Consider this a lament. No, make that, a low, gutteral moan of grief. Yes, I am in continual mourning for the short-lived short-story writers’ heyday associated with pulp fiction magazines—cheap, monthly or bi-monthly publications that used to stuff newsstand and drug store racks from sea to shining sea, and all the less sparkly spots in between.
My sorrow, I admit, is largely of the self-pitying variety. You see, I write short fiction, and nobody produces short fiction anymore. Well, almost nobody—if you don’t count tax returns.
From the turn of the twentieth century to the mid 1950s, hundreds of publishers of pulp fiction magazines peddled thousands of short stories and serialized novels crammed between lurid, stylized covers that tantalized readers with promises of action, adventure, violence, and often, sex … opiates of the masses. And America bought up these compendiums by the millions—every month. A cheap, legal addiction.
Often sold for as little as a dime per issue, pulp magazines became one of America’s first truly mass entertainment mediums. Hundreds of titles, millions of copies, millions of hooked readers—good news for the publishers, right? Of course. But publishers needed product to publish, so the pulps were a godsend for legions of struggling writers who churned out these stories at an amazing clip.
But don’t get the wrong idea. When I say ‘churned out’ I’m not talking about shlock here. Okay, maybe some shlock. But …
The list of writers who got their start writing for the pulps, or augmented their more respectable incomes with pulp submissions constitutes a bona fide Who’s Who of twentieth century American fiction writers. Icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett agreed to write for a penny a word tapping out works for titles like Argosy, Dime Detectives, Adventure, Black Mask and hundreds of other newsstand standbys. Sure, not many got rich writing for a penny a word, but by writing under several aliases, prolific short story writers always had a hungry market ready to gobble up their work. It is commonly reported that Upton Sinclair—yes, that Upton Sinclair—utilized stenographers and dictated at least 8,000 words a day for the pulps—seven days a week. That amounted to a pretty penny back when ten cents bought you a shot and beer, eh, Upton?
And it didn’t much matter what a writer wanted to write, either. There were pulp titles catering to all tastes (or what we call genres, today). Romance; Western; Sports; War. Guys like H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote for titles catering to lovers of ‘lost world’ adventures. Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner specialized in hardboiled crime noir. Philip K. Dick, Robert Hienlein, Ray Bradbury used the pulps to help instill the world’s unquenchable thirst for Science Fiction.
It was a golden time for short story writers, and for readers who favored their fiction in smaller bites.
Hollywood took notice, too. Hundreds of films produced in the 30s and 40s where based on pulp stories. Maybe you’ve heard of The Maltese Falcon? As a result, many pulp writers branched off into screenwriting, as well. I’m telling you, it was high cotton time for short-story writers who knew their way around a classy dame, a cigarette, and a hot Underwood.
And then, like the twist at the end of a good who-dun-it, the rug got pulled out from under the entire cast. And money was motive here, too—big surprise. Follow the money, right Sam Spade?
By the time the 50s rolled around, the cost of publishing pulps had shot up higher than a snooty skirt’s nose, and readership had sagged like her granny’s WWII nylons. Slicker magazines, flashier films, and the spread of television sets all bit big chunks out of America’s pulpy attention span. The end of America’s love affair with short, entertaining fiction had taken the deep-six.
Many of the well-established writers switched over to the new ‘paperback’ novel venue, so they did okay. Cinema and television drama anthologies provided a soft landing for some of the other scribblers who had cut their teeth on wood pulp. But the Golden Age of the American short-story burned out when the cost of pulp got too high, and the price of more animated forms of entertainment got too cheap.
And here I am, still moaning.
Hey, buddy, what to buy a short story? Still just a penny-a-word—adjusted for inflation.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
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