Sunday, December 14, 2014

From Starvation to the “Slicks” and Beyond

Reading Robert Kenneth Jones’ 1975 study of the shudder pulps provides an interesting angle on what it was like to work as a pulp fiction author in the early part of the twentieth century.  In addition to fascinating vignettes of individual writers and detailed descriptions of typical “weird menace” fiction, Jones provides an economic perspective on the challenges of publication in this field.  In 1975 several of these authors were still alive, and Jones was able to interview them at their retirement homes in Florida. 

The shudder pulps were an offshoot of various pulp fiction genres, characterized by fast pace, frenetic action, graphic violence and scantily clad women—often threatened or abused.  These attributes, along with a tendency to provide naturalistic explanations at the end are what distinguish weird menace from pulp fiction generally. The history of their origin and eventual demise circa 1940 is the focus of Jones’ The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (Wildside Press).

Pulp writers who aspired to make it into the “slicks” and hardcover books may have disdained the shudder pulps—Lovecraft certainly did—but several of them, like Edmond Hamilton and Robert E. Howard, submitted stories to them, typically using pseudonyms.  Some examples:  Hamilton, under the name of Robert Wentworth, published World Without Sex (1940) in Marvel Tales, and Howard published The Girl on the Hell Ship (1936) in Spicy Adventure Stories, (also known as She Devil).  It must have been a stressful and challenging way to make a living, because the low rate of remuneration—about one cent per word or less—forced authors to emphasize quantity and slapdash submissions over quality.

The Marxist in all of us may see this as a special case of workers—writers in particular—not owning or controlling the means of production, and so at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control.  (“Writers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your...”)

H.P. Lovecraft was never able to meet the demands of this industry during his lifetime.  He was forced to rely on a dwindling inheritance and occasional editing jobs that paid poorly.  H.S. Whitehead, though materially better off than his friend, had a similar level of output.  Both authors died relatively young, Lovecraft at age 46 and Whitehead at age 50, and both of severe gastric illnesses.  It seems plausible that the uncertainty, impoverishment and anxiety of writing for the pulps contributed to their shortened lives.

More successful colleagues, such as Robert E. Howard, produced twice as much or more fiction in a given year.  Howard, and to a certain extent Clark Ashton Smith, were able to broaden the scope of publications that purchased their work.  Howard’s stories saw print in magazines ranging from Weird Tales through various genre periodicals to some of the “spicy” pulps, as did Edmond Hamilton’s work.  Interestingly, it was the authors who could survive the high volume demands of the shudder pulps, people like Paul Ernst, Hugh B. Cave, Arthur Leo Zagat and Wyatt Blassingame, that remained active the longest, with careers spanning the mid-1930s to the 1970s and beyond.  Several of them were able to move on later in their careers to the better paying “slick” magazines of the time.

By way of comparison, H.P. Lovecraft typically produced around 2-3 stories a year for publication in just one or two magazines of a given genre.  Zagat wrote 2-3 short novels and several short stories, for various publications, across several genres—mystery, horror, and detective stories—in a single month.  Of course, quality or originality was not Zagat’s concern as it was for Lovecraft.  Income was his focus. Ernst and Cave achieved similar levels of productivity.  Cave was still an active writer as late as 2004.

If only Lovecraft had come up with a series featuring a popular character.  It was often through serial fiction featuring super heroes, ace detectives, fearless reporters and the like that pulp fiction writers were able to build their readership and increase their earning power.  Lovecraft seems to have attempted something like this very early on with Herbert West—Reanimator (1922). 

Perhaps Lovecraft’s character of Randolph Carter or even Abdul Alhazred could have been developed in the direction of further adventures.  Some contemporary writers have done just this with some of the author’s creations.  Lovecraft’s inability to do this, or to increase his productivity and scope, doomed him to a difficult life as a pulp fiction author.  S.T. Joshi provides a dismaying analysis of the author’s personal finances in his two volume biography, I Am Providence, The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013).

Then as now the challenges of getting in to print are complicated by economic aspects of publication.  Unknown authors must somehow persuade cautious publishers to take the risk of investing in their futures, a number game involving talent, but also probability and media exposure.  In many ways, e-books, blogs, “author platforms” and the like are reminiscent of the amateur press associations where Lovecraft and his colleagues made their first appearance.  The challenge is increased for contemporary novices because of the disappearance of paper as well as brick-and-mortar bookstores, further reducing visibility for aspiring authors.

Lovecraft and his colleagues endeavored to progress from pulp magazines to the more lucrative “slicks” and hardcover books—only a minority succeeded.  It is daunting to speculate these days about what success for a new writer will look like as he or she struggles to emerge from the “digital pulps” and “on-line amateur press”.   

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