'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Why Pulp Fiction?

Escapism is all around us. Today society has myriad forms of entertainment ranging from the written word to the moving picture. We live in a world that has made all of this entertainment and escapism accessible to the masses.

Stories have always been important to us. Since the dawn of man we have found ways to record our exploits and our heroics, but until the modern era these stories were told by word of mouth or perhaps through expensive reproductions laboriously copied by hand on vellum.

Paper, in the Western world at least, wasn’t really needed until the invention of the printing press in 1450. Suddenly we had the ability to mass produce books, but we still lived in a labor intensive society. We still didn’t have time to sit down and consume entertainment like we do now.

Listen to me talk, I complain about not having enough time to do half the things I want to do. In reality though I could make much better use of my down time. In the middle ages and renaissance, living and working by sunlight or lanterns, I simply would not have. I wouldn’t have the luxury I have now.

Enter the Industrial Revolution. Automation of processes brings workers time and an increase in the standard of life. It gives them, for the first time, the ability to have a sustained ability to consume entertainment. Although I am not going to discuss, or hypothesize as to why, we also see a dramatic increase in literacy. (Devon Lemire, 2012)

Now we have paper, the ability to produce the written word and an audience. What becomes of this? If we type “Penny Dreadful” into google we largely get hits from a TV show called “Penny Dreadful”. This TV show about the weird and dark side of Victorian London takes its name from the widely available cheap literature of the day. These magazines, known as a Penny Dreadful specialized in sensational stories and offered the working class a way to get the written entertainment without having to buy the more expensive novels. You should check out this article for a more in depth look at the Penny Dreadful.

In 1900s United States we see the rise of the pulp magazine. These magazines are the direct successors to the serialized cheap publications that came to be known “Penny Dreadfuls”. The collective name for those publications is a combination of the content and the price, the pulp magazine takes its name from the paper used, which has become synonymous with how the content is generally viewed; cheap, tawdry and of no value.

From the introduction of these magazines in the early 1900s to their demise in the 1950s, a wealth of these magazines were produced, and because of this need for content many people tried their hand at writing. Some created iconic characters that have lasted to this day; Conan, Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Shadow.

In the 1950s rising costs and increased competition from books with higher production quality, television and comic books saw this boom in pulp literary entertainment begin to wane and the majority of the pulp magazine companies going out of business. I found a graph stating that in 1950, 9% of US households had television, and in 1955 it had rise to 64%, by 1965 92% of households had television (Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication). I am sure it’s now close to 100% and although reading is still popular among some, I am sure we all know someone who just doesn't read anymore.

Pulp magazines are often looked down on. Their authors are not held up like “true” authors. They are not typically views as literary masters, or authors that made a contribution. I am not here to tell you that everyone who wrote in a pulp magazine was an expert wordsmith, but to wipe our hands of every author because they were commercial authors being published in the pulps is a disservice to literature. I would argue that these authors writing in the early 1900s have had a significant effect on our culture, as great as any of the large names. They have created ideas and characters that have become our modern heroes, or the basis for them. Who’s work reached a larger audience: Hemingway or Howard, Lovecraft or Lawrence, Steinbeck or Smith?

These magazines defined a large portion of entertainment for the working class for the first half of the 20th century. They were a large part of culture during that time and to ignore their influence on it is folly. The authors of those magazines certainly wrote to get published but that doesn’t make them less. This does not mean that there is not depth in their stories.

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