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Entry updated 20 February 2023. Tagged: Publication, Theme.

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In discussions of popular literature, as in this volume, the term "pulp" is used metaphorically as often as specifically, and when used specifically it has both a narrow and a wide sense.

1. "Pulp" is used in this encyclopedia as an indication of format, in contrast to Letter Size (see Bedsheet) and Digest. The pulp magazine normally measured 10 x 7 in (about 254 x 178 mm); where the word "pulp" is used with no other indication of size, it can be assumed that the magazine in question was of approximately these dimensions. "Large Pulp" refers to the letter-size, roughly 11.75 x 8 in (298 x 216 mm).

2. More broadly, "pulp" is used to designate the type of magazine whose format is as above. There was more to a pulp magazine than its size. Pulp magazines, as their name suggests, were printed on cheap paper manufactured from chemically treated wood pulp, a process invented in the early 1880s. The paper is coarse, absorbent and acid, with a distinctive sharp smell much loved by magazine collectors. Pulp paper ages badly, largely because of its acid content, yellowing and becoming brittle. Because of the thickness of the paper, pulp magazines tended to be quite bulky, often ½in (1.25cm) thick or more. They generally had ragged, untrimmed edges, and later in their history had notoriously garish, brightly coloured covers, many of the coal-tar dyes used to make cover inks being of the most lurid hues.

It is usually accepted that Frank A Munsey invented the pulp-magazine formula when in October 1896 he changed the contents of The Argosy to contain nothing but fiction and from December 1896 printed it on cheap woodpulp. Previously the most popular periodicals had published a mixture of fiction, factual articles, poetry and occasional other features. Sf was already popular in magazine format before the advent of the pulps – for example, in Harper's Monthly Magazine and McClure's Magazine in the USA and The Strand Magazine and Pearson's Magazine in the UK. However, these and others like them were aimed at a wealthier, more middle-class and possibly more literate audience than that which the pulps were invented to exploit: they were family magazines, with a more demure format and usually printed on coated, slick paper, which in the USA led to their being dubbed the Slicks to distinguish them from their humbler brethren, the pulps. Argosy had started life in 1888 as an outcrop of the Dime Novel aimed at a juvenile, less discerning readership, and despite the development of more sophisticated pulps in the early 1900s, such as The Popular Magazine and Blue Book, that distinction remained.

The popular Slicks and the pulps were both part of a magazine-publishing revolution beginning in the 1880s, in which mass-distribution techniques and greatly increased advertising allowed the dropping of prices. Most magazines before the 1880s had had a small circulation and had been relatively expensive, aimed at a narrow, upper-middle-class, literate group. But now, in the UK and USA, literacy was becoming nearly universal, population was increasing at an amazing rate (doubling in 30 years in the USA), modern technology was on the whole leading to more leisure, and there was as yet no cinema to offer opposition in the telling of stories. As a consequence, magazine circulations became massive towards the end of the century, over half a million in the most successful cases.

The slicks and, a little later, the pulps rode the crest of this wave, with the pulps cornering the all-fiction-magazine market. Other periodical formats – some of which had a longer history (see Boys' Papers; Dime-Novel SF) included the popular weekly tabloid, such as Pearson's Weekly.

The real proliferation of pulp magazines began in 1904 when The Argosy met its first competition in the shape of The Popular Magazine, from Street & Smith, which began in November 1903, also as a boys' magazine but switched to pulp format in February 1904. Munsey countered with The All-Story in January 1905. The Monthly Story Book (the original title for Blue Book) followed in May 1905 and before long the pulp magazine had become an industry. The popularity of the all-fiction pulp was noticed in the UK where the first, The Novel Magazine, appeared from Pearson's in April 1905. The Grand Magazine, which appeared from Newnes in February 1905, ran some nonfiction but it, too, turned all-fiction from April 1908, following the success of The Story-teller from Cassell's in April 1907.

Munsey also pioneered the special-interest pulp, starting with The Railroad Man's Magazine in October 1906 and The Ocean in March 1907, but the first true specialist genre-fiction pulp came from Street and Smith with Detective Story Magazine, first issue October 5, 1915, itself a continuation of a dime-novel series, Nick Carter Stories. Western Story followed in July 1919, Love Story in August 1921 and Sport Story Magazine in September 1923. Weird Tales, the first pulp magazine to specialize in supernatural and occult fiction, including science fiction, appeared in March 1923. On this time scale, it is surprising that sf did not get its own specialist magazine until Hugo Gernsback began Amazing Stories in April 1926, for the Scientific Romance had been a staple of the general-fiction pulps, along with Lost-World stories and Fantasy, and in these fields the pulps had produced writers as celebrated and well loved as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, George Allan England, Ralph Milne Farley, William Hope Hodgson, A Merritt, Sax Rohmer and Garrett P Serviss, as well as helped to popularize H G Wells (more commonly published in the slicks) and H Rider Haggard. Many of these writers retain their popularity. However, at the outset Amazing Stories, was not a pulp but was issued in the letter-size format on book paper, to match Gernsback's technical science magazines. The first true sf pulp was Astounding, published by William Clayton, in January 1930. Its popularity meant that Gernsback, who by then had lost control of Amazing Stories and had created a new stable of magazines, was forced to switch Wonder Stories to pulp format in November 1930. Amazing Stories eventually followed suit in October 1933. The era of the specialist sf pulp magazine therefore ran from 1930 to the mid-fifties.

