The 1920s -1930s: the Heyday of the Pulps
In addition to paperback novels novels, the Milne Archive contains dozens of examples of the great days of pulp publishing in the 1920s and 1030s. Thirty journals are listed in the Library Catalogue, including both science fiction and crime fiction pulps – for example, Black Mask, Thrilling Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, Astounding Science-Fiction, Worlds Beyond and Weird Tales. The Preview Exhibition of the Milne Archive showcased a large selection of vintage pulp magazines.
The inter-war years were the great era of pulp publishing – of magazines printed on cheap paper stock, bound between coated covers offering boldly painted, action-packed illustrations. Pulp magazines had been gaining in popularity since the 1880s, but the market expanded greatly from the turn of the century, and by their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s they were displayed in their hundreds on newsstands and in drugstore racks.
At their peak of popularity in the 1920s, the most successful pulps could sell up to a million copies per issue. Amongst the best-known titles of this period were Black Mask, Adventure, Amazing Stories, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Planet Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and Weird Tales.
Until the advent of mass-market paperbacks in the 1940s, the pulp magazines had no equal as purveyors of original popular fiction. Originally just a description that referred to the wood pulp paper used, “pulp” came to stand for stories that were mass-produced, affordable and aimed at an urban, working-class audience. In comparison to the more sophisticated “slicks” (magazines like Cosmopolitan, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post), 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, the pulps allowed space for innovative ways of writing, most importantly for the hard-boiled style. At first looked down on as “publishing’s poor, ill-bred stepchild”, the pulps, as Lee Server writes, “had to make do with imagination and the power of the written word. This, as it happened, was their glory.” Many of the writers of the time never rose above the status of pulp hacks and are long forgotten. But the hard-boiled style, which soon crossed over into more mainstream fiction, became one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century.
As the new kind of crime fiction established itself, several of the stories published in Black Mask made the transition from the pulps to the slicks (stories, e.g., by Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel and Dashiell Hammett) and others from magazine to hardback novel publication. Knopf repackaged the fiction of Hammett and Chandler, as well as that of less well-known figures like Nebel and George Harmon Coxe. The “lowbrow” pulp origins of their crime writing, however, remained essential to their impact. As Erin Smith argues, “The appeal of this fiction for educated readers was, in part, that it came out of worlds that did not include people like them.”