Pulp Methodology


I wanted to thank everyone for the great questions in yesterday’s session. And I wanted to follow up on some of the conversation in the Chat string, as well as some of the emails that I’ve received. Initially,  think that I need to clarify my use of the term “distance reading” as different from Moretti’s/the DH sense, in that what I mean is to read a sampling of fiction (whether in a single issue, across a single title, or within a single genre) in order to identify repeated tropes and formulaic patterns so a to identify broad cultural dynamics. Therefore, similar to Moretti, but a non-technological reading practice opposed or defined against the modes of reading established and sanctioned in an English Studies founded upon the reading practices of New Criticism. I think that I can clarify this (and other things) more if I attach part of a talk I gave at a symposium on Pulp Studies at James Madison a few years ago — a part specifically about methodology presented to an audience working specifically with pulp magazines. I will do some editorial intrusions for clarification and to contextualize for a more general audience. I hope this adds to yesterday’s conversation. Avanti…

I have concentrated on the business of pulp production, on the industry, because I believe it is inseparable from the fiction. Generations of academics have strove to remove Literature from the sullying taint of commerce, to elevate literature to transformative, timeless (hence apolitical) art.  Reading pulps in the same method is both dangerous and disingenuous. This history divulges aspects of the pulp form which set it apart from other literary forms and types of fiction, illustrating why pulps demand their own methodology not only different but opposed to traditional ways of reading. I hinted in my talk that the pulps have long been ignored because they don’t conform to the criteria established by New Criticism – the early 20th methodology that both celebrated modernism and helped establish English Studies as an academic discipline (in the Foucauldian sense). New Critical “close reading” advocated for a canon of literature that worked in the great tradition, that celebrated the individual talent of the author, that was opposed to what was seen as feminized commercial and popular literature, that relied upon stylistic innovation and psychological depth: all things that are decidedly not pulp fiction. Pulps are hyper-commercial, they are formulaic, they are audience-driven not author-driven [and as they evolved, the “cult of the Editor” became less and less a thing for the pulps. Remember, they were by definition all fiction, hence editorial presence was mostly subsumed by, secondary to the market]. Symbolism is rare and stylistic innovation is rarer still. Yet there is potential danger of propagating a “pulp canon” and of establishing a history that doesn’t do justice to the form. Let me explain by discussing two current trends in Pulp Studies: the single author or single genre study and the consideration or comparison of pulps as modernism.

This symposium [First Annual Pulp Studies Symposium, James Madison University, October 2016] illustrates the expanding field of pulp studies, but the task ahead is herculean, especially since so much of pulp studies is still limited in focus to a few dozen accepted authors such as Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Hammett, Chandler; a few magazines such as Weird Tales, Black Mask, and Amazing Stories; and fewer genres still, most prominently Hard Boiled and Science Fiction. And whereas this is changing, I think that we can all agree that much of pulp studies is still largely constrained to these authors, titles, and genres, and as such are hardly representational of the larger, actual field of pulp production which I’ve motioned to.

Allow me to illustrate: there were roughly 920 different pulp titles; we consistently study five, maybe ten of them (Black Mask, Weird Tales, Astounding and Amazing, and to a lesser extent Dime Detective, Argosy, and Adventure. Whereas magazines like The Shadow and Doc Savage are popular with collectors, they are rarely examined in academia). If this number wasn’t sobering enough, here’s another: if we add the number of issues of Amazing Stories, Astounding, Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Weird Tales, for a total of 1,515 issues, and compare them to the overall number of pulp magazines produced, which is roughly 39,500 (39,489 to be exact),[i] we get a market percentage of 0.038%. Add Argosy – the longest running pulp and the one with the most issues (1,534) and Adventure, we get 0.096%, or just 1% of all pulps produced.

Of course, there are other factors that aren’t taken into consideration with these statistics, such as circulation, longevity of title, genre, and (the mine-field of) quality and influence, but despite its reductivism, I think this chart divulges the grossly disproportionate effect of canonization on even our revisionist field of study. Of course, these are the titles that are either linked to canonical authors or that were pre-eminent in their identification of certain genres – all masculine. These are the authors that have been republished and anthologized in credible forms (i.e. books) because 1) they (or the genres they helped to innovate) met those “un-pulpish” literary criteria mentioned above, such as the urban cynicism and terse prose of Hard-boiled; 2) their style and subject matter bolsters either nativist or masculine ideals held by the largely male fan-base and publishing industry, such as Lovecraft or Howard (Little wonder then that pulp audience has traditionally been seen as largely male – despite the prominence of the romance genre); 3) and they embodied their genres through timeliness, innovation, or myth-making, such as Burroughs.

