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