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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Cyber Pulp Renaissance

Electronic Publishing Has 
Brought Pulp Fiction Back from the Brink; 
The Only Question is, 
How Far Can It Go?

“The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.”
-- Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962)

Topic A at this year’s Left Coast Crime conference in Portland, Oregon earlier this month was, to me, pretty much the focus of last year’s conference in Monterey, California: the renaissance in pulp as a genre within the literary category of crime fiction.

At least three panels at the conference – including the one that I was on – dealt specifically with the resurgence of pulp stories. Several others had speakers that were pulp specialists, including those on the reappearance of novellas and a well-staffed panel on writing short stories.

The general attitude was that pulp as a literary style – including its subgenres of crime writing, adventure, westerns, romance, sci-fi and horror – is alive and well, and finding new followers with each passing day.

 So what is pulp literature?

Pulp is working class literature that traditionally was produced cheaply enough to satisfy people riding street cars and buses on the way to and from their jobs. Think newspapers, only filled with stories that were completely made up (instead of only partly fictional like the content of the broadsheets and tabloids published by people like Hearst and Pulitzer in the late nineteenth century).

But cheap paper wasn’t the only thing that set pulp publications apart from slicks. There was its entire manner of presentation -- and the fantastical nature of its characters.

The old-time pulps featured lurid stories with titillating characters and contained lots of action. Sometimes that action made sense, sometimes not. The main thing was to keep it coming, hot and heavy. That helped paper over plot holes and disguise flaws in characterization.

As Raymond Chandler put it in his 
monograph, The Simple Art of Murder (1950), “Undoubtedly the stories about [hard-boiled detectives] had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, nor to so close-knit a group of people, nor within so narrow a frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Most people who are familiar with the genre think of it as the kind of stuff that appeared in Black Mask, which started out publishing fast-paced stories in a variety of subtypes including those mentioned above or Argosy, which tended toward adventure tales set in exotic climes and featuring bizarre characters.

It was published in cheap "pulp paper" magazines, stories characterized by their fast pace, grotesque villains and lurid and titillating plots.

But the Black Mask style pulp magazine didn’t appear until the 1920s and 1930s. It was predated by the nickel- and dime-novels of the late 19th century, much as they had been preceded by the penny dreadfuls of the 1800s.

For example, the stories of August Dupin, Edgar Allen Poe's amateur gumshoe who investigates "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget," originally appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. Nick Carter, a fictional detective penned by a bullpen of writers over more than a century, first appeared in Street and Smith’s New York Weekly pulp magazine in 1886.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886, his second in Lippincott’s Magazine four years later and some of his short stories about the detective were published by the Strand Magazine.

Each featured a lone wolf detective, grisly crimes and lurid solutions, much like their pulp magazine counterparts in the jazz age.

That form of pulp magazine continued to exist until the late 1950s and early 1960s, but during its history it broke down into the subcategories mentioned a few paragraphs ago. The fantasy and science fiction stories wound up in their own journals – Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories for example, or John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction.

While pulp stories initially ran the gamut from romantic tales to space opera, the magazines themselves began to splinter into subgenres by the mid-20th century.

The crime yarns became the specialty of publications such as The Saint, Ellery Queen, Michael Shayne, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and several others. The western stories had their own platforms (Max Brand Western Magazine, Dime Western and Thrilling Western), as did the horror journals (Weird Tales, Terror Tales). The romance pulps, aimed largely at a female audience – though in many cases written by men – also ultimately appeared under their own imprints (True Romances, Ideal Love,).

But by  the 1970s pulp magazines were becoming too expensive to publish for a mass, working class audience and the cheap "men's adventure" paperbacks that to an extent displaced them – the Destroyer and Executioner series are two of the better known examples – only remained in vogue until the early 1990s. To be fair, “slick” magazines were having trouble, too; magazines not only burned up an immense amount of paper and ink, pushing up the overhead of producing them and reducing their profitability, but the cost of distributing both pulp and slick magazines steadily increased. Just as many slicks bit the dust as their more lurid pulp counterparts.

In addition, gasoline prices increased nearly ten-fold from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, the result of massive hikes caused by market manipulation and discord in the prime oil-producing nations; what’s more, dealerships that sold mags were pushed out of business by urban renewal programs that wiped out entire neighborhoods where property values were low enough that newsstands and cigar stores could afford them. The local pharmacies that once stocked pulp literature were gobbled up by national chains located in strip malls that dumped magazines to make space for more lucrative products.

Ironically, the rapacious capitalism so often caricatured in the pulp journals had the last laugh: changing market conditions cut the profitability of the genre and appeared to be consigning it to the dustbin of history. Pulp magazines looked as doomed as the characters in a David Goodis novel.

Then came the personal computer and the commercialization of the Internet. The computer revolution in publishing has created a new category that some call neo-pulp substituting the really cheap and fast publication possible using electronic magazines for the pulp paper of the past. Distribution costs became largely clerical: you don’t need drivers, trucks or gasoline to deliver ebooks to readers. Ebooks and eZines are maintained on servers, not stored in warehouses, so there is no need for inventory or storage.

Then Amazon introduced the Kindle reader, a piece of technology that changed the publishing industry forever by making it easy to download and read an entire library at a fraction of the cost that traditional publishing organizations were asking for hardcovers or even paperbacks.

Starting at the turn of the 21st century, new publishing houses that specialized in electronic books began to pop up.

Not only did dozens of genre magazines begin to appear, but a market emerged for fictional forms such as short stories and novellas that traditional publishing houses had been reluctant to handle. 

Anthologies – a means of packaging short fiction most publishing houses had abjured, claiming it was too costly to produce and too difficult to sell – began to flood the market.
It was a happy accident of timing that these changes occurred when people had less time to spend reading traditional novels. The shorter, more easily digested output of flash fiction, short stories, novellas and novelettes began to catch on – as did the pulpy melodramatic style of fiction associated with the old pulp magazines.

The new stories remain pulp because they parallel the style, content, lurid plots and grotesque characters of the old paper pulp magazines.  And they seem to be generating an entire generation of new fans.

(This is the first in a series of essays referring to topics that came up during this week's Left Coast Crime Conference in Portland, OR. Next time: my life in the pulps).

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