Pulp Fiction

Aside from the movie of the same name what was Pulp Fiction and more importantly what was its influence on the mystery genre?

Pulp Fiction

Pulp fiction refers to stories that were published in magazines from 1896 through the 1950’s.  The magazines were sized at 7 x 10 and contained over 100 pages of stories. They were named “Pulp” because the magazines were printed on cheap paper with ragged, untrimmed edges. The paper contained more wood pulp and these fiber flecks could be seen in the off-white sheets. This paper was not refined or polished like the type used in the more expensive magazines called “Slicks.”

The First Pulp Magazine

The first Pulp was Frank Munsey’s Argosy magazine published in 1896. Argosy represented the true pulp format with almost 200 pages on cheap paper with no illustrations inside and no art on the cover. It provided affordable entertainment for the working class. The stories included adventure, sports, crime, war, spicy, science fiction, westerns, romance and other themes not found in most Slicks but yet very attractive to this new readership.  Within six years Argosy’s circulation grew from a few thousand to a half million in subscriptions

The Popular Magazine

The next major Pulp magazine was from Street and Smith. They saw the success of Argosy and launched their own Pulp called The Popular Magazine in 1903. They also made some notable changes to Pulp magazines. The first change was the addition of color covers designed by distinguished artists and illustrations on the inside pages. They also offered stories that were serialized over several issues which kept the readers coming back. After the success of their first magazine they added individual magazines dedicated to specific genres like mystery, romance and science fiction.

Sensational Covers

Of course once these two magazines established the standards many more followed. Pulps became known for their edgy exploitative stories. Covers were now printed on slick paper while the inside text continued to be printed on cheap pulp paper. Covers were sensational and known for their half dressed damsels in distress. Sometimes covers were designed first and then the author was asked to write material to match the cover art.

Pulp Pricing

The first Pulp magazines sold for ten cents each. This price was much lower than the up-scale Slick magazines which generally sold for twenty-five cents. The lower prices made it affordable entertainment for the working class and were filled with stories they found interesting.

Pulps kept their cost down by paying the writers less than the going rate for stories. However, they paid the writer upon acceptance. This kept many starving writers from having to wait until their stories were published before they received money for their work.

The Writers

Pulps were a good outlet for new writers who wanted to get published because the Pulps needed lots of stories. In fact some new writers, liked Upton Sinclair before his novel fame, worked full time for the Pulps churning out story after story. Many writers used multiple pseudonyms in order to have more than one story appear in the same issue.

Well-known writers also benefitted from the Pulps which helped to keep their names before the public in between major works. At their peak in the 1920’s and 30’s the most successful pulp magazines were selling 1 million copies per issue providing great visibility for the writer.

The End of Pulp Fiction

World War II impacted the Pulps due to the rising cost of paper as a result of wartime shortages. Starting in 1941 because of paper shortages well known Pulps like Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine switched to a smaller digest size. This new size with glossy covers and better inside paper were now considered slicks.

The Pulps continued to decline due to the publication of new men’s adventure magazines, television and comic books. In fact many of today’s comic books are the result of the Pulp magazine era.

Additionally many of the Pulp magazine companies became paperback publishers and began to offer “dime” novels.  Some of these novels were based on expanding stories previously published in their Pulp magazines.

The Importance of Pulps

Pulp magazines were important for writers because they were the largest single outlet for the publication of short stories and helped launched many writers’ careers. And for the mystery genre Pulp magazines established and fostered a place for the hard-boiled detective and many other mystery stories.

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