Tags:
  1. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 14, 2010
    Messages:
    121
    Likes Received:
    40

    What constitutes as pulp fiction?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by Adam Bolander, May 23, 2020 at 12:52 AM.

    I've heard a few different definitions for the term "pulp fiction." Some people say it means a story that focuses more on pure in-the-moment entertainment than anything mentally stimulating. Honestly, that sounds like 90% of books in existence, so I doubt that's an accurate description. Other people say that pulp fiction is made by its tropes. If it has a hardboiled detective with a trenchcoat and a hip flask, chances are its pulp fiction.

    So what's your take on it? What does (or doesn't) make a story pulp fiction?
     
  2. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    23,337
    Likes Received:
    19,454
    Location:
    El Tembloroso Caribe
    For me it's more about an era and style of publishing with a side-dish of a general sentiment of being mildly lewd/frivolous/trashy.

    I make a hobby of collecting 1950's Science Fiction paperbacks. Many would include these since, even to this day, Science Fiction is often relegated to the realms of frivolity, without the capacity to speak to more erudite topics and sentiments. Poppycock, obviously, but the zeitgeist is what it is.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2020 at 4:04 PM
    Cave Troll and Homer Potvin like this.
  3. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Pimpin' ain't easy, but it sure is fun.... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    5,891
    Likes Received:
    11,368
    Location:
    Rhode Island
    The term refers to the explosion of mass market commercial paperbacks in the 1950s, I think. Kind of a movement away from high brow literary fiction of intellectual importance to campy stories about detectives, aliens, spies, harlots, and swashbuckling adventures. The "pulp" part refers to the genocide of trees needed to produce them.

    Anything called pulp fiction now is kind of a retro, throwback term that harkens back to the dimestores of yesteryear.
     
    Cave Troll and Wreybies like this.
  4. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    It goes back farther than the 50s. I think it started in the Victorian age, maybe like 1890s or so? If I understand it, and I'm pretty vague on it, the middle class was newly emerging, as well as shortages of good quality paper, so they were aimed at newly-literate (lower middle class) who wouldn't have refined tastes or know words good.
     
    Homer Potvin likes this.
  5. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I broke down and checked Wikipedia. They were actually aimed at the working class, and were pretty much done in by the paper shortage after WWII and then TV. But some of the writers went on to write for TV. That explains a lot I guess. :D
     
  6. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Pimpin' ain't easy, but it sure is fun.... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    5,891
    Likes Received:
    11,368
    Location:
    Rhode Island
    Makes sense. A similar literary explosion happened in the US during the 40s-50s when people migrated from farms to the cities. And then the GI Bill sent a couple of million of WWII veterans to college who might not have had the option to do so otherwise.

    Pulp fiction always makes me think of the ten cent paperbacks sold in drugstores on those rotating wire racks. I guess the closest thing nowadays might be an airport bookstore? They tend to have the largest concentration of commercial market cheese.

    Haha. Only you could make "poppycock" and "zeitgeist" work in the same sentence. I agree about the erudition. That too goes back to WWII and the early space race as we became a more technologically educated society. When spaceships and robots were still a novelty. People wanted to read about that shit.

    And don't forget the hardboiled detective stories. Nothing says cheap pulpy paperback than a Sam Spade story. I guess to be considered pulp fiction today you have to somehow evoke that element of taste.
     
    Wreybies and Xoic like this.
  7. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I guess it was the industrial revolution that started it. They set up the industrialized school system to train people up for factory work. Regimented by bells, sit in neat orderly rows and submit to the authority of the teacher. Also kids needed to be somewhere while the parents were in the factories themselves, so school. All that made for a newly literate working class (semi at least). And they were essentially still the same audience Shakespeare played to, the potato-nosed peasants with their ribald sense of humor and rough sentiments.

    Weird to think about but the pages were untrimmed for a long time, and covers were black and white early on. Not really how we picture the pulps today.

    Also, there were an unbelievable number of pulps going at the peak. It was the biggest market ever for stories, especially shorts, but anything could be serialized of course.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2020 at 6:14 AM
  8. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I ought to talk about the actual stories, since that's what the thread's supposed to be about. Sorry, had to set a certain mood first, fill the room with that pulp smell (?)

    They were over-the-top in everything they did, no subtlety to be found. Whether it be romance, sex, detective, Western, war or sports, whatever genre. They cranked the stories out fast too, and most of them used formulas. Lester Dent, who was the main writer for Doc Savage, "had a mixed regard for his own creations. Though usually protective of his own work, he could be derisive of his pulp output. In interviews, he stated that he harbored no illusions of being a high-quality author of literature; for him, the Doc Savage series was simply a job, a way to earn a living by "churning out reams and reams of sellable crap", never dreaming how his series would catch on." (from Wikipedia) He also created a formula for grinding them out super fast and keeping them exciting. Here's what he said about it:

    "This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6,000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words. No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell. The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else."

    Here's the article.
     
  9. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber Toast Muncher Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2017
    Messages:
    1,149
    Likes Received:
    1,248
    Location:
    The Land of Whimsy
    Edgar Rice Burroughs' stuff is a good example of the early stuff. His Barsoom series is classic, and of course Tarzan. I think it must have been of higher quality than a lot of its contemporaries, but I can't really say. It is formulaic and it's definitely short on character development, but it's great for what it is.
     
  10. X Equestris

    X Equestris Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2015
    Messages:
    2,110
    Likes Received:
    2,192
    Location:
    Oklahoma
    Pulp is mostly a matter of tone, which I think Xoic did a great job describing. It's that distinctive feel which separates pulp stories from their cousins in the same genre. For some examples from the genres heavily associated with pulp fiction:
    1. Crime/Detective/Mystery: Dashiell Hammett's stories involving The Continental Op, most of which were published in Black Mask
    2. Fantasy: Pulps like Weird Tales basically gave birth to the sword and sorcery subgenre with stories about Conan of Cimmerian or Jirel of Joiry.
    3. Horror/Occult: Pulp horror ran the gamut from cosmic horror like Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos to the typically more graphic and lurid content of Terror Tales or Horror Stories.
    4. Planetary Romance: The aforementioned Barsoom series first appeared in The All-Story early in the pulp era and codified the genre.
    5. Proto-Superhero: Characters like Lester Dent's Doc Savage and Walter B. Gibson's The Shadow were so popular they headlined their own magazines.
    6. Romance/"Spicy" Romance: I'm less familiar with this corner of pulp, but Peggy Dern's work for Love Story Magazine fits the bill.
    7. Science Fiction: Some of the biggest names in sci-fi--Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein--got their start in pulps such as Astounding Science Fiction. Like horror, the content was pretty varied. We're talking everything from space opera to much more "sciencey" sci-fi.
    8. Westerns: Much of Louis L'Amour's short fiction qualifies, and Robert E. Howard actually found more commercial success with westerns--particularly his Breckenridge Elkins stories--than he did with Conan.
    In the past few years, there's been a movement to bring back these sort of stories with more modern sensibilities. Cirsova, the now defunct Broadswords and Blasters, and StoryHack Magazine are all worth checking out if you want to see what modern pulp looks like.
     
    Adam Bolander, Homer Potvin and Xoic like this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice