Pulps, slicks, ragged right and online content production

There’s been some note of the relationship between the old commonplace books and the early culture of content creation online, but I think an overlooked source is the pulps.

Modern advertising culture didn’t start with the pulps, but the pulps did come before radio and television. And unlike newspapers, the freer pulp ethos, combined with the advertising model, I believe is vastly underappreciated in terms of influence. It’s important here not to confuse the content of the pulps with the process and spirit they were caught up with. Read some of these quotes below and follow the links to educate yourself a little more if you’re interested. A lot of the debates and questions people find so interesting nowadays are almost perfect replicates of a hundred years ago.

Pulps, of course, won the day and we are all basically footnotes to the pulps. The pulps weren’t a victory for amateurism, but for greater inclusion and quality defined on new terms. There’s always been relentless resistance to this, but nowadays people rarely frame their disdain in direct language.

Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art.

…pulp paper with untrimmed edges and no illustrations, not even on the cover.



Slicks usually had a considerable amount of advertising and colored art, while the pulps had less advertising, for cheaper products, and only black and white art. More importantly, the slicks cost more and aspired to a better quality of prose and a generally higher level of professionalism, while the pulps were cheap and aspired only to entertain.



In comparison to the more sophisticated ‘slicks’, the pulp magazines opened the way for a freer approach to popular literary forms and to engagement with contemporary urban life. Pulp magazines offered romance, fantasy and escapism, but also, especially in the pulps devoted to crime fiction, they registered the anxieties of the time. Being rapidly and cheaply produced, they allowed space for innovatory ways of writing, most importantly for the colloquial, racy hard-boiled style. The magazine gave readers tough, realistic action,



Revenue from advertising is where most magazine publishers made their money, even in the pulps which did not carry as much advertising as the slicks (the absence of advertising in the pulps is largely a misnomer, particularly in the early years, as the pulps of the first decade of the 1900s might easily have 60 pages of ads, most often printed on a slick stock of paper and placed in advertising sections at the beginning and end of the magazine). It was this confluence of forces that sparked the enormous growth in the circulation of American magazines. Publishers realized that if they were to lower the price of their magazines far enough to get them in the hands of enough people, a killing was to be made through advertising revenue alone.

Fiction in the early pulp magazines had just as much in common with these slicks as with the story papers. The anthology fiction of early pulps like The Argosy, The Popular Magazine, and All-Story was not low-brow fiction; and in fact many authors operated in both realms. Stories rejected by editors of the slick magazines often landed in the pulps, and vice versa. This would continue to be true for many authors throughout the pulp era. And as the field expanded and splintered into more and more titles—there were pulps for every taste and preference written to various segments of society. Lumping all of pulpdom in together is rarely an effective exercise



Her epigraphs from Vanity Fair, June, 1933, and Harper's, June 1937, brought home the hostility slicks felt toward pulps; the former stated that pulp fans moved their lips when reading, and the latter asserted "they had tastes of savages."



The slicks, under the strict controls of the publisher's "vision" are safe entertainments. The pulps are not. It is in risk and personality where the greatest of the pulps enjoy something very special: immortality.



Both [Faust] and [his agent] Carl Brandt agreed that the only way to cope with the depressed economy was for Faust to move into slick magazines which paid much better. Faust, studying the market, readily realized that restrictions in the slicks were more rigid and confining than they ever had been in the pulps. Writing for Western Story Magazine, he had to concern himself with such general notions as a pursuit plot, which [editor] Blackwell preferred, or delayed revelation. Writing for the slicks, he realized that the editors sought to dominate a contributor’s mind. Attitudes and ideas were everything. Beyond entertainment, which both pulp and slick fiction alike provided, slick fiction had to deliver an ideological message to readers which agreed with the editorial policies of the magazine and these were dictated by the advertisers and their agencies. Perhaps it is for this reason that so much of the slick fiction of the 1930s and 1940s had become hopelessly dated while pulp fiction from that same period still pulsates with imagination and iconoclasm. Ideology is time-bound.


Quoting: Jon Tuska’s essay “Frederick Faust’s Western Fiction” from The Max Brand Companion (Greenwood, 1996)