Whilst some general-fiction pulp writers were able to produce sf, especially adventure sf for the Clayton Magazines and later Street and Smith, they merely adapted other forms of adventure fiction to outer space and thus produced a form of puerile sf which was identified as "wild west in space" and was later labelled Space Opera (in its earliest, disparaging sense). Hugo Gernsback had found it difficult to secure scientifically sound fiction from other than a handful of writers but as sf tried to escape the pit of space opera, under the editorial guidance of first David Lasser, then F Orlin Tremaine and, most importantly, John W Campbell Jr., so, by the late 1930s, sf writers in the pulps came to see themselves as specialists. Although the advent of specialized pulps did not mark the end of sf in the general-fiction pulps – Argosy and Blue Book, for example, continued through the 1930s to attract the most popular sf writers, including Burroughs, Cummings, Farley and Otis Adelbert Kline – the popularity of the general fiction pulp was waning, their fate hastened by the USA's involvement in the Second World War. Those general pulps that did not cease converted into men's magazines, and the pulp field was left, generally, to the specialist titles.

Britain did not develop a body of specialist pulp magazines on the scale of the USA. Hutchinson's was the first with Adventure-Story Magazine in September 1922 followed by Mystery-Story Magazine in February 1923, both modelled on US pulps. Britain's first sf magazine, Scoops, in 1934, was a tabloid boys' magazine, and only two British sf pulps were able to appear before the Second World War curtailed activities: Tales of Wonder in 1937 and Fantasy in 1938. Fantasy was published by Newnes which ran several other specialist pulps, most notably Air Stories which ran for sixty issues from May 1935 to April 1940 and was Britain's most successful indigenous pulp. With the advent of the War, publishers sought to reprint American pulps, the longest running of which was the British edition of Astounding, from August 1939 to August 1963, though it took ten years before it followed its parent edition into the digest format in November 1953. The British edition of Western Story Magazine retained its pulp format until September 1957.

Although the sf pulps of the 1930s are remembered with great nostalgia by sf fans, they were, in reality, only a minor portion of the overall pulp-publishing business. The great US pulp-publishing houses, such as Popular, Street and Smith, and Standard, published dozens of titles of which sf, in terms of number of titles and overall sales, formed only a tiny proportion. Sf as big business had to wait for the post-World War Two paperback-book publishing boom (see Publishing). Nevertheless, the sf pulp had considerable tenacity and whilst most other pulps had either ceased publication by the early 1950s or converted into the Digest format – Astounding had shifted to digest size in November 1943 – the sf pulps along with a few crime and western pulps, lingered on through the 1950s. The last sf pulp was Science Fiction Quarterly, which ceased in February 1958, although Standard Publications released a reprint sampler of Wonder Stories in 1963 which continued as Treasury of Great Science Fiction Stories and then as Science Fiction Yearbook until 1971, all in the pulp format. That same year the last continuing specialist pulp, Ranch Romances, which had appeared regularly since 1924, also ceased. The Railroad Man's Magazine, which had been the first true specialist pulp, had merged with Argosy in 1919 but had been reborn in 1929 and continues to this day, though as Railfan and Railroad, a collectors' magazine for railway fans. It ceased to carry fiction in January 1979 but had dropped the pulp format from September 1954, when it shifted to letter-size to follow the men's magazine image. The last surviving continuously published magazine that began as a pulp is Analog, the name given to Astounding in 1960.

Most of the pulp magazines were replaced by Digests in increasingly unhappy competition with paperback books; also, the reading of stories was itself giving way to the watching of Television. Indeed, many pulp historians would claim that, despite the proliferation of titles in the 1930s, the heyday of the pulp magazines with their half-million circulations ended with the paper shortages following World War One and the rapidly growing popularity of the Cinema. The economic depression of the late 1920s probably delayed the end, bringing with it an urgent need for fiction which escaped the greyness of an ordinary world in which individuals seemed impotent. In the pulps, individuals not only influenced events, they regularly saved the world.

