Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY'S dilemma, Oct. 28, 1939

In this week's Argonotes pages we find an editorial confession that bears quoting at length:

If you are running a magazine concerned solely with fellows who plunge young women into steaming cauldrons, you can be reasonably sure that all your readers have a fondness for horrors. Otherwise they wouldn't buy the magazine. So you can go right ahead increasing the temperature of the cauldron, and everybody will be happy. The editor who publishes only fiction of a special sort -- detective or Western or fantastic -- has the comforting assurance that his public likes his specialty.

But it's different with us; we are infinitely more vulnerable. One week a letter will commend us on a recent Western story and demand more of same; the next week another reader will savagely dispose of that Western and beg to know why in heaven we don't eliminate that cowboy-and-Colt stuff, so that there will be more space for stories about the Australian bushmen. We could not satisfy all our readers if every published story were a masterpiece in its field; and that's why ours is the perilous and violent life.

At the start the editor is taking a shot at the so-called "shudder pulps" that were popular then and highly valuable as collectibles now. But the challenge of publishing a general interest pulp is nothing new for the Argosy. You can read Argonotes pages throughout the 1930s in the unz.org trove and see exactly what the 1939 editor means. Yet if Argosy has a problem in 1939 -- apart from having its fortunes tied to the Munsey company's reckless "Red Star" brand expansion --  it's not so much maintaining a balance of genres as maintaining a particular style. I've seen it said that the weekly was at its peak earlier in the Thirties, and by now I've read enough from that period, both at unz and in my own slow-growing collection, I'll at least agree that the 1939 magazine isn't as good as it was four or five years earlier. This issue, for instance, was almost unrelentingly mediocre. It's noteworthy only for the conclusion of Eando Binder's dystopian serial Lords of Creation, in which our hero, awakened from suspended animation 2,000 years in the future, improbably conquers the world. Most of the other stories were boring. Many seem boring in a particular way. My hunch is that Argosy in 1939 aspired to a status somewhere between pulps and slicks. Too many of the stories read as if they might have been submitted to Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post, or else they read as if they were meant mainly as raw material for movies. The tone is different from just a few years earlier. It simply seems less like pulp. There's less blood, less thunder -- to a certain extent less fantasy, apart from the designated "fantastics" that we'd call science fiction. As I've suggested before, the world seems less wide open than it did earlier in the Thirties, as if the buildup to a new world war was closing up other options for adventure, while higher literary ambitions, perhaps, often resulted only in a flatter tone, less perilous and violent despite the editor's joke. Certain stories and serials still manage the old feeling, but they seem increasingly like the exception that prove a rule.

The point of "Real Pulp Fiction" has never been to chart pulp's decline. What I really wanted was to call readers' attention to highlights from a wild world of pulp that parallels our wild world of cinema. Since I still want to do that, I'm going to give up the 75th anniversary march as a regular feature of the blog. I'll still report on the better, wilder stories from 1939 and 1940 as I read them, but I'll also spend more time further in the past exploring what I deem more classic pulp, not just in Argosy but in other magazines. As I start showing off my personal pulp collection you'll also see some later stuff, since I have a fancy for western pulps and feel they were at their best at the very end of the pulp era, from the late Forties to mid-Fifties, parallel to the evolution of the "adult western" in movies. Instead of reviewing entire issues, I'd like to spotlight specific stories in more detail as I did with Theodore Roscoe's "That Son of a Gun Columbo" earlier this month. Look forward to more and shorter pieces from this point forward, and maybe at long last a formal spinoff into a separate blog next year. Whatever happens, the focus from now on will be on pulps I really enjoy, from guilty pleasures to little classics of action and adventure in prose. This series is definitely to be continued!

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