I once took a course in Popular Fiction at university, and it was inevitable that we were eventually going to hit the pulp era at some point. I’ve always had a soft spot for pulp era fantasy (the “weird tale”), especially the Big Three: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. As you might expect, we did talk about Lovecraft in relation to the birth of popular Horror, but didn’t talk at all about Howard and Smith–for me, Lovecraft comes in a distant third in terms of writing quality, but his influence has been without a doubt the greatest among them. I struggled to really explain my love for the old pulp beyond “adventure and excitement” until I took a good look at the pulp phenomenon. A lot of the material found in Hard-Boiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith applies just as well to Weird Tales and Argosy as to Black Mask. The pulps exploited low production costs thanks to industrialization and rising literacy rates among the urban working class to create literature for the marginalized. There was no top-down structure in pulps for feeding lower classes middle-class values—the audience dictated content. And who was the audience? “[T]heir readers were widely held to be socially and economically marginal…[t]hey were working-class, young, and poorly-educated, many were immigrants” (Smith 23) Well gosh, that actually sounds like my background and the situation of those around me as a young immigrant in Canada!
To expand on the relationship between audience and writer in the pulp era, Marxist critics often take a dim view of popular fiction. It is, they say, a way for the bourgeoisie to blind the workers by forcing bourgeoisie narratives down their throats. There’s a problem in using this arguments in regards to the pulps: the pulp writer had, in a sense, become a worker. The very set-up — pay by word and adherence to specific formulae — spoke to an assembly-line approach to fiction only strengthened by the banging of typewriter keys. The writers were working under similar constraints to their readers. Pulp writing culture “refused the distinction between the aesthetic and the everyday that…is at the centre of the bourgeois worldview,” (Smith 23) because the very act of producing pulp fiction did the same.
Pulp had to be anti-bourgeois, I think, thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 and prohibition. Prohibition was the more odious of the two, as drinking culture was an integral part of social relationships among the working class. “Many working-class citizens interpreted Prohibition (1920-1933) as part of a larger attempt by the ruling classes to control…aspects of working-class life,” (98) claims Erin Smith, and I agree: the rich could still obtain alcohol via expensive imports and slip into the speakeasies, the unemployed and the working class couldn’t. Add another element: prospective buyers already had a healthy skepticism towards upper class institutions stemming from disillusionment with modernity after the First World War and the rampant organized crime and corruption within growing urban centres following prohibition, and you can see where Weird Tales found its audience. Those in marginalized classes were growing anti-rational, disillusioned with the promises of modernism, and Howard’s barbarism vs. civilization dynamic (where barbarism always ultimately triumphs), or Lovecraft’s incomprehensible universe, or Smith’s laughing gods struck an important chord. Pulp tales were often violent, often messy, and often revealed worlds steeped in chaos that would make most Enlightenment philosophers blanch—worlds where bourgeois values were meaningless.
Magazines specifically aimed at the middle and upper classes, printed on glossy paper that gave them the nickname “slicks” just like the yellowed paper of the working-class magazines gave them the nickname “pulps”, often took pot shots at pulp magazines and dismissed the literary merit of any stories that appeared in them. We should expect classism: the mystery and adventure stories printed in the slicks were often of no higher quality than those in the pulps (and just as many are forgotten), and only achieved superiority because they replicated the values of the bourgeoisie so well. Hostilities went both ways, with editorials in the pulps laughing at the obsession with luxury goods and various other middle class markers found in the slicks while insisting that the pulps gave us stories closer to reality. In fact, neither did, but that’s beside the point. There’s a huge difference in format: slicks filled with full-page illustrations and well-spaced text on paper that would last, pulps packed to the margins with stories that, after the first read, would crumble apart and usually end in the dustbin. While we did have splits before between “sensation novels” and “literature” in terms of print quality during the nineteenth century, it was never as clear as during the age of the pulps in North America.
I called pulp magazines “a working-class protest literature” in my popular fiction class, which is taking it a little too far. Writers like H.P. Lovecraft were most certainly middle-class fellows, but the stories they wrote bent to the demands of and audience that mostly consisted of the socially and economically marginalized—it only seems natural that the Weird Tales’ big three all felt like outsiders and would thus appeal to the “outsiders” looking at middle-class America. Thus, despite all their shortcomings in relation to racial and gender issues, I’ll always find pulp stories from that brief window of time when the working class expressed its narratives primarily through text as unique, fascinating, and worthy of study.
Further Reading (if you’re interested):
Smith, Erin A. Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.