But reading along these lines and being restrained by a limited archive need not be the case any longer: digitization projects and diy publishers like Adventure House, Off Trail, Girasol, and Altus are making rare pulps available to everyone, though they are still largely confined to what interests the masculine fan-base. [Of course, as Spencer pointed out, you lose the “periodical code,” as Scholes and Wulfman call it, but the Periodical Code with pulps isn’t quite as dynamic as in general, multi-topic magazines. See below.] Archives are finally taking notice of pulp magazines, cataloging and digitizing pulp holdings or gathering more. And the rise of cultural studies in the 80s and 90s taught us to read not by New Critical criteria, but as a means to empower readership, find liminal voices of women, minorities, and the working class – all things that should make pulp magazines the playground for a new generation of academics. Their cultural importance – even more so than their literary importance – can’t be overstated.

Which brings me to the idea of seeing pulps as a type of modernism, what has been my own methodology for far too long. And whereas my goal was to expand, complicate, sully our definition of modernism, I was able to elevate the pulps – or to be more specific, a certain type, a very small percentage of pulps into the rarified field of modernism (mostly those first generation “literary” pulps, the training grounds for modernist authors). But I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with this methodology since it doesn’t do justice to the breadth and variety of the pulp, its focus is too narrow and it forces pulps into specific perimeters (which, granted, are expanding) that aren’t natural to the form, and perhaps most perniciously, it rationalized pulps as something worth studying only through the lens of established literature. The more I work in the field, the less I am interested in modernist fiction, read by a limited few, and the more I am interested in the transcendent power of a form read and enjoyed by millions. Pulps should, and do, stand upon their own merit, but to see this we need to read them in ways that are very un-modernist, that empower the reader over the author, that understand that the industrial production of literature can be liberating for the audience not despite but because of formula.

Let me clarify with a few different thoughts on pulp methodology:

Firstly, Understand the material and historic context of the pulps, which means reading pulp fiction aware of its original, magazine form, but don’t read a pulp like other magazines. Bob Scholes and Cliff Wulffman have delineated a methodology for working with magazines, of breaking the “periodical-code,” based mostly on little magazines and slick magazines; much of this methodology though can’t be applied to pulps since pulps are simultaneously more simple in composition (i.e. largely all fiction, hence less interdisciplinary) and more complex in production, relationship with audience, construction of formula, how they work within culture via their very uniformity of content, their relationship with other media, etc; for example, Scholes and Wulfmann advocate constructing an implied audience through advertisements, but the pulps didn’t rely on advertising. Ads were kept at a minimum so that publishers could get the cheapest shipping rates possible (over a certain percentage and rates jumped considerably). What ads there were were usually mail order ads bought en masse by cooperatives of numerous publishers like The All-Fiction Field or The Newsstand Group, hence they had little connection to the individual magazines and their contents. Reading audience through ads in the pulps is dangerous, with the exception of a few of the earliest generation of general pulps. Because of the lack of ads and the very close relationship with readers, pulps are a hyper-commercial, socially democratic form that escape both the kind of investment in capitalist indoctrination via advertisements which is so central to slick magazines, and the pedantic, dictatorial, or dogmatic ideologies central to little magazines and therefore demand a different methodology.

[On this. I want to make sure that my use of the term “socially democratic form” means that the content of the pulps (good and bad) was often and largely shaped by the marketplace and reader’s desires due to the close relationship between audience and editorial policy. This is not to say that ideology is not to be found in the pulps — it is, both liberal and conservative, nativist and humanist, but the types of ideology that stem from editorial policy became less evident as the market multiplied and the second and third generations of pulps / pulp publishers emerged. Hyper-commercialism and competition fostered innovation and, at times, empowerment for working class readers. Of course, it also resulted in some pretty horrific racial stereotyping, as well, just as Greg pointed out. They both existed just as they both existed in the culture at large.]

Second, Embed pulp fiction in its original commercial milieu – author with other authors, magazine with other magazines, genres with other genres – in order to understand what “kind of pulp” it is (general, genre, adolescent, etc), to widen focus beyond the traditional pulp canon, and to identify the formulaic conventions at work. This demands accepting the complexity of form, economics, culture behind pulps rather than complexity of fiction/style.

Thirdly, Read as a “commercial form” rather than individual work. In other words, resist the “cult of the author” while understanding the role of audience and how pulps are a democratic form. Considering, on one hand, the proliferation of house names, relationships of correspondence, lack of authorial biography, the “negative capability” in pulp fiction as a result of formula and manner of production (especially of the speed kings), and, on the other hand, commercial pressures of sales and audience idiosyncratic to the newsstand, the external historic pressures on the industry, and the complexity of pulp production, then authorial presence becomes less important in comparison to genre, formula, and audience.

Fourth, read for formula. By this I mean rather than reading for specific action/author/story, read to identify the formulaic conventions across multiple stories, authors, magazines, and publishers in order to see formula as a larger narration (for example, titles published by Popular will be more leftist, while Street and Smith will be more conservative). This illuminates not only the cultural relevance or innovation of specific formulae, but formula’s potential political and transcendent power for the reader. When one considers the formulaic pattern of specific genre’s as a whole, it is possible to see elements of innovation and even revolution, as in the repeated anti-fascist narratives of the depression-era hero pulps, the empowerment narratives in working-class women’s confessional and romance pulps, and the sexual freedom of the snappy pulps.

[On this last point: how do you find or identify the formulae? I’ve gotten a few questions about this. a) read the magazines without “cherry picking.” It isn’t necessary to read a complete run, but a sampling of issues will do. And read them against issues of other titles; b) look at the trade magazines and writer-help books of the time. This is the behind the scenes tour. Magazines like Author and Journalist have been microfilmed. Writer’s review is very hard to find, but I’m sure it’ll be digitized some day. Or dig it up in archives. There are lots of correspondence school publications on different genres, characterization, etc. There are devices like the Plot Genie which I mentioned in my talk. Of course, many of these authors wrote about slanting towards specific genres or titles in broad terms since they were trying to limit, to a certain extent, competition for themselves in the marketplace. And this advice was mostly writerly advice rather than content, so this type of research, while a great insight into the industry, is secondary to simply reading the pulps. By the way, John Locke has edited a fantastic series of reference books on the pulps called Pulpwood Days, which look at the authors and editors in turn, and excerpts articles from the writer’s mags (Off-Trail Publications). c) finally, there are lots of pulp author memoirs where they discuss slanting stories. See, for example, Frank Gruber’s Pulp Jungle and Harold Hersey’s Pulp Editor. And of course get some pulps in your hands; most special collections have a few. There are more and more being digitized.]

[i] The number of pulps produced, calculated from the Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, is 39,086. According to John Locke, one of the editors, the number of pulps that have emerged since that book’s publication bring the total number up to 39,486. Adventure house guide; personal email to the author 9/24/2016


Filed under Talks

2 responses to “Pulp Methodology

  1. markjames7

    Thanks David for your excellent talk. I have two brief question/comments.

    Is it possible to consider “modernist” writers such as Deborah Beirne [or maybe Richard Wright in “Savage Holiday”, Ann Petry in “A Country Place, Edna Millay writing as Nancy Boyd] to be different from the typical pulp writer in that they are perhaps using pulp formulas somewhat ironically. Is it possible, for example, to view “Her Greek God” as a form of “distanced” writing, in which the author is knowingly writing formulaic aspects of pulp?

    Secondly, Is there a move to talk across genres and time frames in pulp studies? For example, what are we to make of Robert Bloch’s “Psycho” (and his other pulpy writings), published in 1960. (Can this be considered neo-pulp?) It’s interesting to think about the ways the book differs from (and in some way is more intriguing and complex) than Hitchcock’s film. Then, of course, there’s Tarantino. “Pulp Fiction” has an obvious connection to the pulps but his latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” plays on Western Dime novels, Fanzines, and the pulps in spectacular ways. The Director also produced some fake fan-zines (as well as a Mad Magazine issue) to promote the film and play with the pulp/fan-zine genre even more.

    Thanks again,


  2. David M. Earle

    Hi. Great questions.
    For the first one, I’ll point you towards an article of mine from the Cambridge History of the Modernist Novel on the “Modernist Genre Novel” (I don’t know if I can insert a link in replies, but it’s on my Academia.edu site). The use of the pulp form by modernists is simultaneously distancing and reliant, part snark and part commercialism.
    I think that your second question brings me back to that tri-part definition I mentioned. Much of those examples that you give are not “pulp” in the traditional sense (the material and historic definition; the first use definition of “pulp”). Rather, they are pulpish — the term that is cut loose from it original definition to mean a certain low cultural aura or standing (the second definition of “pulp”). I try not to apply that too much except for the paperbacks of the 1940s/50s and the men’s adventure magazines — neither of which, strictly speaking, were pulps — since once we do, then isn’t just about everything pulp? It’s the pulp/pop question or dynamic that someone mentioned in the chat. (And this lack of definitional responsibility is one of the many reasons, say, Paula Rabinowitz’s book on paperbacks drives me crazy.) That being said, all these pulpish forms speak to the long-lasting marketing dynamics pioneered by the magazines and which affected all (or at least most) other elements of the culture industry in one way or another (grindhouse film, which is really what Tarantino is stealing from). And of course, as we know, these forms and definitions blurred, were reliant upon and influenced by each other. I mean pulp, by its definition, is messy, formless, without borders — hence that third use of “pulp” as a deconstructive term.
    All this is one of the fascinating thing about the form and descriptor: it starts strictly as a material term (pulp paper) that becomes linked to a type of fiction and then to a type of marketing. And so often, what is forgotten is the literary aspect — the narratives, characters, etc — in favor of the marketing (covers, sensationalism, etc). One of the reasons for this is because so often historians and English studies would rather scrutinize other media (film or covers) rather than literature that is so overtly commercial and formulaic. This is happily changing, but this touches upon my use of the term “prejudice of form” and the long neglect of the pulp form except as it arises in other manifestations such as film, fan magazines, and even (and I’m guilty of this) hi-brow literature marketed in pulpish manners rather than the magazines themselves.


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