The definitions of pulp fiction say that the term comes from the rough, cheap paper used to print the hand-sized books from the 40’s and 50’s. But I think the term is broader than that. It reflects the rough, cheap writing that was used in the bottom-of-the-barrel plots that were included in the books. Oh, they were popular, and still are. But they struggled to be classified as literature. They were and are the equivalent of D-rated movies or late-night TV reruns that never made it to prime time.
Sex, crime, and depraved lifestyles are the main themes of pulp fiction. For the most part they have urban topics, although there’s a good deal of cowboy fiction that could classify as pulp fiction. It’s about the quality of plot, characterization, and predictability.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is a legitimate genre of American pop literature. The fact that these books are cheap and can be found in drug stores, newspaper stands, or convenience stores for sale doesn’t mean that they have no value. For some people pulp fiction is a fun, easy-to-read, and short enough for a “put me to sleep in a hotel room on a business trip” experience. There are authors of pulp fiction who revel in its style and marketability. It just doesn’t appeal to me.
I stumbled upon the idea of featuring it in today’s posting from an ad in the New York Times looking for writers to submit the first 150 words of this actual 1951 p.f. novel. I submitted my piece, which I wrote in about 30 minutes. It was kind of fun. Kind of like writing a scene for a slap-stick, sit-com for a TV show that isn’t going anywhere. I could probably get into it if I gave some time to it.
But there are other genres of writing which hold more appeal.
Cheap, portable, disposable, and usually sensational in presentation and content, pulps can be considered predecessors to today’s paperback books. At five to twenty-five cents an issue, pulp fiction was a literature accessible to Americans at every income level—often sold at newsstands and drugstores. Until the mid-1950s, pulp fiction was the literature of choice for the reading public, before it was supplanted by comic books and paperbacks.
“…As one kind of American popular culture, the pulps are a rich source for researchers to discover the place of women in American society and imagination. The stories and cover art in the division’s collection capture a period of American history in which readers looked for escapism, titillation, and armchair adventure. ” *
As stated above, pulp fiction had a quality of demeaning the role of women and attributed to them the characteristic of sirens, women of the streets, and sexual beings with loose morals. They bumped up against the politically correct standards in place today to reclaim the role of women in a less-stereotyped and more progressive manner.
Photo Credit: City Room, NYTimes