Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Praise of Pulps - Part 1

I admit it. I thoroughly enjoy pulp literature of the 1930's and 1940's. There are some good literary reasons to appreciate it. The pulp fiction magazines that circulations numbering in the hundreds of thousands laid the foundation for much of the popular culture to follow.

The masters of the hard-boiled detective school, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both started in the pulps. Science fiction started as pulp genre, and virtually all the Golden Age authors, from Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury were first published in pulp magazines. Hollywood and TV have mined the pulps for stories and characters.

I enjoy pulp literature not only as a reader, but as a writer. This is fiction writing at its most basic, and you can learn a lot about story-telling both by the writing that works really well, and the writing that doesn't (the mistakes are easy to spot)

In order to survive as pulp fiction writer, you had to write reasonably well, and you had to be fast. With the bulk of the writers, the latter skill trumped the former. Pulp fiction, like TV shows today, were created primarily to entertain. It could be artistic, or illuminate the great truths that high art does, but if above all else, the story had to keep the readers turning the pages.

I really admire the writers who could produce quickly, and produce top quality work at the same time. Because they really didn't have to. There was plenty of writing that was "good enough" floating around.

Below is an example of average writing (tomorrow I'll have some top quality stuff for comparison). R.T.M. Scott was a successful pulp author. His recurring character Secret Service Smith was reasonably popular, and on the basis of that popularity, Scott was hired to write the lead novel for the Spider magazine.

The Spider was one of many masked heroes who had their own magazine. The lead novel (usually 40,000 - 60,000) words featured the character in a full-length adventure with shorter stories filling out the rest of the issue. If you're a writer (or thinking of becoming one) imagine being contracted to produce a 60,000 word novel every month. Whoa.

Scott's writing was fairly typical for the market -- and he's not one of the reasons why I'm a fan of the genre. Here's the first three paragraphs of his novel "The Wheel of Death," published in 1933.
Dusk was falling and the lights were turned on in Grogan's Restaurant. It was a small, gloomy place, with a dozen round tables and two curtained booths were special customers could eat and talk unseen. At the rear were two still smaller rooms, the kitchen and beside it a tiny cubicle of an office with contained Brogan's battered desk and an old-fashioned iron safe.

It was rumored that things happened in Grogan's Restaurant, things which were best kept hidden from the honest light of day. It was said that narcotics could be bought there, and it was whispered that young girls had entered the place and never again been seen by their friends. The West Side police of Manhattan had visited the place may times. But Grogan made no objection to such visits, and the police found nothing. Yet the rumors and the whispers persisted.

Burly Dan Grogan stood now near the rickety cash register, his yellowed teeth clamped tenaciously about an unlighted cigar. He had only three customers. Two men, hard-eyed and low-voiced, were smoking and drinking in one of the booths. At the back of the restaurant, near the door of the room which contained Grogans' safe and desk, was a man with plastered hair and high-waisted trousers who was consuming his third cup of coffee.
What's wrong with this passage? I get that he's trying to establish the scene, but the writing's pretty flat. There's a lot of passive voice used. All that "it was whispered," and "it was rumored" stuff is supposed to establish background and mood, but to me it's all plodding exposition. Three paragraphs into the story -- which let me remind you, people are reading for action and adventure -- and all we have is a floor plan and a brief sketch of some people who may or may not be important.

Ordinary, and uninspired. Scott wrote the novels for the first two issues of the Spider magazine, then Popular Publications hired Norvell Page. And everything changed. Page is one of the reasons I am a fan of this genre. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!

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