Because the word “pulp” references the material on which those stories were published (compared to the “slicks,” for example) and not any specific genre or style (beyond the fact that all the stories attempted to be exciting -not a minor trait-) it is sometimes difficult to write about them without misrepresenting the whole phenomenon of the pulps, which was huge and encompassed at least three generations of authors. There is also the problem that most of the writers died many decades before our current literary and cultural controversies (or died too young,) or left the field once they could start writing in more prestigious circles.
For those reasons, I simply cannot find my nearest pulp writer and ask him “hey, what do you think about the crap that is written today?” Or, at least, I thought I could not. Because in the dark vaults of the Internet I found an interview with pulp writer Hugh B. Cave, who was born in 1910 and died in 2004, which makes him quite an oddity. The interview is from 1997, so you need to keep that in mind, but I believe what he says is still informative and relevant. You can read the whole interview here, but I’ll highlight some of the most interesting bits
-About his inspirations as a writer:
[…]my mother was a great reader. I was named after Hugh Walpole. I read Kipling, Conrad, Stevenson, and other such authors while in high school. [a page later] And because I enjoyed the work of Conan Doyle I wrote detective stories. Then, because I admired Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, I began writing for such magazines as Weird Tales and Strange Tales.
H. P. Lovecraft also recommended Poe and Bierce, and I think this regard for old masters that not even the most elitist academic professors would dare to look down upon is the clearest dividing line between the more formulaic pulp writers history has forgotten and those that, notwithstanding some attempts at downplaying their quality or even erasing their existence, are still read (Appendix N-like stuff.)
-About the pulps when he first started reading them:
“I was born in 1910, in England, and came to the U.S.A. at age four and a half, as mentioned before. By the time I was old enough to notice such things, pulp magazines were displayed on racks in every drugstore in the land—dozens and dozens of intriguing titles all gussied up in bright, shiny, alluring covers. Being interested in the printed word in any form, especially fiction, I made a point of acquiring some of those magazines.
“Some very good writers were writing for the pulps, I discovered. Max Brand, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Talbot Mundy… the list was quite long. And the stories were fun to read. There was no TV then, remember, and pulp tales took the reader to all sorts of exotic, far-off places. Or to the old West. Or to other planets. Or worlds of the weird and fantastic. I would buy a magazine, read it, write something of the same sort, and mail it to the editor.”
-On the use of a pen-name:
“I was on the verge of breaking into the slicks at the time, notably The Saturday Evening Post and was pretty sure it wouldn’t help me to have my name on the covers of magazines with the word ‘Spicy’ in their titles. So I asked Count to ask the editors if I might use a pen-name.”
For those who need a bit of historical context. It was common even for general interest magazines (the more reputable “slicks”) to publish short stories. Fiction and non-fiction went hand by hand in some of the most widely read magazines of the era (that’s where Poe published his stories, by the way.) The pulps, however, had a lower status, so some writers chose to use pen-names, especially if they hoped to be published in more serious magazines later or they already had a reputation to maintain.
Some contemporary ideologues will tell you that the reason female writers of that era used pen-names was to hide the fact that they were women. That is a lie or, at least, a misconception. I’m sure there were already dozens of female writers publishing their stories with their real names, but they were probably writing for more reputable publications, something along the lines of the Lady’s Gazette or whatever (I made up that name.) If some chose to hide the fact that they were women, I suspect that had more to do with the kind of stories they were writing than fear they were not going to get published if the editors realized she didn’t have a penis. In other words, if there was some sort of stigma, it did not come from the pulps fandom and industry, but from the outside, from “respectable society” and directed against the pulps (not unlike what happens with video games, I think.)
To a certain degree, it may be true that the pulps were a “boy’s club,” but when people use such terms, they evoke images of monocled privileged middle-aged men in tuxedos, drinking champagne and laughing away while benefiting from the tears of oppression shed by the foolish women who are waiting in the lounge, trying to enter into the Club just to be rebuked and spat by the Boys. If these pulps were a place for boys, it was only because it was a niche they carved for themselves so they could read the kind of stuff that appealed to them. If one did not want to get his reputation tarred by reading Spicy Adventures or whatever, you could always peruse the Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, Liberty, and things like those. I doubt anyone truly believes Agatha Christie (probably the best-selling, most read, and most published author in the whole history,) and who once wrote for that kind of magazines, was somehow oppressed or discriminated.
-The appeal of the pulps:
“So why have pulp stories survived? Why are books being written about them and magazines being devoted to them? Why is there an annual Pulpcon? Why is Vintage New Media offering pulp stories and interviews such as this on the internet? I think I know a few of the reasons.
“While the pulp magazines unquestionably published some poor stories, they also published some excellent work by writers who went on to become well known names. Pulp writers, remember, got their styles, their values, their thinking, from the old masters. The best ones knew the basics of writing and were able to come up with consistently good work even though writing in a hurry for low rates.”
-On the decline of writing and fiction:
“For many years I was one of the judges of the Scholastic Magazine’s annual short story contest for high school students. The prizes were college scholarships. Year after year the stories become more and more obscure because teachers were teaching these kids it was ‘arty’ to write that way. It was also virtually incomprehensible. Art itself, of course, took off on this murky road some years ago. No one has understood so-called modern art for years. […]
“So what do we have? Those kids, who learned this dismal stuff from teachers who themselves couldn’t write worth a damn, are now editors, and accepting only the sort of writing they think of as ‘art.’ And some of it is beyond understanding.
I read a review recently by a respected reviewer. This is what he said of an ‘important’ new novel: ‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Period.’
But you ‘get’ a pulp story. Well or badly written, it has a beginning, a middle, and end. And many readers like that.”
-On the audience of the pulps:
Q: I’ve read that the target audience of most pulps was twelve year old boys. Have you consciously ‘written down’ to your audience at times?
A: Twelve-year-old boys? No, no. Kids didn’t read the pulps. Not many kids anyway. What 12-year-old would have understood the stories in, say, Weird Tales?
I didn’t read the pulps as a kid; I know that. I read the authors mentioned earlier in this interview. And when I wrote for kids I wrote for Boy’s Life and American Boy.