Monday, September 23, 2013

The Return of the Pulps

A lot of us aren't old enough to remember the pulps, although we might have read them - or reprints from them.

Hundreds of magazines printed on cheap "pulp" paper could be found at newstands and in bookstores. "Pulp" novelists churned out twenty or thirty books a year, sometimes writing under multiple names to conceal the sheer size of their output.

Then came...television. A lot of people stopped reading. Popular entertainment switched to video.

Those old pulps offered cheap entertainment. They were written by competent writers - not always great ones, but people who knew how to put one word in front of another well and how to follow a formula. Pulp fiction was mostly science fiction, sword and sorcery, mysteries, romances, and westerns - what we now call genre fiction. The novels were short, transparently written, and quick reads. (The sparse style of some of the best science fiction writers recalls this). They didn't pay writers well (and sometimes the writers had to go after them for money). Some kept stables of writers and offered a stable, if low, monthly income.

All that went away. The number of science fiction and fantasy magazines dwindled, with the higher quality digests such as Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction surviving and becoming a venue for big names and talented newcomers alike.

So, why is this post titled the return of the pulps? When was the last time you saw a science fiction or western magazine in a newstand? And weren't the pulps the very reason why literary and even mainstream commercial writers looked down on genre fiction.

Truth is that, very quietly, something has happened. Now we have magazines such as Bards & Sages Quarterly, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind (there's a title to conjure with) and, of course, Big Pulp. And a plethora of others. They don't pay writers very much, but often feature the same writers multiple times. Some of them don't even pretend or claim to pay. The difference is that unlike the old pulps, they don't buy to a formula. In fact, the new pulps cross genres both in their tables of contents and sometimes even in individual stories. They publish science fiction, fantasy, horror, westerns, even mainstream fiction. They tend to prefer their stories short. Instead of offering readers the expected formulas, the new "pulp" magazines are all about variety.

The "pulp" novelist is back too - writing double figures of novels a year, sometimes under multiple pseudonyms. Many of the new pulp writers write romances - taking advantage of a voracious readership and the fact that romance novels tend to be shorter. They make their money from writing as much as possible.

Is this a bad thing? No. Once more, the reader who wants cheap, competently written entertainment can get it. In fact, quite a few of these pulp magazines offer their content for the best price of all - free. The down side is that the reader has to wade through all of this output - but hey, that's what reviews are for.

The new pulps are where the new writers are breaking in and where you can find the unique, the experimental, the unusual. But you won't find them in the newstand printed on yellowing paper - because these days, they aren't printed at all...

The internet has brought back pulp fiction - and that's a very good thing.