Pulp’s Big Moment

In The New Yorker’s “Pulp’s Big Moment” (January 5, 2015), Louis Menand traces the history of the pulp paperback and describes how its explosive entrance into the book market in the 1930s and 1940s changed the landscape of publishing. Prior to 1935, when Allen Lane launched Penguin paperbacks in the UK, books were sold primarily in bookstores (which were limited to urban areas) and through slow methods that required planning and intention on the part of the consumer, such as catalogues and book clubs. For the most part, books were seen as a “highbrow,” intellectual medium, targeted at consumers with a certain level of education and financial resources.

When cheap paperbacks hit the market in Britain in 1935 and four years later in America with Robert de Graff’s Pocket Books–the country’s first line of mass-market paperbacks–the market shifted dramatically. Suddenly, paperback books were accessible in both price and location. They were sold for pocket change in railway stations, drug and grocery stores, newsstands, and any other retail space that could fit a rack of small paperbacks.

Menand writes that once paperbacks flooded the market, “books were not like, say, classical music, a sophisticated pleasure for a coterie audience. Books were like ice cream; they were for everyone. Human beings like stories. In the years before television, mass-market paperbacks met this basic need” (Menand, 2015). These stories were not intended to promote moral messages or academic discussions–they were written and marketed purely for pleasure and to sell as many copies to as many people as possible. Often, this involved content that would be unacceptable in traditional literature. Although this was not a wholly new phenomenon (for instance, penny dreadfuls in the nineteenth century also capitalized on the scandalous and lurid and claimed little moral value), it was the first time “pulp” was produced and marketed in such mass quantities.

At the same time, novels such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby–as well as older, established classics such as Shakespeare–were packaged to look like pulp novels and sold at similar prices, blurring the lines between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” reading. Although the market was eventually oversaturated with cheap paperbacks and companies such as Pocket Books failed to make large profits because their books were sold so cheaply, the tidal wave of pulp fiction had altered the way books were approached and sold. Books written for pleasure and created for the masses were now commonplace, and even books considered classics or originally intended to educate for were marketed to appeal to the casual reader looking for entertainment.

As well, these novels were not held to the same standard of morality that “serious” literature was–so that along with content meant purely to sensationalize, some novels were able to tell stories that would otherwise not be told, for instance of interracial or same-sex relationships. Although social change was not the intent of people like Robert de Graff, whose goal was to sell as many books as possible, according to Menand, pulp paperbacks were “market disrupters. They put pressure on the hardcover houses, and that meant putting pressure, in turn, on the legal regulation of print” (Menand, 2015). Eventually, reading for pleasure became mainstream enough that hardcover publishers could reclaim the practice as their own–the public had proved that there was a market for less censored, less intentionally constructive and moral reading material, and content that was previously seen as taboo was now legitimized.

One of the things that interested me most about Menand’s article is how the rise of the cheap paperback foreshadows in some ways what is happening now in the realm of ebooks and online publishing. Like the pulp market during its golden age, we are increasingly saturated in mass and digital media. Though the Internet has provided a platform for authors and other creators who otherwise might not have been able to pass through traditional gatekeepers such as publishing houses, the sheer amount of information and media “noise” set in front of consumers makes it difficult to differentiate one’s self from the mass of other voices. Often, both mass market novels and online content were or are offered for rock-bottom prices compared to the forms of media that preceded them. Ultimately, although mass market paperbacks are far from dead, pulp fiction ceased to be the omnipresent force that it was in the mid-20th century after the market was oversaturated with cheap novels–how can online publishing avoid this while still remaining accessible?

In addition, self-published ebooks and online publishing platforms are raising similar questions that consumers, critics, and publishers of pulp novels faced, regarding what qualifies as “legitimate” art. For example, fanfiction (as well as fan art and other fan work) is one example of a genre that has exploded in popularity in the last two decades because of easy digital distribution, even though like pulp novels, it is dismissed by critics and rarely seen as a valid form of writing. Fanfiction is not only read but also written purely for enjoyment, and is easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The internet has already changed the landscape of the publishing industry and continues to do so in ways that parallel Menand’s summary of the pulp paperback industry of the 20th century–cheap or free readily available content, blurring the lines between traditional, acceptable and “lowbrow” art, and a potential for oversaturation of the market.


Menand, Louis. “Pulp’s Big Moment,” The New Yorker, January 5, 2015. Retrieved from  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/05/pulps-big-moment

1 Comment

  1. You’ve got the seeds for a fascinating paper here — what contemporary digital publishing can learn from the history of pulp publishing, its successes and its failures.

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