What is “Pulp Fiction”?

By Maeve Maddox

Sudeshna has asked for a post on the term pulp fiction:

That is one term which I have had trouble with always.

Pulp Fiction is the name of a 1994 movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Willis. The movie, a violent, profanity-riddled, loosely-plotted black comedy takes its name from a fiction genre popular in the first half of the 20th century.

The pulps, as pulp fiction was also called, descended from an earlier type of cheap magazine popular in the 19th century: penny dreadfuls and dime novels.

The word pulp in the designation refers to the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. The covers, usually of better stock, attracted readers with lurid pictures of space aliens and damsels in distress. The magazine edges were untrimmed and ragged. More expensive magazines, aimed at the affluent middle class, were called slicks or glossies because of the more expensive stock they were printed on.

In their heyday–1920s and 1930s–pulps could sell as many as a million copies of a single issue.

Hard-boiled crime wasn’t the only subject of the pulp magazines. Westerns, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, and horror found their niche in them. Many pulp writers went on to become literary influences: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury. Some of the most popular titles were Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Marvel Tales, and Weird Tales.

The stories written for these publications provide a window into stereotyped views of society current at the time. The Library of Congress has a pulp fiction collection.

You can read examples of pulp fiction at the Black Mask site.

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3 Responses to “What is “Pulp Fiction”?”

  • Charlie

    These books are now collector items. The cover art can be a big draw (some big names did some of the work) and the writing itself. Unfortunately, because of the cheapness of the materials, their longevity hasn’t been much.
    They are a great fast read for escapism with their simple plots, cliches and stereotypical characters. No, they are not high literature.

  • HilariousSweetener

    Let’s not forget Ann Bannon who wrote the great (and kitschy) lesbian pulp series “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles”!

  • Stephen Thorn

    I’m glad I came back to re-read this article. It brought to mind one of my favorite pulp heroes, Doc Savage. I discovered a paperback reprint of a DS pulp more than 30 years ago in my high school library and devoured it and was immediately hooked. The characters were great fun, well-written, and deliciously designed. That book drove me to used book stores, yard sales, and so on (this was in the pre-Internet days, kids) to look for more adventures of Doc and his colorful team. I’ve never regretted a single moment spent reading those great books.

    A similar event introduced me to monthly pulp magazines of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a spy TV show from the 60’s. I was familiar with the show but had never read the books (monthly or paperback). Finding them in a yardsale (again, more than 30 years ago) opened me to those exciting adventures and sent me on a similar quest for those books as well.

    The take-away here is that pulp-style fiction can still sell. The actual paper on which they were printed may have gone into history but the writing, with its larger-than-life characters, broad adventures, snappy style and dialogue, can still touch your reader in his mind, heart, soul, and wallet.

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