understanding of the pulps to paper over their own failures.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You bring up an interesting point… Taking Argosy as a starting point, it was just ‘stories.’ No genre definitions. I don’t know if there really were any at that point. It seems like genre definitions came with the proliferation of competing pulps, as they tried to specialize and carve out their own… oh, darn it, using the word again… niche in the fiction market. Some stuck, some consolidated, some largely disappeared (The aviation adventure stories… /sigh…). But what did “Weird Tales” publish? In the 1920s, I think we’d just call it “Speculative Fiction” today: Fantasy, horror, science fiction, whatever.

    I imagine the writers either reinforced or contradicted these specializations by trying to hit the common denominators. You want to make sure you have a chance across multiple markets. The exception would be if you were friends with an editor who called you and said they needed you to write a 10,000 word story about Martians by Monday. (Oooh, now there’s a title for a story, “Martians by Monday.”) But if you wanted to make sure you didn’t waste your time submitting to Astounding and similar “hard SF” magazines, you had to write the kind of story Campbell might accept. Because Planet Stories might accept it even if Astounding gives it a pass.

    But chances were that if it was something Astounding *might* accept, it would be something the Saturday Evening Post would never accept.

    Anyway – point being (do I have one???), I think it’s hard to really pin numbers on genre fiction, because genre boundaries in the earlier years were really loose to nonexistent. Campbell and those he influenced put up the dividing wall between science fiction and fantasy and said, “Never the twain shall meet!” (except when they did), and so at that point you could kind of look at things and say, “How’s this Science Fiction thing doing?”

    So yeah – in that aspect, perhaps the “ghetto” was self-inflicted.

  • JonM said,

    Oh ho. You are singing my tune with that “no genres” talk. They might be a useful marketing ploy, but a lot of the experimentation and free wheeling fun of the pulps was lost when editors started treating those fuzzy-edged labels as iron walls not to be crossed.

    Have you been following Daddy Warpig’s series of pulp analysis over at the Castalia House blog? He’s a firebrand, but you might get a kick out of his take on the evolution of the pulps:


  • Elwro said,

    Could you recommend some good ‘old pulp’ anthologies one can buy for Kindle now? I’m a Cirsova backer, but I want to ‘stock up’ on the old good stuff, too 🙂

  • Not Just a Training Ground for Authors – castaliahouse.com said,

    […] Coyote has yet another account of how what he’d heard about the pulps just didn’t stack up to his own reading […]

  • cirsova said,

    A word of warning about buying Kindle pulp anthologies. Many of the “for pay” anthologies one will find are just dumps of Project Gutenberg texts, which themselves are often riddled with issues of the own, if they were text rips of physical scans. Many of the best Best Of anthologies are, sadly for Kindle readers, only available in physical formats.

    That said, my recommendation would be just downloading scanned issues from this or that pulp that you want to check out from a site like Archive.org. They have full scans of many issues in all of their original glory, complete with bizarre period advertisements.

    Also, in the last week or so, someone calling themself “Pulp Magazine” has uploaded what appear to be scans of several magazines to Amazon’s Kindle store. Frankly, this is something I have a lot of mixed feelings about. Great that they’re available, but I dislike the notion that one person should be able to profit from simply being the first to scan his collection and upload it to a pay site (worse if he used someone else’s scans).

    Thanks for the support!

    Now that I’ve blown through my backlog of dos games, I’ve downloaded the Cute Knight demo. I’ll probably be getting the full version soon, cuz I can tell it’s probably the sort of thing I’ll get addicted to quick.

  • Elwro said,

    @cirsova, thank you very much for the reply! I see a lot of stuff by A. Merritt at Project Gutenberg which I’d missed somehow. I will check out the archived magazines, too…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Elwro – What Cirsova said… although I could add a couple of recommendations:

    At Baen Books – the Leigh Brackett anthologies and bundles: Baen is a great publisher. These are authorized but no-frills collections of her space opera stories.

    The Big Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories – also seems like an authorized book w/ into by the current license owner (with some interesting late-history in its own right… what happened to the pulps in the 1950s).

    Paizo licensed a bunch of reprints a few years back for stories from the 1930s to the 1970s. These are really quality stuff, if you want some trade paperbacks in your collection. They commissioned modern introductions, new cover art, the works. I have some of them. Vintage stories, but nice new editions. You can find them at http://paizo.com/planetStories

    Beyond that – if you look up stuff like “Weird Tales” or “Planet Stories” you’ll find a bunch of collections of varying levels of quality. Many just dumped from scans.

    I agree completely that checking out original scans may be the most fun (and cheap) way to go. I have a couple of original physical copies that I am afraid to actually read, so I read the scans instead. You can narrow it down by looking at https://archive.org/details/pulpmagazinearchive

    @Cirsova – Cool, I really enjoyed that one too. It’s by a very talented friend of mine at Hanako Games.

  • Elwro said,

    @RC: oh boy, that Baen website is mind-boggling. Thanks for that and the other info!

  • cirsova said,

    No problem!

    Also, it’ll probably be about a year before I’m done with them, but I’m teaming up with a pair of artists to put together a fully illustrated edition of Brackett’s original Stark Trilogy in a format akin to Japanese Light Novels that will feature new covers and altogether over 30 original illustrations.

  • cirsova said,

    Oh, hey, I actually know who they are, then! Awhile back I saw someone do a youtube play of Long Live the Queen. I’ve been meaning to check out their stuff for awhile, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

  • JonM said,

    I’m a huge fan of http://www.pulpmags.org/magazines.html

    They’ve got great quality scans of a number of old magazines that you can read inline in a browser.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I love these threads where the comments section is where all the action is 🙂

    @Elwro – Yeah, they need to clean up their website almost as bad as I do. 🙂 BTW, not pulp, but they’ve got a big launch of Witchy Eye this month, written by DJ Butler, who is an awesome friend, gentleman, scholar (I’m not kidding!), and a kick-but writer as well. I haven’t read the book yet, but I love the setting and concept.

    @Cirsova: COOL! Yeah, she’s @HanakoGames on Twitter, and she’s awesome. Her games are fun, and often have surprisingly vicious twists to them. 🙂 But if you saw a playthrough of LLtQ, you totally know that already. I just love the trailer to that one.