A full list of sf and post-1930 fantasy magazines with entries in this volume – including many pulp magazines – is given under Print Magazines and Online Magazines. Other periodicals in which sf was published are discussed under Boys' Papers, Comics, Dime-Novel SF and Slick.

The following are the general-fiction pulp (and associated) magazine entries: Adventure, The All-Story, The Argosy, The Black Cat, The Blue Book Magazine, The Cavalier, The Popular Magazine, The Premier Magazine, The Red Magazine, The Scrap Book and The Yellow Magazine. Two specialized early pulps given entries are The Thrill Book and Weird Tales. A number of 1930s "weird-menace" and science/detective pulps whose sf content was very marginal do not receive entries, with the pious exception of Hugo Gernsback's Scientific Detective Monthly. There is a small fantasy element in other genre pulps such as Oriental Stories (1930), Golden Fleece Historical Adventure (1938) and Jungle Stories (1938), but the line had to be drawn somewhere in the no-man's-land between sf and fantasy, and they have been omitted. The sf content of the Superhero/Supervillain genre is sometimes greater and, though many are omitted, there are entries for Captain Hazzard, Captain Zero, Doc Savage magazine, Dr Yen Sin, Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds, Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine, G-8 and His Battle Aces, The Mysterious Wu Fang, The Octopus, Operator #5, The Scorpion, The Shadow (extremely popular although its sf content was marginal and irregular), The Spider and Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds.

There has been a growing number of biographies and autobiographies by pulp writers. Two relevant personal accounts that both discuss the pulps in detail are The Pulp Jungle (1967) by Frank Gruber and Magazines I Remember (1994) by Hugh B Cave. Two biographies which touch on the sf and other leading pulps are Pulp Man's Odyssey: The Hugh B Cave Story (1988) and Pulpmaster: The Theodore Roscoe Story (1992) both by Audrey Parente. Books on pulp publishing are Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines (1972) by Ron Goulart, The Fiction Factory, or From Pulp Row to Quality Street: The Story of 100 Years of Publishing at Street and Smith (1955) by Quentin James Reynolds (1902-1965), and Pulp Voices: Interviews with Pulp Magazine Writers and Editors (1983 chap) edited by Jeffery M Elliot; the feeling of the pulps themselves is captured in The Pulps: 50 Years of American Pop Culture (1970) edited by Tony Goodstone; and The Shudder Pulps (1975) by Robert Kenneth Jones is on the "weird-menace" pulps. Also relevant is the series Yesterday's Faces: A Study of Series Figures in the Early Pulp Magazines by Robert Sampson, which ran for six volumes, of which Volume 2: Strange Days (1984) and Volume 6: Violent Lives (1993) are most revelant to the sf pulps. Volume 1 of Mike Ashley's history of the science-fiction magazines, Transformations (2000), covers the sf pulps.

3. When used metaphorically the word "pulp" describes the quality and style of the fiction published in the pulp magazines – and, by extension, any similar fiction, no matter in what format it was published. The term is still used in this sense today, 40 years after the death of the pulps proper. The pulps emphasized action, romance, heroism, success, exotic milieux, fantastic adventures (often with a sprinkling of love interest), and almost invariably a cheerful ending. In literary criticism "pulp" is often taken as a synonym for "stylistically crude", but this was not necessarily the case. Good narrative pacing, by no means a negligible quality, was regularly found in the pulps, as were other the virtues of colour, inventiveness, clarity of image and occasional sharp observation, such as might be seen in the work of the early pulp writer Jack London. But it is true that the voracious appetite of the pulp market led to many writers becoming, in effect, word factories, writing too swiftly and to a cynical formula. The pulps did not generally pay as well for fiction as did the slicks, so economic pressure forced the pulp writer into high productivity.

Today the term "pulp sf" is associated primarily with stories written, usually rapidly, for the least intellectual segment of the sf market – packed with adventure but with little emphasis on character, which is usually stereotyped, or on ideas, which are frugally and constantly recycled (see Clichés). Many of the entries in this volume discuss typical pulp-sf themes and modes, including Galactic Empires, Heroes, Optimism and Pessimism, Sex, Space Opera, Superman, Sword and Sorcery and Villains. The term pulp is seldom applied to Comics even though they have much in common and the Superhero comics were close relatives of the hero pulps, though they are held in similar regard by the literary establishment.

On the other hand, not all the fiction published in the pulp magazines was subject to the limitations that the word "pulp" usually suggests. Two famous examples from crime fiction of writers transcending their pulp origins, even while continuing to be published in a pulp format, are Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), both associated with Black Mask, and given added if rather narrow impetus by Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction (1994). Examples from sf are common, too, or else the genre would long ago have died of malnutrition (see Golden Age of SF). [PN/MA]

further reading


see also: Justice, Inc; Retro-Pulp.

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