You would think there would be an easy answer for this, but the reality is that trying to define pulp fiction is currently trying to define art. In a lot of respects, what constitutes pulp fiction is very much in the eye of the beholder.
If you were to ask anyone what pulp fiction was, you would very likely have them say that it was that Tarantino movie that starred John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson. This amazingly successful movie essentially took the concept of pulp and made it its own. The medium however has a much older history.
I don’t want to go too deep into the history – that’s another show – but I do want to get an idea across that this was designed as entertainment for the masses. If you go all the way back to Victorian England and you see the start of the “penny dreadfuls,” you will see that publishers found a market for stories among the common people of England. There were similar startups in France and the United States and elsewhere, but the common element was that publishers made money by selling entertainment.
Naturally, the literati hated this. The authors who believed that literature was intended to elevate and to challenge wanted nothing to do with this cheap, quickly written marketplace. Of course, that didn’t stop authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer from creating stories that entertained. Even Charles Dickens, before the literati claimed him as one of their own, wrote stories that would sell to the widest audience possible.
In the United States and Canada, we progressed through dime novels at the turn of the century up to pulp fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. These were magazines printed on cheap wood pulp paper and sold for a few cents at newsstands. North America, in the grip of the Great Depression, was desperate for entertainment. Entertainment exploded in this particular timeframe with pulp magazines competing with upscale, glossy magazines (nicknamed “slicks”). At the same time, we saw Hollywood ramping up its production as it circumvented the Edison Trust, and the new technology of radio actually brought live audio entertainment into people’s homes.
All of these entertainment companies prospered at a time when the United States and Canada were experiencing some of the worst economic conditions since their founding. They did this by providing their stories or movies or radio plays to as wide an audience as they could reach. In much the same way as William Shakespeare promoted his theater to Londoners as a whole, these entertainment companies wanted to get as many paying customers as possible to realize maximum profits. They saw their stories as ways to earn those profits by making them accessible to everyone for mere pennies, rather than producing solely for the literati and charging thousands of dollars so that only the wealthy could enjoy the entertainment. Pulp fiction was a wonderful democratizing expression of free-market capitalism at its finest.
For the pulp magazines, they lived or died based on their readership. Naturally, they chose to try different markets ranging from romance to Western to horror and even into “spicy” stories. Pulp heroes such as Doc Savage and the Shadow got their start in this particular era, as did noted writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. If you could write a fictional story about it, odds are that there was a pulp magazine based on that.
So, the stories themselves had to be written quickly to allow them to get magazines out the door quicker. Naturally, this also meant that the stories had straightforward plots, little characterization, and for the major pulp heroes, little to no character development over the series of stories.
Because of the volume of stories needed and the rapid pace of development, multiple authors had to be used. Most of the stories were written under house names chosen by the magazine editors themselves, and ghostwritten by any number of scriveners under contract to the magazine, or freelancing. Maxwell Grant was the name of the author credited as writing the Shadow, but the books were actually written by Walter Gibson and in some cases Theodore Tinsley, Lester Dent, and Bruce Elliot.
Finally, the stories also had to be entertaining. There were a lot of magazines out there, and being able to convince the readership to plunk down their hard-earned money for your magazine as opposed to your competitor’s magazine meant you had to deliver the goods.
A lot of the enthusiasts for classic pulp fiction like to point out that pulp fiction is a medium, and not a genre. Genres would include things like hero pulps, weird menace stories, horror pulps a.k.a. “shudders”, Westerns, sea adventure stories, air adventure stories, sports and boxing stories, crime and detective stories, exotic adventure stories, and even in the more adult-oriented “spicy” versions of most of the other genres.
While it’s true that there are multiple flavors of pulp fiction, I would say that pulp fiction actually does fill a particular genre itself. To my mind, the pulps are:
- rapid paced,
- exciting, and
- compelling stories that demand the readers keep the pages turning to find out what happens next.
To these, I’d also add a fourth requirement as well. In the case of pulp fiction, the stories should be able to be finished within one or two sittings. This makes them shorter than most contemporary novels, which can require several sittings in order to read through the book. I’m a fast reader, and yet it would still take me a few days to churn my way through a 300 page novel.
Can you have a novel that has the hallmarks of pulp fiction, and yet exceeds 300,000 words? I think you can certainly have elements of that, but the longer the story goes, the more likely that the writer is going to have issues with pacing and maintaining excitement and keeping the readers interested. The more times the reader has to put down the book, the more opportunities there are for the reader to walk away from the novel.
Good pulp fiction can have a reader finish a 100,000 word story within a couple of sittings. Great pulp fiction can have the reader giving up sleep to finish that story in one sitting. And, if you can accomplish that as a writer, then you will have an audience for life.
About the Featured Image for this post: Parts of the image were made from cover scans by Will Hart of classic Pulp Fiction Magazines and are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.